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Striking Out of Class

April 11, 2013

If this is supposed to be the era of coddled students, somebody forget to tell Midland University. Midway through its second semester following an extremely tough attendance policy, administrators and faculty members say demanding more from their students -- and supporting those who fall behind -- is generating more classroom engagement and producing better-prepared graduates.

Midland, a private liberal arts institution in Fremont, Neb., now uses a “three strikes” policy that follows in the same vein as its athletic and legal counterparts. Once a student skips class, flunks a quiz or fails to turn in their homework  (or any combination thereof) three times, the vice president for academic affairs, Steven Bullock, decides whether the student is out -- of the class, in this case.

“We as a faculty came together and said we’re going to have a positive influence on student behavior,” Bullock said, adding that attendance policies enacted by individual professors and departments have proved less effective in the past.

Bullock said student response was anxious at first, but that most criticism died down after students experienced the policy across the board in their classrooms.

"I think initially people were kind of thrown off by it, but it seems to be kind of self-supporting," said Jerry Denogean, president of the student body. A senior secondary education major, Denogean said some students thought the policy ran counter to the freedom associated with undergraduate life. "When you get to college, you are just yearning for some independence. As they started to find out , hey, this is really benefiting me, they didn’t really have any criticism with the policy. A lot of kids have told me they like it, and they’d like to see it stay in place."

Administrators stressed the policy was created to motivate, not weed out, lazy students. As students begin to accumulate strikes, they are sent to Midland’s advising center to get help with their coursework and study skills.

“You may have someone who has an undiagnosed learning disability -- and we can find out in week two,” Bullock said. “That’s what is missing in higher education -- this ability to be proactive and to know what’s going on with students. There’s lots of retention efforts, a lot of electronic tracking of students. This is a step beyond that. This is truly behaviorally oriented.”

The advising center helps about five students a week, said director Jim Kuester, who described the advising system as a teaching opportunity.

“The transition from high school to college can be a little difficult,” Kuester said. “We just sit down with students and we talk about them about the stuff they could do to be more successful.”

If removed from a class, students can also appeal the decision. And unless a student exhibits a genuine lack of motivation, Bullock said most appeals are approved “for the purpose of not wanting to be too punitive.”

“When we intervene on strike two, that’s usually enough of a nudge to get students in the right direction,” Bullock said.

If the appeal is rejected, which Bullock said has only affected a “handful” of students so far, students forfeit their tuition payment and the credits they would have earned for that class.

Administrators at the University of Nebraska have expressed their doubts about adopting Midland’s attendance policy, but Bullock said the size of his institution -- currently home to about 1,000 undergraduate students -- doesn’t necessarily determine the policy’s success.

“I could envision this being implemented in a larger place if there was institutional will do something like this,” Bullock said.

Evidence of the policy’s success is strictly anecdotal at this point, Bullock said, but the anecdotes are so far suggesting the new system is having a notable effect on student participation.

Megan Nielsen, associate professor of sociology, last fall had about 30 students sign up and pay to attend a local sociology conference. Her previous record, set two years ago, was five students.

Nielsen said the attendance policy, as well as teaching techniques like “flipping the classroom” -- reserving class time for activities other than lectures -- “reflects this larger shift in the campus culture in having students be engaged."

Bullock said "virtually every faculty member ... has seen a change in attendance patterns towards the positive," and that the advising component of the attendance policy will grant Midland another “variable to the equation” of how to assess student performance.

“We have a lot of outcome assessment, but I think that’s only the floor,” Bullock said. “If you’re telling me a bright kid coming into college is going to perform at the floor level, I don’t think that’s good enough.”

 

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