Friday, December 4, 2009

Policy-making is not problem-solving

Just before the Thanksgiving break I attended a meeting of associate deans as a substitute for my direct supervisor who was out of town.  I realized that, as a "replacement player" my wisest course of action during the meeting was to sit back and just observe, so that's what I did.  The day's topic of discussion was the time-to-graduation issue wherein BYU students are taking longer to graduate than we would like them to.  This seemed like a fair issue to address because we want to make a BYU education accessible to as many students as possible.  And, if a student stays for 6 extra semesters, that means denying admission to another student during that time. 

I'll give you some key pieces of information in the hopes that you'll start to develop your own solution, then I'll tell you what actually happened.

Fact #1:  The largest contributor to extended stays at the university was determined to be course repeats.  Simply put, students are taking one or more classes multiple times.  That means they're here longer.

Fact #2:  The vast majority of students who repeat courses do so because they have earned a failing grade.

Fact #3:  The most commonly repeated courses are introductory level courses that are part of the university core (that's code for gen. ed.) program.

Fact #4:  Of the 20 most commonly repeated courses, 11 fall within three academic departments (4 in department A, 4 in department B, and 3 in department C).

So, what do you think?  How would you go about addressing the situation given these scraps of data?  I'm not naive enough anymore to think that there is a single solution or magic bullet for something like this.  But, as I sat listening to the conversation play out I was a little amazed at one thing that was never mentioned:  how do we help students be more successful so they don't repeat courses?

Rather, the rest of the 90 minute discussion focused on policies that could be enacted that would either punish students for repeating a course or deter them from making that decision in the first place (a limit on the number of courses that can be repeated, averaging all of the grades for a given course rather than awarding the highest grade, extending the withdrawal policy so that a student has more time to pull out of a class if it looks like they're going to fail, etc.).  What I observed was an attempt to problem solve through policy-making.  I attended a meeting of academic advisors yesterday and the same issue was discussed and, again, everyone wanted a policy and "something in the catalog" so they could have "back up" when they tell a student they can't repeat a course or can't add a 3rd minor.

This left me wondering whether policy-making is always the best way to solve problems.  Such a response is common because it is quick and dirty.  In our minds we see the scenario playing out something like this:  If we implement the policy, students will get it, follow it, and these problems will go away.  But too often policies mask the problem and have only superficial influence on the underlying issue.  

This seems both cowardly and misguided.  It removes from us the responsibility of both improving instruction and working to help students understand what their responsibility is as members of a community of learners.  Essentially, this issue of course repeats boils down to human beings and the way they behave.  Whether it is faculty members doing a poor job of teaching or students who aren't taking their studies as seriously as they should (my hunch is that it's some of both) a policy won't change those things, only mask their visible consequences.  

At some point administering programs has to move from back-door policy making to relationship-based problem solving that makes positive changes in thinking and behavior.