Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Why Freshmen Fail, Part Four: Poor Time Management Skills

In this post--the penultimate of the series--I'd like to explore one of the more obvious factors that contributes to freshman failure: the inability of some students to manage the demands on their time. Be warned: although you won't read anything profound this week (not that this blog is ever really profound), you might have to suppress an urge to laugh or groan at some of the stories.

In addition to arriving on campus un- or underprepared for the academic work that lies ahead of them, many millennials also arrive un- or underprepared to manage their own schedules. As strange as this may sound, this generation has had little to no experience with time management because their parents have assumed this role for them. Parents of millennials have scheduled events and practices for their children, have kept track of tests and assignments, and have generally micromanaged their children's lives. I've even seen parents accompanying their freshmen to "students only" orientation sessions and taking notes for them. Many of these freshmen don't have a clue how to keep track of deadlines when their parents finally leave. Some of them don't even seem to understand what a deadline is.

Poor time management can have a negative impact on academic performance in many ways. Here are four, with illustrative anecdotes from my own teaching and advising experience:

1. Tardiness. Like many other instructors, I dock points from students' final grades for absence and tardiness (3 tardies = 1 absence), and I leave it up to the individual student to keep track of the number of points s/he has lost due to absence, and to obtain excuses from instructors, coaches, or parents when appropriate. Some students, though, seem to think that I am kidding about docking points, while others fail to grasp just how much of a difference those docked points can make. I had two students last spring who each lost an entire letter grade (10 points) because they just couldn't get to class on time, even when others who came from the same preceding class could. One of the two just barely passed the course with a 66% (D). CUA requires all undergraduates to maintain at least a 2.0, so that letter grade drop really hurt him.

2. Late/missed assignments. Some students don't check course calendars and so miss assignment deadlines or even--believe it or not--final exams (and they are shocked that their instructors don't personally remind them of every assignment). Some students wind up with too many deadlines on the same day because they sign up for presentations without checking the calendars in their other courses. The same student who just barely passed my course last spring with a 66% also failed a group project and nearly missed the final exam. The group project was a time management issue because he failed to notice that he might miss class on the day of his presentation because of a major event in his preceding class. His group got up to present without him, and after they had finished, he showed up at the door--in a suit and tie--and explained to me that his architecture class was being juried today and he was still waiting for his turn. He handed in the minimal written work that he had done in "preparation" for the presentation and hoped that it would be enough. Unfortunately for him, I checked with his architecture instructor and confirmed that he had known about the jury from the first day of the semester and had had ample opportunity to approach me about switching presentation days. And, since 50% of the assignment's grade was based on the presentation in class, the only credit he could get for the written work was a 50%. As a final cap to his poorly-managed semester, this same student nearly missed the final exam--he only made it (albeit a good 20 minutes late) because another student in the class happened to have his cell phone number and called him at 3:59, which was technically before the exam started and therefore permissible.

3. Procrastination in dropping courses. Some students wait until 5 or 10 minutes before the deadline to file the paperwork to withdraw from a course they are in danger of failing. In the majority of these cases, the paperwork gets processed without a hitch and the student (barely) makes the deadline, but there are always a few cases in which s/he not only procrastinates but also fails to follow the instructions and so ends up stuck in the class because s/he is left with no time to backtrack and follow the proper procedure. I've never had one of these cases myself, but I did have an advisee who missed the deadline to drop and ended up having to take a W for the course because he not only procrastinated but waited until he'd flown home for the weekend to try and drop the course. He discovered too late that dropping a course can't be done off campus and without obtaining an advisor's permission. He tried to appeal the Dean's rejection of his request to drop without record--he even got his mommy involved in the appeal--but ended up taking the W for the course. I'd like to say that he learned a valuable lesson about procrastination from the experience, but he was expelled a few weeks later for violating the student code of conduct.

4. Plagiarism. Sadly, some students who find themselves pressed for time to complete an assignment choose to plagiarize instead of asking for an extension. These students may think that they are more likely to get away with the dishonesty than they are to be granted an extension--and the internet makes plagiarism so easy that it's sometimes hard to resist the temptation. I had an advisee who failed one of his courses because he had failed to manage his time wisely and ran out of time to complete a paper. He'd already asked the instructor for an extension on an earlier assignment in the course, and was embarrassed and/or afraid to ask for an extension on a second assignment. So, he said, he'd turned in the paper without documenting his quotations, hoping that the instructor would count it as an incomplete assignment. Without looking at the paper, I sent him down the hall to meet with an advisor who was also an instructor in the same department. Unfortunately, the situation was bleaker than the student led me to believe--he hadn't merely turned in an incomplete assignment without citations, he'd actually copied and pasted text from SparkNotes. The instructor had absolutely no leeway here--this was intentional assignment-dodging, and the mandatory sanction of failure for the course had to be imposed. Students plagiarize for many reasons, but this student did so because he ran out of time.

What's really troubling is the number of millennials who somehow (if the stories my friends in managerial positions tell are true) get through college and enter the work force without having addressed deficiencies in this area. I can't change the fact that students are entering college with poor time management skills, but I'd like to think that I can play a role in making sure that students don't leave college with poor time management skills. I'm trying to be more proactive this year by querying advisees about their time management earlier in the semester, and by referring more advisees to Learning Assistance and workshops. I've also taken the advice of a long-time instructor and tweaked my syllabus to make the penalties for poor time management more apparent. This semester, my random reading quizzes will be administered as soon as the clock strikes the hour--not after announcements and homework collection--and no student who misses or arrives in the middle of a quiz will be permitted to retake the quiz. Also, I've changed the grading rubric for the group presentation to make it clear that failure to appear for your own group's presentation (except in the case of an excused emergency documented by the Dean of Students' office) will result in a grade of 0 (rather than the 50% the aforementioned student received) on the assignment. I'm hoping for better results this year on the absence and tardiness front, at least. I'll keep you posted.

next time: some concluding thoughts on the root causes of failure and what educators at all levels can do to address them

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