Monday, June 01, 2009

Would You Like Some More Rope

The university has a three strikes policy when it comes to failing courses. Once you fail a course three times, you are not allowed to take it again.

Every time a student has asked for permission to fail a course for a fourth time, I have granted permission. I usually make them write a short essay and/or come to my office to explain why they are not going to fail math again, but in the end, I write the letter. I feel that I'm doing my part to use up the old letterhead paper with the old address of the math department.

Today I wrote letters for two students who stopped by my office. Both of them were hoping to take math during summer school (which starrts today). One of them explained that the reason he failed the class last time was because he didn't go (he was spending the semester in another city) and now he realizes that with math class you need to go to class. (I didn't correct him and explain that this doesn't apply to graduate math classes taught by one's advisor.) The other student blamed garden variety goofing off.

I like the idea of the three strikes rule when it's applied to courses that are meaningful pre-reqs for a major. If you fail the real Calculus 1 class three times, then you really need to talk to someone about your plans to go into a science major. You probably do need to think about something else to do with your life.

The three strikes rule is more of a problem for students who are taking a course that's required for their major but doesn't impede progress in the major. One of the students I was talking to today is a criminal justice major. Criminal justice has a requirement that all students in the major pass calculus-based statistics before they graduate. But it isn't a prereq for any of the courses in their major. So I find myself waiving the three strikes rule for seniors in criminal justice who need to make yet another attempt at calculus so that they can graduate.

I'll probably be a bit more discerning with my letter-writing when it comes to fall semester. Math classes always fill up during the regular school year (especially in the fall), and I'd like the incoming freshmen to have a chance to fail math for the first time before I give an upperclassman permission to fail it for the fourth time. And I'm pretty sure that the success rates for summer classes won't count against us too badly. I have a suspicion that the institutional research people have a "what happens in summer school stays in summer school" view of data and reporting.