Course Shopping and Its Meaning

As debate grows over whether students are adding and dropping too many classes, study of L.A. community college district offers in-depth look at data.
August 21, 2007

How students add and drop courses is suddenly attracting more attention. A new Texas law sets limits on how much adding and dropping students at public colleges can engage in after a brief period at the start of the semester. With the law drawing mixed opinions from educators, one of the largest studies ever of students' "course shopping" behaviors is just out. The study is of an urban community college district (Los Angeles) and some of the information may not translate to four-year institutions. But the study suggests that course shopping is widespread, comes in different identifiable patterns, and that in moderation it's not always harmful.

Linda Serra Hagedorn, chair of educational administration and policy at the University of Florida, was the lead author of the study, which was published in The Journal of Higher Education.

Definitions are key to understanding course shopping, the study says. Course shopping refers to a period in which colleges have designated it as appropriate to add and drop courses as a student finalizes her schedule. An official "drop," in contrast, takes place after that time. In the community colleges studied, a student can drop a course up through the 14th week of a 16-week semester. During the first four weeks (when course shopping takes place), no grade is posted when a student drops. After that, a "W" is posted for withdrawn.

In the new study, based on an analysis of nearly 5,000 students, 38 percent were found to engage in course shopping.

The Hagedorn study breaks down course shopping into different categories:

  • Cyclic shopping, in which students -- typically early in the semester -- drop a course and on the same day or soon after, add another one in its place. (A related group of frequent cyclic shoppers engage in this practice for at least 30 percent of their enrollments.)
  • Bulk shopping, in which students sign up for more courses than they will ever take and drop half or more of them.
  • Mixed bag, in which students engage in some of each activity.

Prevalence of Course Shopping

Pattern Percentage
No shopping 61.4%
Occasional cyclic 23.7%
Bulk 7.1%
Frequent cyclic 6.8%
Mixed bag 0.9%

The study found relatively little in terms of demographic differences among course shoppers, although women were slightly more likely to shop. By subject area, mathematics courses were more likely to be dropped.

In terms of impact on academic performance, the study found that -- in moderation -- course shopping may not be a bad thing in terms of grades. The grade-point average of non-shoppers in the study (2.66) was nearly identical to that of occasional cyclic shoppers (2.68) and bulk shoppers (2.67). Frequent cyclic and mixed bag shoppers had significantly lower GPA's.

The study notes that there are a range of legitimate reasons to engage in course shopping: Students may be misinformed about courses or their requirements, students' schedules may change, students may not like instructors, etc. At the same time, too much course shopping can give colleges a false sense of enrollments and may block students from getting into oversubscribed sections.

The report notes a number of findings that might illuminate policy on course shopping -- some of the findings encouraging and others not:

  • Many students who drop English or mathematics courses end up taking courses in another subject altogether. If course shopping was taking place because of students being placed at the wrong level or not liking the instructor, such changes of subject matter would be minimal.
  • For cyclic shoppers, about 60 percent of dropped remedial courses were replaced by non-remedial courses. There are any number of ways to interpret that finding, the study notes, and more analysis is needed.
  • Bulk shopping, while frustrating to college officials, appears to help some students. The article compares the behavior of some bulk shoppers to a sinking cargo ship. Throwing off cargo may not be enough to stop some ships from sinking, but it will allow some to sail to safety.

The study stresses that more research is needed, and acknowledges that some of the obvious fixes -- such as more intensive advising -- cost money that many urban community colleges don't have. But the study offers several suggestions.

First, it urges colleges to post all syllabuses online, so that students who want to gain a better understanding of what a course is about can do so before registering. Second, it urges colleges to look for ways to find out more about why students are adding or dropping courses after the semester starts. If academic advising counselors are in short supply, instructors might be encouraged to ask students why they are leaving or entering a course. Third, the study suggests the consideration of "more overt" approaches to limit course shopping, such as a "three strikes" rule where more than three cycles of cyclic shopping result in some sort of action, such as a limit on future drops or required academic counseling.


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