In one forestry course, almost two-thirds of all students who took the class failed the course, regardless of the professor. College Algebra had an average failure rate of 30 percent while all the students that took Social Media Marketing and Issues in Rural Health passed with A’s. What is happening here?
Some of the high fail rates are contributed to gateway courses, such as freshman core or introductory classes to a major. These are the first difficult courses students come across and they aren’t prepared. Another explanation professors give for the difference in passing rates is that some classes have no latitude — you either know it or you don’t — and at the end of the semester, many students don’t. Or perhaps some professors (and classes) are too hard, and some are too easy. It’s to the students’ advantage to understand that and prepare themselves if they hope to succeed.
This article examines the Fall 2018 grade distributions at ABAC, an anonymous view of student’s report cards from last December that is gathered every semester by the college. This data, made available at apps.abac.edu, tells exactly how many students earned what letter grade in each individual class for each specific professor. This article is by no means meant to be an evaluation of the professors mentioned.
Undoubtedly, students need to be challenged, or they gain nothing from their courses. Professors and administrators want to maintain the integrity of academic programs. The purpose of this article is to inform, interpret and report on a public record of interest to students.
The university system is concerned with classes that have high “DFW rates,” meaning classes with a large percentage of students who get grades of D or F, or withdraw from the class. ABAC is taking some steps to address the issue, such as embedding tutors in difficult classes and working with initiatives like Gateway to Completion. This story is meant to provide students with a more complex view of what these grade distributions mean.
Average pass and fail rates
Last semester, the institution-wide average passing rate was around 80 percent. The institution-wide DFW rate was around 15 percent.
Percentages can tell different stories depending on the size of the class. For example, the professor who had the single most A’s in any course was Von Peavy in his five Power Equipment classes. Out of the 132 students who took the class last semester, 93 garnered A’s. That’s 70 percent of students.
Peavey may have given out the most A’s in a single course, but he did not have the highest percentage of students earning an A. Some courses have only one student in them, like senior projects, and if that student received an A in the course than that course would have the highest overall percentage of A’s, sitting at 100 percent (1 out of 1).
At ABAC, the average number of students enrolled in a course under one professor is somewhere around 24 students. To prevent percentages from being too misleading in these small environments, this article looks at classes where professors had 10 or more students enrolled.
A total of three courses last semester had 100 percent A’s. One of these courses was Agricultural Seminar with Frank Flanders, where he taught 27 students. Another was Troy Spicer’s Issues in Rural Health with a total of 16 students. And the final class with 100 percent A’s is Xia Zhou’s Social Media Marketing with a total of 20 students.
On the opposite side of the bell curve, College Algebra damaged the most GPA’s last semester affecting the 705 students that took the class. For the most part, students did fairly well with 443 earning above a C and 186 of those being A’s. However, the course had a 30 percent DFW rate, affecting 261 students.
The class with the highest percentage of students who failed a single course under one professor was Renaldo Arroyo’s Quantitative Methods in Forest Resources (FRSC 1180). Out of the 19 students in the class, 11 left the course with an F meaning 58 percent of students failed. In addition, only six students made a C or higher in the course.
Arroyo’s class wasn’t the only FRSC 1180 course. Stuart Moss also taught the course and gave out the second highest percentage of F’s to students. Out of the 20 students that took the course, nine made F’s. That’s 45 percent of students who took the class. And just like Dr. Arroyo’s FRSC 1180, only six students made a C or higher.
Also in the forestry department, Daniel Sollenberger had a DFW rate of 77 percent in his Forest Wildlife Management course (FRSC 1192) and a DFW rate of 67 percent in his Dendrology course (FRSC 3070). James Carroll had a high DFW in his Dendrology class as well as 67 percent or 12 of the 18 students.
Tied for the second highest percentage of F’s was Jennifer Harper’s Anatomy and Physiology Lab (BIOL 2011L) where 45 percent of students, or 10 out of the 22 students, failed the course. Anatomy and Physiology lecture and lab had an overall DFW rate of around 32 percent.
Andrew Mcintosh’s BIOL 2011 had 16 withdrawals in his class. The high number of withdrawals and an average number of failures put the DFW rate at 60 percent. Only 17 of the original 42 students made it out of the class with higher than a C. Similar statistics apply to another BIOL 2011 class under Leslie Pryor, where 21 students dropped the class. Only 38 out of the 81 students, or 47 percent of the class, made it out with a passing grade of a C or higher.
Andrew Mcintosh also taught Principles of Biology (BIOL 1107) and had a DFW rate of 59 percent or 27 of the 46 students.
While crunching the numbers, the usual suspects were often mentioned like Dendrology, Quantitative Methods in Forest Resources, and Anatomy and Physiology. But two other courses, College Algebra (MATH 1111), and Quantitative Reasoning (MATH 1001), also had unusually high failure rates.
Both MATH 1111 and MATH 1001 appeared five times in the top 10 courses with the highest percentage of F’s. Four College Algebra professors, in particular, had low passing rates. The lowest of which belonging to Gary Dicks. His course had a passing rate of 28 percent where 17 out of 25 students made a D or F in the course. Following him was Amanda Urquhart with a passing rate of 30 percent, Rachel Flake with a passing rate of 38 percent and Lori Pearman with a passing rate of 48 percent.
In MATH 1001, Gloria Beard had the lowest passing rate at 40 percent or 6 out of 15 students. Following her was Gary Dicks at 53 percent, as 41 out of 77 students made a C or better.
There were also a few outlier courses such as, Introduction to Sociology which had a DFW rate of 64 percent or 41 of the 64 students.
The Usual Suspects
Throughout the data, three usual suspect disciplines had the highest DFW rates across many of the courses offered. The three usual suspects were Math (1111 and 1001), Forestry (3070 and 1180), and Anatomy and Physiology (BIOL 2011 plus the lab).
Of these three, Math was the only common course for all students on campus. College Algebra (MATH 1111) and Quantitative Reason (MATH 1001) are beginning classes. Regardless of a student’s track, they must take one or the other to get their degree. These are often the first courses students encounter in Math, says Melanie Partlow, the Mathematics Department Coordinator.
“If you talk to the biology department, they’ll say Anatomy and Physiology students are better if they have biology first. Well, the biology teachers say they have better students if they take anatomy first. It’s just the first class they encounter and they just do better in the second class.”
In part, this is because students may not have met a class with college-level rigor yet or they haven’t developed the study techniques and time management skills to succeed, according to Partlow.
College Algebra and Quantitative Reasoning have a DFW rate of around 30 percent altogether. Partlow says part of the reason DFW rates are generally higher in math is that people just don’t speak math.
“People speak English,” Partlow said. “And so, they go into their English class and they’re not quite as intimidated. People don’t speak math on a regular basis and so, if they haven’t seen math in a year, they’re deficient. Who doesn’t speak English for a year?”
She believes that students often have the wrong mindset like thinking that they can’t do math because they are better at other subjects like writing or agriculture. Her advice to students is to immerse yourself in the work like you would speaking a language and keep at it with a can-do mindset.
“You can blame it anywhere you want to. We can sit here and blame it on the high schools if you want to. That’s not fair. You could blame it on the agrarian society that feels like they can’t. That’s not fair. Ultimately, it’s that one person’s drive and desire to do that’s going to overcome all the obstacles. Some say it’s a financial obstacle. Well, that’s not fair. We have changed our software so that it’s as cheap as we can get it. We have calculators that they can borrow at the library. We have tried to lessen the financial burden.”
People must also remember that professors are people too and are overtaken by life like the rest of us. “I’ve had higher DFW rates when my husband had open-heart surgery. I had a hard time that spring. Getting caught up and having everything in and worrying about him. It’s not something I’m proud of but it’s real.”
The other two usual suspect disciplines are more major specific and reflect the rigor of the program overall. According to Dr. William Moore, Department Head of Forestry and Natural Resources, Fall 2018 was the first-semester Quantitative Methods in Forest Resources (FRSC 1180) was ever taught. It was implemented to better prepare freshman for the math they’d be doing throughout their studies in the YOW, specifically FRSC 3140 Measurements and Mapping. This was meant to help students meet the rigor of the program and are a gateway type course much like College Algebra and Quantitative Reasoning.
“We were seeing so many students that had terrible preparation for math coming out of high school,” Moore said. “And it was causing a lot of them to have serious trouble in measurements and mapping. What we recognized was that it wasn’t the skills or the applications of measurements and mapping itself that students were struggling with. It was the basic math that was being used in that class they didn’t know how to do. So, we created this class last year, this past fall actually, to try and develop an applied math course that could bring them up to par as well as introduce them to math skills that relate to forestry and wildlife.”
Both professors who taught Quantitative Methods in Forest Resources only passed around a third of the students that took the class. Moore says that after last semester, they looked at trying slow down the pace of it for future classes.
Dendrology or FRSC 3070 is a first for many students as well, according to Moore. It’s taken around their sophomore to junior year of college.
“It’s that first hard class people take,” Moore said. “It requires memorization, especially of scientific names. And every week, they’re keeping up with it and learning the new species that are introduced because that class builds on itself. Every week, when they go out in lab, they are learning anywhere between five and eight new species every week. People that get behind those first three or four weeks, they end up trying to cram and learn those species but then they get new ones every week and it snowballs. We tell people every week don’t get behind, don’t get behind. They often do.”
To help compensate for the difficulty of the class, the program has begun mentored tutoring in Dendrology. These tutors will go with students to lab in order to better engage students and make them more comfortable with seeking help outside of the class, according to Moore.
Moore also mentioned that part of what makes Dendrology a difficult course is the objective nature of the course.
“They need to know the common name, scientific name, and using the family for that particular species. So, they either know it or they don’t. If they know the common name they get some points but also if they know the scientific name they get full points. The basic math skills, to be able to convert something from square feet to acres or miles to kilometers. It’s also very objective. It’s either right or wrong.”
This is a common trend among all three of the most failed classes. These courses have an objective right or wrong answer. Partlow explained that in math, although it is objective, professors can give partial credit if the student knows the method, but not all professors grade that way.
In the third suspect course, Anatomy and Physiology (BIOL 1107), it’s the same way, according to the Science and Mathematics Department Head Joseph Falcone.
“There are definite right and wrong answers, so it’s much more quantitative than other forms of narrative knowledge,” Falcone said. “When you write an essay, sometimes there is no right or wrong answer. It’s how well did you argue your point, or how well did you construct that paragraph. Here they’re actually saying can you point to that particular organ in the dissected animal.”
Anatomy and Physiology is an introductory course for those in the Nursing degree, as well as a core class for those in the Biology Health Sciences track. However, Biology students do not usually take the class until after their introductory biology courses. This means biology students do not typically take Anatomy and Physiology until their sophomore and junior year, while nursing students take the course as an entry-level freshman, according to Falcone.
“There is a difference in maturity and preparation when you take it as a true freshman versus when you take it later on when you develop your skills and your habits,” Falcone said.
Falcone also said the class covers a great deal of material in order to provide students a broad foundation for their studies.
“One of the problems is that because you go over so many different things it can get overwhelming for some people because you can’t see the connection yet. You’ll find with many of the introductory classes, whether it’d be Anatomy and Physiology, or General Chemistry, or Biology 1107, and so on and so on, those entry-level courses cover a lot of different things just enough to give you the foundations to get you deeper into the other classes. So, that’s part of the problem in any entry level class.”
Breaking the threshold
Each of the usual suspect classes are introductory in some way. Whether it’d be at a freshman-level or an introduction to upper-level college work, all of these courses, to some extent, weed out students from reaching their next step. These courses are often referred to as “gateway courses” by professors.
They have historically high DFW rates “especially for low-income, first-generation and historically underrepresented students,” according to Gardner Institute’s Gateway to Completion Initiative. This initiative was hired by the USG to help Georgia colleges better address their gateway classes.
According to Baker, the courses that ABAC has selected as their focus with the Gateway to Completion initiative are ENGL 1101, Math 1111, BIOL 2011 and SOCI 1101.
“At ABAC, we’ve been really concerned about these gateway courses before the system wanted to do this initiative,” said Dr. Jordan Cofer, the Assistant Vice President of Academic Affairs. “There are a lot of elements that are beyond the control of your instructor— the language gap for some kids. They come in from low-income households, so if you come in from a household where a family read to you, you heard roughly 30 million more words than the ones who didn’t. One of the strategies for success, later on, is for parents to read to their children. To talk to them out loud, sound them out, point out rhyming words and things. But these are the kind of systematic problems you can’t address when you come into college.”
One way ABAC helps students overcome some of the academic obstacles is through the tutoring center. There are review sessions for many of the classes mentioned in this article. Some of the review sessions include Trigonometry, Chemistry, Business classes like Accounting, and Anatomy and Physiology. There are tutors in the Yow building for forestry and wildlife majors and there are several tutors that work on the third floor of the Branch Student Center.
There are also some resources available to help students’ wallet such as digital textbooks and calculators available in the library, according to Partlow.
Grade distribution is a massive subject. With more time, more student research could be done into the larger trends in grade distributions over the years. Even soft-factors, such as the effects time of day or attitude have on DFW rates, could be the subject of research.
Many students don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing the professors they take at ABAC, whether it’s because there aren’t any other professors to pick from, or that a student is low priority for picking classes. However, taking difficult classes with high DFW rates can be risky, but rewarding. According to Moore, 100 percent of forestry graduates get jobs after college because of their high standards.
It’s like the AT&T commercials, “Just okay is not okay.” Maybe 70 percent fail rates is just what it takes to make students better than okay.
Addendum: February 12, 2019 After we printed the story, Von Peavy responded to an email interview and provided an explanation as to why so many students do so well in his Power Equipment class. Here is what he sent:
Why do so many students do so well in your course?
* It is all but impossible to capture and express all of the nuances of the success of such a varied group of student learners, but following are some of my observations:
o Because it is a required course, students must “pass” at a certain level to be able to move on in their identified major and the skills attained will further their academic and employment possibilities.
o Student learners will be successful if you allow them every opportunity to be so, although some have to be guided to realize their potential- failure is not an option.
o Students will rise to the level of expectations, if those expectations are clearly outlined early, enforced fairly, and nurtured frequently.
o Students treated with respect and fairness will be more open to learning possibilities.
o Different students learn in different ways (modalities), therefore a class that employs as many different learning possibilities as possible will be rewarded with more success.
o Learning does not have to be boring and clinical, interjecting a little humor and fun as much as possible adds to the class success and alleviates stress.
o Any course that allows students to experience guided hands-on learning will result in individuals who are better prepared for success in their chosen fields of study and in life.