Thursday, October 23, 2014

Dropping Courses Late in the Semester

 In 2007, I took a proposal to Senate of IIT Kanpur. This was to allow students (only UG students at that time, PG happened a year later) to drop a course for any reason whatsoever till the middle of the semester. (Up to two weeks after the first mid-sem. We had two mid-semester exams in those days.) The idea was that students could not judge how much load a course would be in the first week of the semester, and hence need time to take a decision on drop. Also, situations change. Someone might have some medical issues. Someone might get too involved in extra-curricular activities. Someone might have a stress due to a relationship issue or a family issue. We must support students through all this, and the least we could do was to allow a course drop to the student. It was clear in the proposal that the instructors would have very limited right to say no to the drop, and they could refuse only if dropping the course would cause a problem in the conduct of the course. A specific example was given: If there are group projects in the course, and one member of one group wants to drop out, it could affect grading of that group and it may not be possible to reorganize groups and projects. The DUGC role in all this was to counsel the student, for example, if the course is pre-requisite to future courses, this could be pointed to by the DUGC Convener. So the word used in the proposal and in the Senate minutes was "endorsement" and not "permission." Instructor and DUGC Convener were only to "endorse" the application.

Students were obviously happy. Any flexibility is good from their perspective. And the Academic Program Review Committee proposed to keep this flexibility even after the two mid-sems were merged into one mid-semester exam. And since the exam papers were now 2-hours instead of 1-hour and hence grading would take more time, the deadline for drop was extended from 2-weeks after 1st mid-sem to 3-weeks after the only mid-sem exam.

The number of students who have been seeking to drop courses has been on the rise throughout these 7 years. And this increase has got the faculty worried. We hear all sorts of horror stories - courses which have lost 50 percent of their students, DUGC Conveners who have signed several hundred approvals for dropping of courses, all students in certain departments dropping courses and completing their degrees late, and so on. Whenever any such claim is made, I try to check the data in DOAA office, and of course, what I see is not the same as what was claimed.

After all, the total number of drops after the first week of the semester is roughly 4 percent of total registration. Out of which a substantial contribution is of those who have decided to leave the Institute or take a semester drop. I am sure faculty has no objection to such drops. Then there are students who are weak and want to reduce their load from the normal load. This too should be ok. The problematic case is when student took overload initially and then later drops the course. This is being seen as gaming the system. I am told that faculty members feel demoralized when someone of this type drops the course, since they take it as a reflection of their teaching abilities. Some faculty members also see this as an additional teaching burden, which has gone waste.

Really??? Such drops form between 1 and 2 percent of total course registration. Surely, in some courses this number could be 5 to 10 percent. (Of course, in some courses with just one student, it will be 100 percent, if that student decides to drop. But let us talk about courses with at least 20-30 students.) Should a faculty member feel demoralized because 1-2 percent students have decided to drop the course. Should we really think of this additional 1-2 percent extra workload (in which we only graded one exam, the end-sem is not done yet) as such a serious overhead that we need to penalize the students.

We are hearing of all sorts of penalties. There may be a drop fee. The drop may be mentioned on the students' transcripts. And so on.

Why do faculty members think like this. In my opinion, it is because the credit based system is still not part of our DNA. We would like to control and dictate what students should do each semester. (The Senate/SUGC have created templates of all programs and combinations of programs - and some faculty members would want them to be mandatory for the students to follow.) When we talk about flexibility, it is only that a faculty member as an academic administrator should be able to accept/reject applications of students on a case-to-case basis. But students should be able to take their own decisions - this is too much flexibility.

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