When students fail, who’s responsible?

This story out of Norfolk State University has been lighting up the internet in general and the edu-blogosphere in particular. It revolves around Steven Aird, a biologist at Norfolk, who was denied tenure for failing too many students: 

The report from [Dean Sandra DeLoatch] said that Aird met the standards for tenure in service and research, and noted that he took teaching seriously, using his own student evaluations on top of the university’s. The detailed evaluations Aird does for his courses, turned over in summary form for this article, suggest a professor who is seen as a tough grader (too tough by some), but who wins fairly universal praise for his excitement about science, for being willing to meet students after class to help them, and providing extra help.

DeLoatch’s review finds similarly. Of Aird, she wrote, based on student reviews: “He is respectful and fair to students, adhered to the syllabus, demonstrated that he found the material interesting, was available to students outside of class, etc.”

What she faulted him for, entirely, was failing students. The review listed various courses, with remarks such as: “At the end of Spring 2004, 22 students remained in Dr. Aird’s CHM 100 class. One student earned a grade of ‘B’ and all others, approximately 95 percent, earned grades between ‘D’ and ‘F.’” Or: “At the end of Fall 2005, 38 students remained in Dr. Aird’s BIO 100 class. Four students earned a grade of ‘C-’ or better and 34, approximately 89 percent, received D’s and F’s.”

These class records resulted in the reason cited for tenure denial: “the core problem of the overwhelming failure of the vast majority of the students he teaches, especially since the students who enroll in the classes of Dr. Aird’s supporters achieve a greater level of success than Dr. Aird’s students.”

But you really have to go read the whole thing to get the full complexity of the issue. Read especially the comments at the end. This situation has really touched a nerve among higher ed people.

And it’s not hard to see why, either. This story brings up in great clarity a profound conundrum in college teaching: When students fail, whose fault is it? Is it: 

  • the students‘ fault, for not working hard enough or putting forth enough effort or so forth? 
  • the professor’s fault, for not working hard enough to reach and help his/her students? 
  • the university’s fault, for creating a culture of low expectations? (This is Aird’s argument.) 
  • the students’ high schools’ fault for not adequately preparing them for college? 
  • somebody else’s fault, for example the admissions department for allowing students who are knowingly unprepared for college to enroll, thereby forcing the university to hold lower standards in order to maintain decent retention rates? 
There is no one-size-fits-all answer, of course; every instance of student failure is some linear combination of faults. Looking at Aird’s case, it’s not obvious what that combination is. Is Aird simply an uncaring elitist — or an outright racist, as some critics are claiming (Aird is white, and Norfolk State is a historically black university) — who is refusing to help students who need it? Is Norfolk State pulling a Benedict College and enabling an academic climate so anemic that any professor who assesses students with halfway-decent standards ends up flunking the vast majority of his students? How did it get to the point where only 10% of his intro biology students are earning a C or higher? 
Again, it’s hard to say exactly what happened here without more information, but there are a few things for sure about this case: 
  • The overwhelming instinct among professors is to lay the blame somewhere else besides themselves. One look at the comments at the IHE article will tell you so. And this instinct may be justified; the plain fact is that many students do fail in spite of the resources available to them, because they are not prepared, or because they have too many distractions in life, or because they are lazy and won’t utilize what’s available to them. But I think profs must beware of transferring the behavior of some students to the behavior of all students. How many of Prof. Aird’s students were adequately prepared to do well in the course, and would have done so with a little more work on Aird’s part or the students’ advisors’ parts? 
  • The overwhelming instinct among some other people is to lay the blame squarely at the feet of the professor. “If students fail, then it’s the teacher that failed” is the common aphorism. But this simply isn’t true all of the time. One of the main distinguishing factors between education at the college and university level from that at the K-12 level is the degree to which students are responsible for their own learning. A university education is a meeting of the minds. The professor’s job is to craft a well-structured course that enables students to learn. But the professor cannot make learning happen — the student must pick up the ball at some point and take initiative, by doing homework (especially when it’s not required), coming to office hours, asking questions, and investing time in struggling with material that might be difficult. If the professor does her/his part and the student opts out and then fails, it’s not the professor’s fault for not going farther and doing more of the student’s work for him or her. Some times — many times — teachers pass but students fail. 
  • The university or college itself bears a big responsibility: To create and foster a campus culture where the two-part meeting of the minds I just described takes place on a daily, ever-increasing basis. And by implication, it’s the university’s responsibility to eradicate anything that stands in the way of this. If the university fails to enforce its own academic rules (which appears possibly to have been the case at Norfolk regarding an “80% attendance” rule), or allows co-curricular or athletic activities to usurp the primary role of teaching and learning on campus, then nobody is going to win. 
If more universities would simply take up the challenge of being intentional about the primacy of academics on campus, and conduct itself likewise, then I think fewer cases like this would happen. 


Filed under Education, Higher ed, Life in academia, Teaching

9 responses to “When students fail, who’s responsible?

  1. philosopherP

    I wonder how his students might perfom when examined on the course objectives?

    One version of this story is that most of his Fs are for attendance failures, which is a university policy. I don’t know the details, but it seems unfair.

  2. virusdoc

    Unless the academic quality of the students at Norfolk is EXCEPTIONALLY low, then there is no question in my mind that this professor’s expectations of his students are unreasonable–particularly for entry level biology and chemistry courses. Knowing no other facts about the situation, it sounds like he is expecting freshmen and sophomores to perform at senior or graduate student levels. It’s one thing to have high standards, but quite another to expect the impossible!

    Sounds like a reasonable tenure decision to me. Institutions like Norfolk must have effective teachers to survive. And this professor should never have accepted a position at Norfolk if he only wanted to teach Harvard class students.

  3. @virusdoc: I didn’t get the impression that Aird was attempting to teach an Ivy League-level course at Norfolk. But then again one of the missing pieces of information here is the course goals, syllabus, etc. It sounded to me from the article that he was doing a pretty run-of-the-mill intro course that could pass muster at any mid-major state university, but students simply couldn’t do the work. What work that was, the article didn’t say.

  4. greg

    Virus doc: How can you make such comments about teaching to Ivy League standards when no such information is given in the article? The administration itself recognized that he used sound methods, at least according to the article.

    A fact is a fact. Do you think the students in other countries are allowed to pass classes without meeting all the course objectives? Do you think this might be a reason the U.S. is losing it’s technological edge?

    I sincerely hope you are not in education.

  5. I am a teacher, and have been for nearly twenty years. Any time more than twenty percent of students are failing (and that’s a very high percentage), I think something is VERY wrong. From kindergarten through university, a teacher always has to ask himself this question. Perhaps he is teaching the material at too high a level. If that is not true, why are the students failing? Do they not have the required math skills? If so, there need to be more prerequisites. Perhaps the course description and expectations in the catalog need to updated to reflect the true level of the course. And lastly, the instructor has to ask himself is he making TOO MANY COGNITIVE LEAPS, assuming that students are following? Perhaps the material needs to be broken into more steps. Perhaps the COURSE ITSELF needs to be broken into TWO courses–Part I, and Part II.

    Madame Monet
    Writing, Painting, Music, and Wine

  6. I forgot to add that perhaps his TESTS are a problem. Some professors ask things on tests that are NOT adequately covered in the course itself. I had one psychology professor who did that. He lectured on one thing, and then tried to find the most picky details out of readings that he never talked about in class at all, to test students on!!!

    Madame Monet
    Writing, Painting, Music, and Wine

  7. XTeacher

    I taught math for one year at a a poverty-minority middle school, and was fired. Could not manage the classroom. At the beginning of the year the principal was adamant about giving passing grades. In retrospect, had I handed out more failing grades at the beginning of the year, students would have been more motivated to study, and classroom management would have been easier.

  8. @wpm1955: One key ingredient you’re leaving out there is student initiative. It’s very possible for the course to be properly designed, the professor to be teaching at an appropriately high level and assigning work at an appropriate level, and even for the students in the course to have all the right prerequisites — but when the professor leads, the students don’t follow.

    This could happen for a number of reasons. Sometimes students, caught up in the overwhelming freedom of college life, get over-involved in cocurricular activities and don’t leave themselves enough time to struggle as they should with the material. Sometimes students simply choose to give their time and efforts to other things — some worthwhile and others frivolous. Some students are smart and prepared, but just lazy — or perhaps struggling with depression or homesickness or something else that kills their motivation. Whatever the case, students taking initiative for their own learning is the key catalyst in the university classroom, and if that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t really matter how many prereq’s have been met or how good a job the prof is doing.

    And I suspect that this is at the center of all the business at Norfolk. Whatever else may have been going on or not going on there, it sounds to me like there’s an institutional problem with students not getting the idea that their #1 priority in college is learning, and devoting their time accordingly.

  9. I’m late to this.

    There is clearly a mess here. The observer from afar plays talk radio and looks to assess blame.

    I wish that those involved are looking more closely at what went wrong and what can be done in the future.

    I appreciate the thoughtful post.

    I am troubled that those far from the situation are making strong guesses at what happened. How can that be useful?