• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you’re going to be asked to leave.


The Roots of Those Not Good Enough C's

There's good reasons why C students in intro courses are less likely to graduate.

September 25, 2016

The news out of the University of Arizona that students who received a C in the required first-year writing course have a less than 50 percent likelihood of graduating, significantly lower odds than those who scored a B or higher, is unsurprising to many of us who have spent years in those introductory course classrooms.

Because of grade inflation, and because of the nature of the course where diligence -- participation, revision, etc -- is often reflected in the grade, even if the writing isn’t great, a marginal, but dedicated writer can scrape over the line to a B-.

But the roots of that C can mean very different things when we’re looking at individual students. These are just some of the causes of C’s (or worse) that I’ve experienced from the instructor side:[1]

Lack of writing experience/substandard pre-college education

In graduate school, teaching at an open admission institution, and in a developmental English course (sub-100-level) I would see a good number of these students. Many students who struggled reported never having written anything of substance in high school, at most completing short answer questions, but often they’d experienced an exclusive diet of multiple choice tests in high school English.

Most of the students who successfully passed developmental English would do fine in English 101, but a huge number of students also washed out of college because they failed the developmental English course.

Post grad school, working at places of varying selectivity, I have encountered no more than maybe two out of literally hundreds of students whose preparation was so poor that no amount of hard work would get them to a grade of higher than C in my first-year writing course.

College transition problems

I’ve seen this take a number of different forms.

For some, it’s about the difficulty of dealing with the – let’s say, freedom – that being away from home provides. This results in excessive socializing/partying, which carries plenty of other risks beyond bad grades.

But I think many students simply struggle with having so much unstructured time. They’re not whooping it up, necessarily. I’ve talked to struggling students who testify that they have hours and hours slip by without them even noticing, doing nothing much of consequence. Call it procrastination, distraction, whatever, some of these poorly performing students simply fail to engage with the school part of college.


Sometimes these students look like the ones above, but deeper investigation reveals that these students aren’t partying or drifting, but are experiencing school-related stress or anxiety which prevents them from doing their work. Not doing their work increases the level of stress, and a vicious cycle ensues.

My experience with these students is that they’re likely to internalize this anxiety and stress and attempt to hide it from others, and therefore it may be entirely hidden from the instructor.

They’ll seem no different from the “slacking” students, but the core issue is significantly different.

Acute problem

Sometimes it’s “major,” a significant illness or death of a loved one. A mid-semester bout of mono can sink a marginal B student to a C.

But it could also seem “minor” from the outside, like homesickness, or a break-up. What I’ve learned over the years is that what looks minor to me, may be very major to the student experiencing it. When the acute problem resolves, this student has no problem completing the work satisfactorily.

Doesn’t want to be in college

It can be hard to tell the difference between this category and the difficult transitioners. On the surface they can seem similar, perhaps partying to excess, and exhibiting significant absenteeism.

But the students who are enjoying themselves are often enjoying themselves so much, that when this enjoyment is threatened by possible probation or expulsion, they buckle down long enough to get it together academically.

The partiers are the C students who persist, semester to semester.

My experience with this category of student is that they are often highly prepared academically, very solid high school students, but they are in college because it is what they’re supposed to do, not because it’s what they want to do or are eager to do. They didn’t choose it for themselves, but hoped once arriving, they could kick things into gear, and it just didn’t happen.

They are capable, but directionless, perhaps even burnt out, and letting their grades lapse is a passive aggressive way of not having to commit to either staying in or leaving school.


The University of Arizona findings strike me as a responsible use of “big data” in investigating issues in education. For me, quantitative data such as this can be very useful to uncover questions that need answering.

But finding the answers to the questions gets a little more difficult. In the case of non open admission institutions, I don’t believe the issues don’t have much to do with academics.

It’s likely that the response will be a change in “policy,” competency tests for low scorers, or repeating the class. Maybe low scorers could be required to take another required writing course for which they’d still receive credit.

But since the graduation issues aren’t an academic problem, more writing instruction isn’t going to solve these issues for many of the students.

To solve this problem, to understand what is really going on will take more than mining “big data.” It will necessitate engagement. Someone needs to ask those struggling students: What’s going on?

I’ve asked these questions over the years, which is how I’ve come up with the above taxonomy. Sometimes those questions have allowed me to point students towards campus resources that may help them.

While I can categorize these students, the right path for each depends on the individual. This is the level at which students must be engaged if we’re going to make inroads against this particular problem

Places like the University of Arizona are not well-structured to treat students as individuals. I know this, having been a student at one of these places, and having taught at three others like it.

Places like these also staff first-year writing classes with TA’s and adjuncts. In theory, these are the instructors who know the students best, who could help us understand what’s at the root of those C’s. But this category of instructor isn’t sufficiently integrated into the institution to make this kind of difference.

We are an army of temps, and there’s always more students to replace the ones who don’t make it. We could be a resource, better than policy, but instead money will go to consultants who mine the data for “insights.”

Until we deal with what’s going on at a human level, I’m skeptical we’ll see meaningful change.

[1] I should note that I’m referring to “traditional age” students (18 or so when entering college), which is the profile of students at the University of Arizona and is also the category of student with whom I have the most experience.


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