Group of undergraduate students walking on the South 40

Why Students Drop Classes in the First Week of the Semester

New faculty are sometimes concerned about the number of students who drop their courses in the first week of a semester.  It is hard not to take this personally—especially if you are new to teaching.  In an effort to better understand the issue, I asked a variety of faculty members about their experience with this challenge.  Late semester drops are typically due to apprehension about a poor grade or sometimes due to a personal or family crisis.  But, in this case, I am focusing on students who drop a class prior to the “no penalty deadline” at the beginning of the semester, or sometimes before a class even begins.    Reasons for this are as varied as students themselves, but there seem to be a few common elements.

  1. Students sometimes “course shop” by enrolling for more credits than they need (and might even register for two classes that meet on the day day/time). They attend the classes and then decide (often based on the information they get at the first class meeting) whether to continue. Deciding factors could include: perceived difficulty, volume of work required, persona of the instructor, and relevance to career and personal interests.
  2. Students in elective classes are more likely to course shop. Required classes tend to have very low drop rates, while elective classes might see drop rates of 15-20%.
  3. Newer instructors have not established a reputation among students, and students may not feel drawn to a newer instructor due to that perceived uncertainty.
  4. Some popular courses have capacity limitations. Students will enroll in extra courses until they know if they will/won’t be able to join a high demand course.  Opening extra seats in one course can sometimes create a domino effect as students drop their back-up classes and enroll in the high-demand course.
  5. Flexible programs, where students have an array of options to meet their degree requirements, tend to have higher drop rates than less flexible programs where options are more limited.
  6. Multiple-section classes that are scheduled either early or late in the day tend to have higher drop rates as many students prefer mid-day meeting times.
  7. Students will sometimes join a waiting list and if they eventually get in, might end up dropping the course because of other commitments.

Less systemic issues can be summarized by student quotes:

  • “I signed up for two courses at the same time and visited each to see which one I liked best.”
  • “My friend was in another class, so I decided to take that one.”
  • “Seigle Hall is too far from McKelvey and I can’t make it there in the ten minutes we’ve got between classes.”
  • “My work schedule changed and I can’t take a late afternoon class.”
  • “I changed majors and don’t need this class anymore.”

Suggestions for reducing early-semester drop rates:

  1. Make sure your Canvas-based materials are well organized and provide a thorough overview of the course. Canvas-scanning is one way that students course shop, and a poorly designed Canvas course or one with lots of missing information sends a negative impression.
  2. Send a welcome message to students prior to the first class meeting to help clarify expectations and to share your enthusiasm for the course. Some instructors record a welcome message on Canvas.
  3. Have your assessment plan worked out and ready to share on the first day of class (or sooner). This will help answer student’s questions about the volume of work, perceived difficulty and relevance to their personal and career interests.
  4. Make the first day of class count! The first class meeting provides a unique opportunity to engage students. First-day activities can create a welcoming, inclusive classroom environment that will boost student’s sense of belonging and enhance their learning experience throughout the semester.  James Lang offers four key principles for the first day of class.

Experienced faculty and administrators note that early semester drops or churn (where the course roster fluctuates a lot in the first few days) is rarely the fault of an individual instructor, and is most often a reflection of some combination of the factors listed above.  Those first turbulent weeks of a semester can sometimes shake a new faculty member’s confidence, but it is important to focus on the things you can control: course design, the first class meeting, creating an online presence, and demonstrating that you are invested in your student’s success.