Friday, March 24, 2017

Practical Matters: Mid-Semester Mania and Withdrawal from Courses

by Sarah Kain Gutowski, Chair, New Member Program

Congratulations to our new members for reaching the mid-semester mark in your first or second semester as full time faculty at SCCC. This is no small feat; by now, particularly if you're teaching faculty and deeply entrenched in mid-term exams or paper grading, you're beginning to feel the weight of your tasks, big and small. You may even be able to see that weight quite literally, as all of the grading begins to stack up on your desk or fill your briefcase or backpack.
This is also the point in the semester where I find I'm most frequently reminded of all the burdens our students are carrying, too. I issue mid-term academic alerts and watch a line of anxious faces form at the front of the classroom, attempting to speak with me before class about missing assignments and less-than-acceptable grades. I'm met in my office hours with students who wish to let me know that because of their 1) caregiver schedule 2) employer demands 3) change in career plans, they're considering withdrawing from my course.
As you may have noticed, Wednesday was the deadline for students to withdraw from courses on their own -- they could have done so at the registrar or through their MYSCCC accounts. Usually, I put this deadline into my course outlines and remind students via announcements in class and/or class emails and posts in Blackboard, as a courtesy and a facet of my role as a faculty advisor (new students simply aren't aware of most college policies at this point).
My spring break was spent "finding" my writing desk again. Yours?
Many students, however, don't realize their grade is in jeopardy before this deadline: in fact, as I've been finding this week, many students realize it the day AFTER the deadline has passed. I don't know why they ignore repeated warnings to check their grades before the deadline: they just do. And when they realize their grade is less-than-satisfactory, they show up at your office door, panicked and contrite or angry and defensive or ambiguous and ambivalent (or a messy combination of all three).
Of course the first thing we should do, as responsible faculty and caring advisors, is see where our students might improve their study or work habits to increase their grade point average over the remaining weeks. Some students will respond admirably to this approach and do whatever they need to do to pass the course by May. Others, however, will be less sure of themselves and wish to abandon the endeavor completely. Those students will ask you for a withdrawal. Or, more commonly, they'll simply disappear -- that is, they won't return to class, although you may see them slinking by you on campus, trying to remain unnoticed.
As new teaching faculty (if you're new teaching faculty) it's important that you know the reach of the withdrawal or "W" grade. First, know that we do not -- yet -- have an official withdrawal policy (which is ridiculous, and entrenched in campus politics, but nevertheless, a sad fact). So the following is advice from a faculty member who believes that we should know the implications of each and every grade we assign.
Students may not withdraw from a class after the mid-semester deadline of their own volition. At this point, they must go to the registrar's office, find withdrawal slips, fill them out, and have you sign them. Second, before you sign a withdrawal (or assign it as a final grade at the end of the semester), you and your students should understand how the W grade will affect them if they are receiving financial aid.
If a student is taking the minimum number of credits to be considered full-time (12), and then they take or are assigned a "W" grade -- even at the end of the semester -- their credit load for the semester is reduced. The student's financial aid, calculated based on the number of courses the student takes each semester, is also adjusted accordingly.
This means that students who take the minimum number of courses may be reduced to part-time status once they receive a grade of "W," and their part-time status will reduce the amount of financial aide for which they are eligible in future semesters. Most students in their first semester here are unaware of this consequence; in fact, most students -- even those in third or fourth semesters -- are unaware of the potential problems created for them by the "W" grade.
Ideally, any "W" assigned after the mid-semester point should be done because of extenuating circumstances. As teaching faculty and advisors to our students, we need to be discrete in our assignment of the "W" grade and assign it only when a student as requested the "W" and understands -- fully and unequivocally -- the potential effects if he or she is receiving financial aid. While we may wish to be kind and assign a "W" to those students who disappear from our classes a day or two after the withdrawal deadline, it's unwise to use the "W" if you haven't had a frank conversation with the student about what it means.
In May, if you have students who have disappeared mysteriously from your classroom but remained on your roster, and if you are adverse to assigning them the failing grades that they mostly likely deserve (you old softie!), I recommend emailing them and asking if they wish to receive a "W," and if they're aware of the implications and (very real, sometimes very devastating) effects of a "W" grade. Some of these students will be paying out of pocket for their classes and will be surprisingly cavalier about their grade(s). Others, particularly those receiving aid, will be grateful for the consideration and advisement and may prefer to take the "F" so that they may retain their full-time status and continue receiving their aid.
Even if you elect not to email "ghost" students at the end of the semester, at least you can assign failing grades knowing that, in the long run, it is usually the wiser, kinder course of action -- and that the "W"grade, when assigned without discretion, can be more of a burden than a gift to the student who couldn't get his or her act together this semester.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go get my act together -- at this time of the year, our students aren't the only ones in the weeds.

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