AMU APU Careers & Learning Online Learning Original

What Professors Can Do When Students Want to Drop Out

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Professor, I just wanted to inform you that I will be withdrawing from college and I will no longer attempt to achieve my Master degree. I thought my mind was ready but this class has overwhelmed me. I’m not as young as I once was and get tire to quick [sic]. I’ve already sent an email to the advisor, just waiting on a response.

Thank you for your support.

This email is a sample of those rare emails that we professors receive now and again from a student who intends to drop out of his or her classes. And while this is 2021 and there are so many stresses on our working adult students, stress may not be what is driving this student to opt out.

For instance, students’ work hours could be affecting their time to do their classwork. Also, a student could be in a hospital bed with a virus or broken leg, having surgery, or in a few cases, giving birth to a first child.

Yes, we also get emails from students about how this pandemic is affecting their daily lives. One email could be from a wife whose husband and son have tested positive for COVID-19 and her kids are home trying to do online learning. There are also military students who explain that they will be late next week completing their classwork due to a military deployment or a training exercise in the field; they could be onboard a ship on its way to the Pacific Ocean.

New Monthly Classes Often Include Some Students Who Drop Out

New class offerings each month brings with them a number of students who just drop out of class. And you cannot connect with them because the only email address you have is the one the university gave them. You do not have their personal email address.

As a professor for the past few decades, teaching students at all levels at Old Dominion University, the University of Alaska Anchorage, Virginia Wesleyan University, and now at this university for the past 10 years, the story is the same. Only the names of the students and their occupations change.

One Way to Stop Dropouts: Be Passionate about Teaching

A solution to the problem of dropouts is to be passionate about teaching. A colleague once told me, “Teaching, for me, has its greatest reward when I look out at a class of 20 blank and bored faces and see one, just one, who gets it, who asks a sensible, intelligent question, who knows, really knows in their gut, that everybody has a story inside them and it is your job to get it out, to ask the questions that bring the information forth.”

This college professor reinforced her commitment to helping students succeed by saying to anyone who would listen to her, “If there’s a breaking news story that’s controversial, then we discuss that. I force them to put themselves in the story in order for them to see the story from both sides. It works. That’s my passion.”

The passion for teaching is the identical passion to help students overcome their inner fears that they are a failure. They don’t intend to be failures, but they have the mindset that they are a failure right now before they even start to write that first college paper on some topic assigned by the professor.

Their fear of failure is real. But as professors, we can effect change in those students’ attitude if we have the time and the passion to help them. And yes, there are teachers who just do not care if a student drops out, submits a very badly written paper, or does not fully read the instructions that say “post two or more replies to earn a grade of 100.”

Tell Engaging Stories to Which Your Students Can Relate

So what do you do about such students who might drop out of your class? It’s simple: Tell them your personal story of struggle if you have one. Dig up a failure in your life in college or high school, and tell them how you failed. Maybe it was the first class paper you had to write and you received an F. 

But if you do not have a personal story of failure, do not make one up. Fiction is fine for short stories and novels but not in the classroom and not for exchanging truth for truth.

Give Encouragement to Your Students

Explain to students in danger of dropping out that you want to work with them on what bothers them about college work. Repeat that they can do this work and be encouraging. Explain that college work, usually involving writing papers, does take a different approach to how they normally go about solving a problem at work or home.

If you can get an email from them as a reply, keep the conversation going. Give out your phone number. Ask them to call you.

Most of the time, they will not. Why? Because you are the “professor” and on a pedestal as high as their general in the Army or CEO of the company they work for.

When they do not call, send another email of encouragement and support, and reiterate that you know they can do the assignment. Say you will be glad to look at a draft to make sure they are on the right track. Let them know again you are here as their coach and teacher.

Alleviate Your Students’ Fears about the Online College Environment

This education world can be scary to online college students, especially when you consider their ages range from the 20s to the 70s, with most of them in their 30s or 40s. They have heard or witnessed their friends with college degrees getting better jobs and higher salaries. And they thought a degree would do the same for them.

The passion we provide as teachers, mentors and coaches needs to be greater than our students’ fear of failure. But by helping them to overcome their fears, we can help to ensure that they are less likely to drop out of class.

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He was program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government Contracting. He was Chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Dr. Hedgepeth was the founding Director of the Army’s Artificial Intelligence Center for Logistics from 1985 to 1990, Fort Lee, Virginia.

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