Teaching Tip #7: Passively Failing Students

At some point, you meet the “passively failing” student.  He or she attends class sporadically, does not seem engaged when they do show up, does not complete assignments and generally makes you wonder why they don’t just drop the course.  How can we understand such students? Is there anything we can do?

Buskist & Howard (2009) report on interviews they conducted with 23 “passively failing” students who ultimately changed their behaviors and became successful. While they found no single profile that fit all of these students, the researchers identified several reasons behind the passive failure phenomenon.  Many students gave multiple reasons for their behavior.  Their explanations can be categorized as following into one of three categories: their motivation for college; their achievement motivation and academic self-confidence; and their personal problems.

Motivation for college: The most common reason given by students for their passive behaviors was that they did not know why they were in college, what they wanted to study or why.  These students had difficulty tolerating uncertainty and were overwhelmed by making academic choices. Many of these students were only in school because someone else (parents or peers) expected them to be there.

Achievement motivation & academic confidence: Many of the students interviewed were not strongly motivated by getting good grades.  They hoped to pass their courses, but they underestimated the effort this would require.  When they realized what they needed to do to pass, (usually late in the semester), these students were unable to change their prior pattern of inertia.  Other students started out positively, but lost confidence after early set-backs (usually low or failing grades).  These students felt inferior and were too embarrassed to seek help.

Personal issues Family and relationship problems (e.g. parental conflict, family illness, breakup of a relationship) negatively impacted these students’ coping ability.  Substance abuse alone, or used as a way to cope with negative feelings about other problems was frequently cited as a reason for passive failure. These students also reported feeling too intimidated or embarrassed to talk to a faculty member about their problems.  Some students also became so distracted by extra-curricular athletic or social activities that they failed to focus on their school work.

What can faculty do to help these students?  Clearly, your intervention will depend on the student’s unique situation, so the first step is to try to find out what is going on, and the sooner the better.  Some writers suggest giving fairly low stakes quizzes in the first two weeks of classes to identify students who are at risk for becoming passive failures. Once identified, the instructor can try to help these students develop more accurate expectations and better habits early so that they do not continue to experience academic failure.  Others suggest requiring students to stop by during office hours during the early weeks to begin laying the foundation for a relationship.

These are excellent ideas to try out, but what if it’s mid-semester and you have a student who is avoiding your class despite your best efforts to be inviting and open?

Understand that the classroom has become a negative and anxiety-provoking environment for this student.  See if he or she will meet you in your office or communicate via email (remember to use the MU email system to maintain confidentiality).  Try to get a sense of the reason or reasons the student is failing.  If the problem appears to be a lack of interest in college, then you can validate their feelings.  Often students believe that we are on their parents’ side since, after all, we are college professors and clearly value a college education.  Letting them know that you have seen other students in their situation and that everyone is not ready for or interested in college at the same time lets them know that they are not alone.  Treating them as adults able to make their own decisions may help them begin to take responsibility for those decisions.  A referral to their adviser, the Academic Success Center or the Counseling center may be appropriate as they struggle with their uncertainty and their choices.

You can try helping a student who does not have strong achievement motivation to relate the course content to one of their interests, boosting their intrinsic motivation.  If they seem to lack confidence in their academic skills and ability, you may want to focus on helping them develop better academic habits during office hours, through study groups and/or referral to the LRC or the Academic Success Center for more in-depth help.  You may become aware of potential learning issues and make a referral to Disability Support Services.  Letting reluctant students know that these services have helped students like them can help them overcome their embarrassment and avoidance. Students often believe that we think our courses are the most important thing in the world and we only like A students.  Being practical (let’s focus on you passing this course!) may be more effective. This is tough with a student you know could do better than passing, but if you push too hard, you will just be one more person they are disappointing and they will avoid you.

Personal problems can be very difficult for professors to handle.  Your main focus needs to be on getting the students the support they need to consider their options and whether they can manage their work or need to withdraw. Acknowledging that the situation is tough, offering to meet with them to help them plan to complete their work if they decide to stay in the class and referring to the Counseling Center staff and the Dean of Student Services is usually most effective.

Who are your allies when working with the passive student? In addition to the offices mentioned earlier, the student’s academic adviser, another professor, coach or MU staff member may be able to reach the student if you are having trouble.  Try to find out who the student has connected with (if anyone) and encourage them to talk to that person.

Obviously, we can’t help every student who is passively failing our classes.  However, with some of these students, reaching out at a critical time can make the difference, so it’s certainly worth the effort to try.  The final date to drop a course is this Friday.  Is there someone you should be contacting?

Buskist, W., & Howard, C. (2009). Helping failing students: Part 2. The passively failing student, APS Observer, 23 (1).  Accessed electronically at http://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/getArticle.cfm?id=2609


3 Responses

  1. It’s satisfying to know I have used all the strategies mentioned above. I have had students ask if they should drop the class. I don’t feel comfortable telling a student to drop a class. I tell them to discuss this option with their academic adviser. How have others handled this issue if it has come up?

    If a student is failing at midterm and decides to stay in the class, what strategies do you use in terms of grades?

    I have found these situations to be challenging and would be interested in hearing what others have to say.

  2. I would not *tell* a student to drop my course just based on their performance in it. Not only do I want them to make their own decisions, but international students may put themselves in danger of deportation if they drop below full time status or students may lose their financial aid if their credit count is too low. I DO discuss with them what would need to happen if they want to pass the course and help them think about what assistance they might need if that is their goal.

  3. […] I know that some of your students fall more easily into the category of passive failures – their motivation, their readiness for college, or maybe their personal problems are getting in […]

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