Photo courtesy of UTSA

Mark McClendon

Photo courtesy of UTSA

Caroline Traylor

Photo courtesy of UTSA
Photo courtesy of UTSA


With Dr. John H. Frederick

Provost and Vice President for

Academic Affairs

University of Texas at San Antonio

What alerted you to be concerned with DFW rates among UTSA students and what strategies are being implemented to reduce them? Do rates vary among colleges? There seems to be a particular concern among the Sciences.

A couple of years ago, I asked to see the data for failure rates in gateway courses after hearing anecdotes about students retaking classes numerous times. I was concerned that retaking courses was one cause for students taking longer than four years to complete their degrees.

The DFW rates do vary among colleges, with the defining characteristic being that more quantitative courses tend to have higher failure rates. This includes primarily courses in sciences, engineering and business though there are isolated courses in other disciplines with high failure rates also.

How do improving DFW rates impact UTSA’s four year plan to improve graduation rates?

There are several ways that lowering DFW rates promotes faster degree completion, the most obvious being that students would not have to retake courses as much, creating additional capacity for other students in those courses who are otherwise on track for a four-year degree. The net result should be easier scheduling for students and more attention paid for helping students succeed academically.

Is there a higher concentration of DFW rates in certain disciplines?

The higher DFW rates appear to be clustered in quantitative disciplines like the natural sciences, engineering, mathematics and accounting, though I am pleased that most of those areas have greatly decreased the course rate failure rates, particularly general chemistry and principles of accounting.

How do you respond to faculty who say that it’s the students’ responsibility to not drop, withdraw or fail their courses?

Traditionally, faculty have been the master of everything that happens in the classroom, and they have been right to hold students accountable for poor performance or, in some cases, non-performance (and non attendance). The message that we are trying to communicate to faculty is that they can take ownership of student performances by, in some classes, changing the way that they organize and manage their classes. For example, they could incorporate regular test/quizzes that encourage student attendance, they could adopt more active-learning techniques to engage students in the learning process and they could do more to reach out to under-performing students in their classes to help them earn a better grade.

These approaches have been successfully employed by a number of faculty members on our campus, and some of those faculty recently shared their experiences in a great workshop that was organized by the Academy of Distinguished Teaching Scholars. I think the take-home message from the workshop is that the faculty member does not have to lower their standards to achieve lower DFW rates, but they do have to take some different approaches to their reaching and increase the support that they provide to students in their classes.

What about the students who simply choose not to attend classes? How does an instructor bring those students along in regards to reducing DFW rates?

Students who fail to attend a class should not pass the class. There is a very strong correlation (found in many universities) between class attendance and academic success. Part of what students need to learn in college is that succeeding in life means showing up, being prepared when you show up and paying attention while you are there. These may seem like simple ideas, but if students don’t attend class, they cannot learn even these simple, straightforward lessons that will serve them well in whatever career they may choose.

We are in the process of re-instituting the policy that allows a faculty member to drop a student who has not attended class, or attended only a small percentage of class sessions. Faculty who wish to exercise this option, however, must include some indication that they will do so in their syllabus. It will be important for all students to understand that their continued registration in a class may be dependent upon their regular attendance in class.

How do you recommend balancing students’ success and instructors’ responsibility in reducing DFW rates with academic integrity and without grade inflation?

As I have told faculty on several occasions, we do not want them to lower their standards and inflate the grades that they assign. We do want them to be more supportive of students, and help them meet the standards that the faculty member has set. We also want them to think hard about what they really want to achieve in terms of long-term learning outcomes among their students. Another way to frame this is that, if a student has emerged from a semester-long class with a failing grade (D or F) or has withdrawn from the class, what have they really learned from the instructor? And if they have not learned anything, then the instructor has to take some ownership of that result.

However, a student who fails through non-attendance bears a heavy responsibility for their own failure, and the faculty-instituted drop policy should help protect faculty from being held accountable for student behavior beyond their control.

Most faculty on campus care deeply about the success of their students, and it bothers them when students do not put forth a strong effort to learn the material they are teaching. I think the optimal resolution will occur when faculty and students meet each other halfway to achieve better learning outcomes and greater satisfaction with the instructional process. Faculty are always most satisfied when students show a genuine interest in the course material, but sometimes, it requires that faculty adopt novel methods in class to achieve that heightened level of interest among students – this is the result that we are striving for at UTSA.

Are there many instances of courses with the same textbook and curriculum with a dramatic disparity in DFW rates?

Yes, one of our concerns from the beginning has been disparities in DFW rates among different sections of the same course. When these have been correlated with particular instructors, we have been alerting department chairs to address the discrepancy to ensure that there is consistent treatment of students regardless of the particular section that they have been enrolled in. I believe that this is important to assure students that equivalent academic standards are being employed.