Why Students Fail

A number of my students aren’t willing to “do” without thinking. Good for them.

It brings me little pleasure to admit that I spent a lot of years just doing what I was “supposed to do” without giving much thought to “why” I should do it. Even now, my general tendency is to “do” rather than to “think.” There are definite benefits to such an approach to life. For example, I managed to avoid a lot of pitfalls along the way because I never went far from the road labeled “safe, successful, and proven.” I’ve never be sidelined by drugs or alcohol or gambling or jail. As a young man I more-or-less devoted myself to studies and ended up with a Ph.D. in computer science by age 26. And the list of safe and boring life choices could go on for some time.

The down side of being a goody-two-shoes doer is that it is easy to miss the point/purpose of this thing called life. While the safe road might be good, there may be other roads that are great! If you reach the end of the road and all you have to show for your journey is a house in the suburbs then what did you really accomplish?

It is Perplexing

A number of my students aren’t willing to “do” without thinking. Good for them. Some of them, though, do get sidelined … and that bothers me … a lot. I’ve spent a lot time over years trying to figure out why students fail. To be honest, it is perplexing. The student has left their home to come live on a university campus for the purpose of earning a college degree. They have essentially dedicated four years of their life to this purpose. They have also dedicated major financial resources, in many cases, taking on debt in order to achieve this goal.  This same student will then proceed to skip class, ignore homework assignments, and ultimately fail courses. The result is that they pay over $2,000 for the privilege of failing each course. As I often point out to my struggling students: “There are much cheaper ways not to attend a course. Just don’t sign up for it and you can ‘not attend’ it for free!”

As I often point out … “There are much cheaper ways not to attend a course. Just don’t sign up for it and you can ‘not attend’ it for free!”

It is important to add that these students are not stupid. That makes their behavior all the more confounding! Somewhere along my journey of teaching I decided to stop wondering why students failed and to start asking them. I’ll sit down with a student and ask: “Why aren’t you doing well in this class?” You’d think their answers would provide clarity … but they typically don’t. Answers to such questions occasionally have an excuse component (e.g., “I’ve was sick two days”), but almost always have a re-dedication component (“I’ll do better in the future”). Although the re-dedications are, I believe, sincere, they tend not to be long-lived.

I used to chalk up student failure to laziness and lack of academic preparation. While those can be contributing factors, they are not to blame in most cases. On the “lack of academic preparation” issue I would point out that schools have admissions requirements for the purpose of making sure that students who attend have a reasonable shot a completing a degree. If you have been admitted to a college then that college believes you have what it takes to succeed there!

Laziness, on the other hand, can overcome even the brightest mind! Generally, though, the students who fail in my courses I would not characterize as being lazy. Based on my observations the main reasons some students struggle in college are these:

  • Addictions or Distractions
  • Pyschological Factors
  • Worldview Crises


Why Students Fail: Addictions/Distractions

When a student stays up all night long to play a new video game … that doesn’t feel to me like laziness! Such a feat requires discipline, concentration, and devotion!

I’m addressing addictions and distractions together because the distinction can be a bit blurry. Certainly addiction to drugs or alcohol can be disastrous to a college career. I believe these to be relatively rare among the students who enter my classroom. Why students fail my classes is more likely an addiction to social media … or video games … or entertainment … or exercise.

According to Wikipedia (the source of all true wisdom and knowlege):

Classic hallmarks of addiction include: impaired control over substances/behavior, preoccupation with substance/behavior, continued use despite consequences, and denial. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Addiction)

When a student stays up all night long to play a new video game even though they have lots of homework, that doesn’t feel to me like laziness! Such a feat requires discipline, concentration, and devotion! The same student who displays such devotion to the video game will often sleep through my classes (present or not), fail to turn in homework, and perform poorly on exams. Looking back at the “hallmarks of addiction”, the student I just described seems to exhibit impaired control over behavior and to be preoccupied with a game despite the consequences. All we seem to be missing is denial. Well, if you want denial just talk to the student about their addiction:

Professor: “George, I missed you in class yesterday. Is everything okay?”

George: “Oh, yeah, I’m fine. The initial release of (insert game-of-choice here) was at midnight and me and my friends stayed up to play it. It was amazing! (insert loooong-episode-of-describing-specific-events-in-an-imaginary-world-filled-with-imaginary-beings-with-lots-of-imaginary-verbs-used-to-describe-actions here)”

(I should add at this point that there does not appear to be any denial … after all the student is freely admitting what they have done. Fear not. Denial is on its way!)

Professor: “I’m concerned that (insert game-of-choice here) is causing you to do poorly in this class.”

George:  “Aww. No, I don’t really play that much. This was just a one-time deal because the game was new. After a few days I’ll be back to normal.”

(There it is!)

In my experience, George will fail my course or, at least, perform way below his potential.  Also, in my experience, his absenteeism is much more likely to increase than it is to subside.  And my experience would dictate that his failure to turn in one assignment is much more likely to represent a pattern than to be an isolated occurrence!

I think the challenge here is that there is nothing inherently wrong with social media, video games, entertainment, or exercise. They are all socially acceptable and behaviors consistent with well-adjusted people. Nevertheless, George, displays the behaviors associated with an addiction. In such cases I think naming the addiction and treating it as an addiction are necessary steps to progress. Good luck getting George to agree with me on this.


Why Students Fail: Psychological Factors

For a student to move away from home to live in an academy and to pay huge amounts of money to do so is impressive. For that same student to fail a course is tragic.

The main psychological issues that affect my students are homesickness, stress, and depression. I don’t have as much to say about these as they seem to be better understood than addictions. I do think, though, that depression can be especially insidious because it inhibits the very behaviors that are its remedy. I should add at this point, that I’m not talking about clinical depression. If someone is struggling with clinical depression they are typically aware of that prior to coming to college and they often have medication and other coping  techniques before coming to college.

Also, these factors are interrelated. A student does poorly on an exam … causing stress … causing “escaping” behaviors … causing more poor performance … causing more stress … causing depression … causing withdrawal … and so the depression become entrenched.


Why Students Fail: Worldview Crises

Yes, addictions, depression, over-commitment, and laziness can contribute significantly to a student’s demise. But from an instructor’s perspective, having a student fail a course, in most cases, represents a misappropriation of priorities. For a student to move away from home to live in an academy and to pay substantial amounts of money to do so is impressive. For that same student to fail a course is incongruent. Student failure implies that the vision that caused them to make such a breathtaking commitment in the first place has been lost. That is to say, when things get busy … when the pressure is on … when assignments are hard … when classes are boring … a student will tend to act according to their worldview.  The non-thinking goody-two-shoes doer will stay on task (if not for the right reasons). The student who lives for pleasure will follow the path of the most immediate pleasure. The student who responds to the loudest voice will be drawn to loud voices and then will do what they say. The student who doesn’t have an answer to the question “why am I here?” will drift.

The issue of worldview is paramount.

The issue of worldview is paramount. If a student’s worldview drives them to forsake short-term comforts for longer-term benefits they are less likely to be derailed by distractions, addictions, or difficulties. In fact, I would go so far as to say that in many cases, distractions, addictions, and difficulties are symptoms of an ineffective worldview. As the previous sentence implies, my own worldview doesn’t ascribe equal standing to all worldviews! I would like to address this issue of one’s worldview in greater depth. To do so I will create a series of posts dedicated to the topic.


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