Michael Beltz, Department of Philosophy & Religion, University of North Dakota
At the University of North Dakota, Thursday, April 5th, marks the last day of the Spring semester that students can withdraw from a full semester course. This date has vexed me for several weeks. It is not because this is a sign that the semester is coming to a close, but because it causes me to think about my educational responsibilities toward a specific set of my students. Like many faculty who teach introductory level courses at the university, I am surprised that some students are still enrolled in my courses because I have not seen them. In my 100-level course, this semester, I have a small number of students who have not attended class in over six weeks; these students also have not completed major assignments for the course (such as an exam or major writing assignment). When I look at the grades these students have earned throughout the semester, many of them no longer have the ability to complete the course with a passing grade. This has caused me to worry that these students might have forgotten they are enrolled in the course.
These factors have got me thinking about whether instructors have an educational responsibility to these students. Do instructors have an educational responsibility to contact students who cannot pass a course, do to their own negligence, to remind them of the deadline and encourage them to withdraw from the course?
Several faculty who I have discussed this issue with have given strong arguments against this responsibility. The argument that is presented tends to follow the same trajectory. Students bear responsibility for being an equal partner in their educational success. If a student fails to meet the most minimal level of their responsibilities, such as not attending a class in over a month, not completing their work, and not seeking instructor’s guidance, then those students have relinquished their claim to instructor advice on this issue (including a reminder that they are enrolled in a class that they have not been attending. A second argument has also been given that focuses on paternalism. This argument claims that this type of reminder and encouragement would be a form of unwarranted paternalism. The students in our classes are adults, who may have different values and goals than the instructor. Attempting to intervene in this type of student decision would deny the students’ autonomy to determine their own educational path.
I am sympathetic to these concerns, but they do not necessarily convince me. The first argument hinges on the idea that there is a minimal threshold of student activity that must be surpassed in order for the instructor to have an educational responsibility towards them. This seems mistaken to me. Instructors have a responsibility to any student enrolled in the course. Fundamentally, instructors have a responsibility to provide each student with the tools, resources, instruction, and aid that the student needs to reach their own standard of academic success. If we accept that some students would not define failing a course as any level of educational success, then an instructor has the responsibility to provide the tools and resources necessary for the students to make informed decisions about whether to stay in a course or not. This seems no different from the responsibility an instructor has to make sure that a student has the necessary prerequisite course work to enroll in a class. If a student cannot be reasonably expected to be successful in a course, the instructor ought to inform the student of this, whether that occurs before enrollment or before the deadline for withdrawal.
The second argument hinges on student autonomy in their educational decisions. However, true autonomy relies on both an understanding of the student’s educational goals and an understanding of the relevant information in how to accomplish those goals. If an instructor is, as I am, concerned that some students on the course roster might not remember they are enrolled in a course (or if the student might have believed they withdrew from the course earlier), then filling in this information gap encourages, not discourages student independence and autonomy. If a student is informed of the relevant deadlines and the fact they are registered for a course, and they still choose to stay enrolled, then that is their choice. However, an instructor does have an educational responsibility to provide this basic information to students.
As such, I feel that it is an educational responsibility to take responsible steps to inform students of this deadline directly. A statement on the syllabus and an announcement in class are not enough for me. A reasonable step, to me, seems to be a blanket email to all of my enrolled students reminding them of their enrollment in my courses and this withdrawal deadline.