Higher Learning Commission

2014 Collection of Papers

Why Do Students Fail? Faculty's Perspective

Abour H. Cherif, Gerald E. Adams, Farahnaz Movahedzadeh, Margaret A. Martyn, and Jeremy Dunning


In 2011 the authors conducted a study asking 739 students to provide their own perspective of why students fail courses and drop out of colleges. The premise is that there is no better way to find out than to ask the students directly if something has helped and encouraged them to learn and succeed or held them back and discouraged them from learning (Bain 2004). In that study, the many reasons students provided for failing courses and colleges were grouped into seven main categories, including motivation (35%), study habits (17%), academic preparedness, (12%), external factors (11%), attitudes (11%), instruction (10%), and relevancy issues (4%). Motivation and study habits were mentioned most frequently as the root cause of student failure at the college level. These two factors, as well as academic readiness and student attitudes (which were mentioned third and the fourth most frequently) are fundamentally under the control of the students. The instruction, instructional materials, and instructors, over which faculty, educators, and college administrators have power, were a distant sixth. This means that students are aware that the reason why they fail courses most often resides within themselves and are under their own power and responsibility (Cherif, Movahedzadeh, Adams, and Dunning 2013).

In short, according to the students who participated in the study, motivation is the leading cause behind students’ failure or success in completing schoolwork. Motivation influences students’ attitudes, study habits, academic readiness, and so on. Through the college learning environment, learning materials, and instructional pedagogy, faculty, educators, and college administrators can help students succeed. Students who have a good understanding of the content being taught are generally more motivated and have a more positive attitude and thus have a greater chance of doing well in their schoolwork. Students know it is their responsibility to do well, but many students need extra support from their college and instructors to keep them interested and on track.

The Study

In this study, the authors posed the same question to 190 faculty members from two-year and four-year colleges to hear their perspectives on why students fail courses and fail out of college. This paper presents the results and discusses the implications of the findings for students, instructors, curriculum, and academic leaders. The authors propose that being aware of how both students and faculty perceive the causes of student failure in academic settings is a necessary step in clinically analyzing the complexity of the problem and in finding workable solutions that could productively lead to helping faculty members teach and students learn and succeed.

Analysis and Discussion

The study’s participants provided many reasons why some students may fail college work. Based on the analysis of the answers provided, the reasons for student failure were grouped into three main areas, which were broken into eight categories. The categories for two-year college faculty were divided further, into nineteen subcategories, and those for four-year college faculty were divided into twenty-nine subcategories. All responses from faculty members surveyed fell under one of the specific subcategories. To get a sense of the results and what they meant to faculty members, after compiling the results the authors discussed the findings with two separate groups of faculty members. One group was from two-year colleges and the other group was from four-year colleges. The feedback from the face-to-face, in-depth discussion with the faculty members helped in the analysis of the results.

Faculty members perceive that the three main root-cause factors for students failing are (1) student-related factors, which were mentioned 415 times, or 68 percent of the responses; (2) life and socioeconomic issues, which were mentioned 70 times, or 12 percent of the responses; and (3) failures of the educational system, which were mentioned 125 times or 20 percent of the responses (Table 1).

Table 1. Identified Categories of Root-Cause Factors, as Ranked by Respondents’ Answers

Major Area Categories Rank by Number of Respondents
(rank shown in bold)
All Participants
In Two-Year
In Four-Year
I. Student-related Factors Not Ready for College 1
(231 or 38%)
(82 or 40%)
(149 or 37%)
Lack of Effort 4
(72 or 12%)
(27 or 13%)
(45 or 11%)
Lack of Motivation or Interest 3
(73 or 12%)
(18 or 9%)
(55 or 14%)
Personality Issues 7
(39 or 6%)
(11 or 5%)
(28 or 7%)
II. Life and Socioeconomic Issues Life, Work, and Career Issues 5
(53 or 9%)
(29 or 14%)
(24 or 6%)
Economic Issues 8
(17 or 3%)
(11 or 5%)
(6 or 1%)
III. Failures of the Educational System Faculty Instruction and Behavior 2
(77 or 12%)
(20 or 10%
(57 or 14%)
Facilities, Materials, and Delivery Systems 6
(48 or 8%)
(8 or 4%)
(40 or 10%)
Total 610 or 100% 206 or 100% 404 or 100%

Student-related Factors

In the opinion of college faculty members who responded to the study, the first major area, and largest by far, for failure of students is Student-related Factors (cited 415 times or 68%). As seen in Table 1, under this area there are four categories: (1) Not Ready for College (mentioned 231 times, or 38% of responses); (2) Lack of Effort (mentioned 72 times, or 12% of responses); (3) Lack of Motivation or Interest (mentioned 73 times, or 12% of responses); and (4) Personality Issues (mentioned 39 times, or 6% of responses).

Not Ready for College
The student-related factor that both two-year and four-year faculty members mentioned most often was students not being ready for college-level work (cited 231 times, or 38% of responses). Faculty members stated many reasons, including the fact that a significant number of incoming students have poor levels of or a complete lack of academic preparedness for college courses, lack of learning and study skills, and/or lack of organizational skills (including time management and setting priorities). More than half of the respondents cited students’ lack of academic preparedness and poor study skills, note-taking skills, reading, and scientific reasoning skills, lack of experience, and more, without directly attributing responsibility. Others specifically blamed students’ K–12 education for this lack of preparedness. It was difficult to separate these two criteria as both dealt with lack of preparation, rendering students not ready for college work. As one respondent said:

They have not been adequately prepared for post-secondary work and may lack foundational skills (such as the ability to write clearly, comprehend readings, follow instructions, etc.) that interfere with their ability to achieve passing grades. For some reason, many students do not learn these skills throughout grade school and high school, and so when they reach college they are not ready for what it demands.

Still others said that students are “underprepared for college-level work in terms of basic writing, reading and thinking skills. For example, they have an inability to think critically, an inability to express oneself in a written format, and an inability to comprehend the nature of assignments.” One respondent said students have a “high school-rooted misconception that one can pass a course without studying,” and several cited the lack of college-level reading and writing skills and other essential study skills.

One of the respondents who blamed high schools or K–12 education stated that four-year college students are more prepared than two-year college students. He said they have “a more comprehensive academic preparation than the typical two-year college student would have.” Another faculty member was very specific in pointing blame: “Many of the students (attending) two-year colleges in large cities come from the Urban Public Schools where they have not necessarily encountered a quality education and experienced a deep understanding of real learning as opposed to externalized and superficial learning.”

Another thought that students fail because they have not been exposed to the “academic rigor of college, or the expectations of college work.” Many thought that some students are just not ready for college work. Faculty respondents said many students arrive without knowing how to learn, without having the academic prerequisites, or without having the skill set needed to be successful. Many faculty respondents mentioned that students do not know how to be active learners and engaged in the learning process. A number of students do not realize that college requires a higher level of commitment involving a variety of learning skills, such as deep reading, purposeful study, critical thinking, or even asking for help. As one faculty member explained:

As I teach students that are most likely first generation college students, I also would suggest that they do not have an idea of what being a college student involves. And it is at this point that they become “behind in the game,” for they do not even know the steps to take, [or] the order to take, to succeed.

Other faculty respondents said students are not aware of the rigors of their chosen discipline.

Students can have difficulty in adjusting their own career expectations. Some students have/aspire to become a physician . . . but they do not realize that it is a very difficult and long road academically. Learning is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration . . . some students have not realized this yet.

Respondents saw insufficient academic skills as closely related to lack of time management skills, often mentioning the two in the same sentence. Faculty respondents said too many students do not know how to study or learn, do not know how to organize their time and set priorities, do not ask for help from their instructors or advisors, and do not use available resources, such as the library and tutors. They most likely lack critical thinking skills and other higher-level learning skills so necessary in college. In short, many of them come from high school not yet ready for college-level work and learning.

It was very hard to separate lack of organizational skills from academic preparedness as a reason for student failure. As a separate subcategory, poor time management and organizational skills ranked second as a major roadblock to student success. Faculty respondents said that students could not organize their priorities. They have work, home, social, and school obligations and cannot organize their time to accommodate all of these conflicting time demands. They do not make a plan that enables them to spend the necessary time reading, studying, attending class, completing assignments, and learning. They do not have “contingency plans” in case of illness, child care, work schedule changes, and so forth. As a result, they develop unrealistic expectations and overcommit themselves:

On the most part the students are unrealistic about the time it will require to do the assignments, readings, and problems. They work full time, have family responsibilities, take a full course load, and do not set aside enough time to concentrate on the problem at hand. They are over committed in terms of their time.

In other words, if students have not planned sufficiently to manage their time, they have not got a Plan B in place. They simply “don’t invest the amount of time required or expected” to succeed.

Several faculty members mentioned procrastination as a problem, “waiting until the one before the last to give ‘the best shot,’ forgetting grades are accumulative.” Students start asking for extra-credit assignments, what they can do to make up what they missed, and so on. In short, most respondents mentioned three major problems under this category: overcommitment (jobs, family, and school), unrealistic expectations about the time necessary to do well in college, and the inability to organize their time effectively. Once they get behind, they can no longer catch up.

Lack of Effort
The next category of student-related issues, ranking third in that area, was Lack of Effort, repeated 72 times, or 12 percent of responses. This category included both Lack of effort and Poor or nonexistent work ethic as subcategories. Many faculty members were disturbed by how many students are satisfied with a grade of C or D instead of working harder to get better grades. A few faculty members stated that even when they give students opportunities to improve their grades by redoing homework, lab reports, or writing assignments, many students do not bother. Some participants stated that students do not exert enough effort and do not bother to find out, either from the instructor or fellow students, how much work is really needed to pass a given class.

Under the subcategory of Poor or nonexistent work ethic, some respondents said that students do not complete assignments but then expect teachers to let them make it up with extra-credit work. Some students expect to pass just because they attend class, and others think that doing ungraded homework is unimportant. Many believe that an open-book exam means they can learn the material while taking the exam. One respondent blamed more than the student: “Work ethic (strengthened by peer behavior AND administration acquiescence) was summarized by the notion, ‘do just enough to get by,’ which is rarely enough to just get by.”

Another said that students expect teachers to excuse multiple missed assignments and absences “based on a student’s circumstances,” which demonstrated a “diminished sense of personal responsibility.” Still another cited a much more serious problem: “They [students] may be collecting financial aid money for living expenses and have no intention of completing a course once they have received all the funds.”

Respondents said failing students come to class late and/or do not show up at all. When they do show up, they send texts or play videos during class or otherwise do not pay attention. They do not read the material before class and do not complete their assignments. Some students do not care if they fail. A few instructors stated that some students do not value education because they do not have to work to pay for it, or if they fail, they can always repeat the course. Bad study habits that worked in high school were also cited more than once; students are unable or unwilling to put effort into learning. This could be due to lack of motivation or inadequate preparation to be successful. One faculty respondent explained that many college students do not read to learn:

In my opinion students fail because they do not put in the effort needed to succeed. They only read in order to answer a question or to pass a test, instead of reading the entire assigned chapters. I have some students who never read the lectures in the online classes.

One of the faculty respondents summed up the category as a recipe for failure: “Lastly, some of our students are just not willing to work hard. Receiving an F is not enough of a deterrent for them to do all the work. They would rather play video games than do their homework, so that is what they do.”

Lack of Motivation or Interest
Lack of Motivation or Interest, engagement, persistence, and “not being active learners” were mentioned frequently in this survey. It ranks third overall, in terms how often it was mentioned, and it was the second most-often-mentioned student-related root-cause factor: 73 times or 12 percent of responses. This category included the following subcategories: Lack of motivation; Don’t-care attitude, or negative attitude; Lack of engagement; Lack of interest, direction, or focus; Don’t want to be in college; and Lack of passion. Some faculty respondents thought that failing students have little understanding of how their education relates to their lives. They do not know what they want in life and have no clear goals as to where they are going. If someone has no idea where they are going, it will likely be extremely difficult to get there.

Other faculty members stated that some college students might not have a real desire to be in school; they might not be ready yet. Perhaps they are being pressured by family or friends, or perhaps they are drifting in life or repeatedly changing majors. Other survey respondents said students are not motivated to do the work: “They either do not want to be in school but external forces are forcing it on them or they simply do not care.”

A few faculty respondents said that even students with passion “often lack the understanding of how specific course(s) fit within the ‘grand scheme,’ especially if they determine (rightly or wrongly) that the course(s) is not on the critical path” to their ultimate goal. Others do not realize the amount of work involved in their majors or cannot decide on a major field of study. Other faculty members said students lack direction, and that “These students attend college with little, if any, goals in mind; education means little to them due to the lack of connection between what they study and their lives.” Finally, a faculty respondent said simply that:

Students lack the passion/determination/drive for the educational goal of earning a degree. Pursuing a bachelor’s degree is a long-term goal requiring passion, determination, the drive to overcome “hurdles,” and a willingness to do “whatever it takes” to achieve their goal.

Personality Issues
Factors related to Personality Issues ranked seventh overall and fourth among student-related factors (mentioned 39 times or 6% of responses). This category includes Lack of social connection, Lack of support system and network, and Poor self-esteem and self-confidence. One respondent thought lack of self-confidence was the major reason for failure:

I think most students fail because of a lack in self-confidence. Often the students that I see are bright but make failing grades due to their not believing that they are smart enough to do the work. We try to work through this and if there is some improvement in self-confidence, grades improve.

In another example, a faculty respondent said, “Learning is social—no connection to the institution or the classmates can make a student feel isolated and hence, un-engaged.” The general feeling was that if students were “active on campus, and have interactions with faculty and students outside of the classroom,” they would be more likely to succeed in college. One respondent mentioned teamwork as an important factor in science and engineering classes. Another mentioned lack of support from faculty members. One faculty member said, “Students also fail because their support network is challenged.” This could be a “mother with kids and no one to help her so she can attend class” or lack of support at work and/or school. Another respondent pondered the underlying reasons why students might lack commitment to college life:

Students . . . fail because their support network is challenged. Perhaps something in their personal life is going on and the student is not able to “engage” themselves in their learning. Students need to be aware of their schedules and their ability to manage their personal life to ensure they are “ready” to be in college and ready to fully commit to their courses and university.

Life and Socioeconomic Issues

According to two-year college faculty members, a second major area of student failure (cited 70 times, or 12% of responses) is Life and Socioeconomic Issues. As seen in Table 1, under this area there are two categories: Life, Work, and Career Issues (mentioned 53 times, or 9% of responses) and Economic Issues (mentioned 17 times, or 3% of responses).

Life, Work and Career Issues
Faculty members cited life issues, such as poverty, homelessness, single parenting, excessive workload, family responsibilities, health, mental illness, addiction, and death of a loved one. One faculty member said:

Many [students] are managing a balancing act of family, work, money and college and this is a fluid and frequently changing picture that does not support a sustained consistent involvement over a multiple year commitment.

It was clear from faculty respondents’ comments that they have a real connection to their students. It is also evident that faculty members care about their students, who are working against substantial odds in order to get an education that could improve their lives. As one faculty member explained:

In my experience, Harold Washington College students often face significant life challenges outside of the classroom that prevent them from doing what is necessary to pass, including poverty, homelessness, needing to care for a child or relative, the demands of a full-time job, or major life disruptions such as a death. These students are at high risk of failure or a grade lower than what they are capable of, because their ability to put the required time in on coursework, or even attend class, is so compromised.

Another faculty member said:

In my opinion the most common cause of failure in the classroom is not intrinsic lack of ability but the distractions of life outside of the classroom. Certainly there are many times when outside life should take priority over the classroom. Feeding a family, paying the bills, caring for sick relations are all much more important than any grade.

There were many variations of this theme offered, including:

I think that their personal life gets in the way to the point that they are absent from class and don’t turn assignments in on time, (child-care issues, varying work hours, lack of transportation and funds, etc.). I don’t think it has anything to do with lack of intelligence.

Respondents sounded very understanding about these life issues but also helpless in being able to do anything about them: “In my experience, students who fail class ran into life events, where they fall behind. If they cannot make up in the time and effort necessary, they fail.” As one faculty member put it, “Perhaps if colleges provided multiple delivery systems with flexibility in time, space, and delivery format, students might be better able to cope with some of the difficult circumstances they encounter.

Economic Issues
Economic Issues (primarily, lack of resources) was another category of reasons for student failure (cited 17 times, or 3% of responses). Several faculty members cited economic disability as a reason why students fail. One faculty respondent said, “I have had students who want to learn but can’t afford bus fare to get to school. When they don’t have a computer, can’t afford Internet access, and it takes them two hours to get to school on the bus, what are they supposed to do?” A support system is necessary to succeed in college, and “support from family” could be an important resource. This category is closely related to life issues.

One respondent thought socioeconomic demographics played a major role in the success of students. This teacher said, “Of course, this is increased immensely when you look at students of color and especially males. . . . Some students come to college because there are no jobs available to them and Higher Education presents something positive and financially supported for them to do.” The authors thought this teacher was hopeful that some of these students would succeed.

Wealth and easy access to funding for schooling was also perceived by some faculty as a contributing factor for some students’ lack of success in college level. The respondent who cited easy access to funding said, “These students undervalue their education; I have seen a difference between students who work and pay for their schooling and students who attend school via other means.” A faculty member who cited a “No Fail” culture said:

These students have grown up in a world in which they never “failed”; regardless of their performance, they received a trophy; therefore, they think that any effort, such as simply showing up to class, entitles them to a good grade.

Perhaps the most interesting comment was one that blamed wealth as a reason for failure:

Wealth—These students do not appreciate the opportunities they have in attending college; unlike many in the world, they can exit and reenter college at their will, or get a job that, at a young age, they think is more than sufficient to live on; if their options given failure were bleak, if poverty was the consequence of failure, their appreciation and work ethic would be different.

Failures of the Educational System

This survey includes categories of responses that do not place blame on students but, instead, on the faculty and the educational system. The root-cause factors in student failure that are not related to students but are related, instead, to the Failures of the Educational System were mentioned 125 times, or 20 percent of responses. Some faculty respondents thought that the faculty or teaching had failed, the college had failed, or that some courses are too short. Others thought that there are too many problems in online education. Faculty members agreed that most students had not been well prepared in high school for college learning, and this poses a tough challenge for some instructors in helping their students to success. The respondents divided the insufficiencies in the college educational system between faculty issues and institutional issues, so, under this major area, there are two categories: Faculty Instruction and Behavior and Facilities, Materials, and Delivery Systems.

Faculty Instruction and Behavior
Faculty Instruction and Behavior is the category mentioned most (mentioned 77 times or 12%), under Failures of the Educational System. Subcategories include Failure to address students’ diverse learning styles, Lack of interest in teaching, Lack of professional development in one’s field, and Faculty behaviors and attitudes toward students.

Faculty members who commented on this thought the college and faculty need to teach students how to study and how to set goals:

Faculty need to provide a lot of structure and to have the class “set up” ahead of time with deadlines that are clear. If a student has a good roadmap and clear guidelines their chances of success will increase.

Others said faculty should encourage students to use college resources, such as tutoring, and should take the time to “help students improve on study skills and time management skills.”

Several faculty members said that some of their colleagues lack teaching skills. They cited failure to make the subject interesting or relatable, inadequate teaching methods, or failure to inspire. As one teacher explained:

I’d like to think that as faculty members, we are setting the tone—we are setting the example. After all, students observe our actions more than they listen to our words. If we are prepared, engaged, and working hard, I believe students notice that. If we are raising our expectations with them, I think for some students, it’s that extra nudge that has the potential to make a difference.

Another faculty member thought that faculty members need to nurture new, higher-level learning skills:

Some students do not experience warmth, care and relentless supports from a range of key actors in their new community college experience. This allows them to lock into old, well-established, behavior patterns that did not promote success in their past.

Other factors mentioned were problems navigating online courses, inadequate facilities, and poor “simplistic” teaching styles that approached teaching as “a transmission of content, content, content. . . .”

One faculty respondent was quite passionate about college failure of their students:

We send too many students into the “purgatory” of pre-credit developmental education courses from which they never emerge. From a strengths-based social work and youth work perspective—this means many new students first experience of HWC [Harold Washington College] is that we label them as “failures” or “not up to college standards” and we put them into classes with similarly labeled students. Do we really think the results of this can be any different from what we get? There is a large enough body of research from K through 12 education to demonstrate how powerful teacher and school expectations are in impacting outcomes. Early on in their HWC journey a vulnerable student must connect with a faculty member or staff member who expressly demonstrates they care, they have got their back, and they will catch them when they fall. . . . We don’t have appropriate ways to catch them when they fall. Note “fall,” not “fail.”

Many of the faculty respondents (28) blamed either the instructors or the teaching style for student failure. They thought that some faculty members do not put enough effort into engaging the underprepared students in the subject or only help those students who ask for help. One faculty member was quite passionate about this failure:

Faculty members have to take the students from where they are to where they ought to be—not from where they think they should be to start, but from where they are. Many students are behind through no fault of their own—the faculty members have to build up student confidence, not tear down student confidence.

Another thought that faculty members have the power to “make or break” a student: “If a faculty member tells students that they are smart and good students—that is what the students become. The reverse is unfortunately true.”

One respondent described the “leap” from “learning information (knowledge) to integrating and synthesizing new concepts (thinkers).” He thought that teachers could do a “better job” in preparing students for this important transformation so necessary in higher education. One faculty member blamed this lack on some of the adjunct faculty, saying they “put just the minimum effort in their classes, which affected students’ learning outcome.”

The teaching style of some faculty members was identified as contributing to students’ lack of success. Some students had failed because they could not respond to the teaching style, which prevented them from learning, or they had a poor teacher who was unable to effectively communicate the material. Other comments cited faulty orientation in the course, giving students the wrong idea about what they would be studying and how it would affect their major. One comment stated that faculty members do not have the right idea about their students. This means that they do not really bother to know their students beyond knowing their names. They do not realize that some students might have missed semesters between courses and might not be as prepared as others. One respondent felt that faculty members should recognize lack of self-confidence and address the problem. As one faculty member put it, in cases like these, “It is not students who fail, but that faculty fails their students!” Using different teaching styles and active, problem-solving teaching was offered as the best way to fully engage students: “Faculty cannot force students to be engaged, but they can surely attempt to get them engaged and create an ‘engaged’ classroom.”

Facilities, Materials, and Delivery Systems
Facilities, Materials, and Delivery Systems was mentioned sixth most often overall root-cause in general and second most often root-cause under Failures of the Educational System. It was mentioned 48 times, or 8 percent of responses. Subcategories include Lack of sufficient or appropriate student and academic services, Lack of student-friendly delivery and learning formats, and Deficient in curriculum programs structures.

Twenty-two faculty respondents thought the college or university had failed to provide their students with sufficient or appropriate student and academic services. Some respondents said that colleges need to improve orientation processes, especially for new students taking blended and or online courses or taking courses in large lecture halls. Others cited relaxed admission standards and allowing students to register for classes when they had not completed the prerequisites. Lack of tutoring or lack of tutors with the right skills in certain subjects was also mentioned as a concern. Confusing attendance policies were blamed for some student failure. One faculty respondent praised his or her college: “Our University does a wonderful job of assisting students to navigate through the SSCs and the ASPIRE program.”

A few other respondents mentioned that some students simply should not be in college. Comments included assignments being too difficult for many students, especially those who are being pushed to be in school or in a particular major by their family. One faculty respondent said grade inflation in high schools resulted in unqualified students being accepted into colleges. One faculty member surmised, “I don’t think being admitted to a college guarantees that everyone will be successful at it, but we don’t tell them that when we admit them to our colleges and universities.”

Also, there are those students who stop coming to class but, for some unknown reason, do not withdraw. In the faculty member’s words, “These students almost always drop off the radar and do not respond to repeated attempts to contact them. So, as faculty, we have no insight into why they have stopped attending.” And colleges have no effective mechanisms to remove these students from the rosters.

A number of faculty members blamed the course delivery format, especially online learning, for failing many students in classes. Increasingly, the world is shifting to an online culture, and with that shift comes online courses. However, there are some students who are not suited to an online learning environment. Even when they themselves desire to take courses in this delivery mode, they still need the face-to-face interaction of real teachers and classmates. Some students are not comfortable with computers but cannot take courses onsite because the courses are only offered online. Others might think they are computer literate but still cannot navigate the maze of electronic steps necessary to online learning. In this case, colleges should provide the opportunity for students not only to choose how to take their courses, but also the freedom for them to change their mind in the middle of the semester if they choose to change to a different delivery format—meaning that they start online and change to onsite in the middle of the semester, or vice versa.

The way classes are formatted could also be a problem. Colleges tend to standardize their online classes into one style or format. This may not be effective for all students’ learning styles. With a real teacher in a real classroom, the teacher can see if a student is not engaged. A student can ask questions of both teachers and classmates, and teachers can use creative teaching methods, such as team teaching, critical thinking, and problem solving. Also, if a student is not comfortable with the instructor, she or he can drop the class or find another instructor. In an online class, a poor or unengaged instructor might not be identified. One teacher explained:

Students need to be aware if they are in the correct delivery mode. For example, there are many students in online classes that should not be in those classes—they do not have the skills to succeed. Students need to choose the delivery mode that fits their learning style, not what they think is “easier.”

Many teachers are still learning how to offer information in blended and online formats and the course sites do not always work properly. Teachers need training in blended and online course development and how to connect with and engage their online students, who may lack academic and social support systems both inside and outside of school. One faculty respondent explained it as follows:

Students that are active on campus and have interactions with faculty and students outside of the classroom are more likely to pass (and graduate). The University and faculty need to attempt to foster these connections as much as they can. This is a challenge for online students and environments. Faculty and academic managers need to think of creative ways to do this in our virtual learning environments. Faculty managers currently do not serve well in this role; they are all production based. Faculty need ongoing advanced training in effective teaching online. Faculty managers need to have more training in academic leadership—especially in this area of persistence in online environments.

Online students can get lost in the impersonal online environment, lose interest or fall behind, and drop out before their absence is even noticed. This problem is only going to increase in today’s virtual learning world.

The length of courses was also cited by a few faculty members as a root cause for some students. A few faculty respondents thought that some courses are very heavy in content, but the instructors do not have time to cover the material in depth. They felt that many of the students do not have enough time to absorb the material in the allotted time. One said that by the time students were just starting to understand, he had to move on to the next subject: The ten-week quarter “is not enough time for students to absorb all class material and not enough for professors to go into the depth of the material.” So the quality of the education was being compromised by time restraints.

General Conclusions

A problem running through almost all of the categories is that too many students come to college without the necessary preparation. They lack numerous academic skills, such as critical thinking, writing skills, and math and science backgrounds. As one faculty respondent said, “Improved K–12 education in all disciplines would be a big help in student success.” Another said, “We are preparing students to pass standardized tests in K–12 and not to think.” Study skills; communication; core subjects like math, science, reading and writing; and the ability to learn are necessary skills that should be learned in high school. As one faculty member stated strongly, “[Failing] students were not pushed in high school and, therefore, failed to develop an appetite for learning and the disciplines and skills required to succeed in an academic atmosphere.”

There are categories from this survey that do not place blame on students. Some of the faculty respondents thought that the faculty or teaching had failed, the college had failed, or some of the courses were too heavy on content. Others thought that there were too many problems in online education. The faculty agreed that most students had not been well prepared in high school for college learning.

There is much talk in higher education about the need for active learning to stimulate students and faculty. But it is not an easy job to prepare an environment for active learning. In addition, active learning requires a lot of preparation on the part of faculty members, including preparing the right materials for learning, preparing the right activity in which to engage, preparing the right teaching approaches and strategies, and preparing the right environment and classroom setting where students can engage in active learning. Faculty members, especially those in institutions where research is prioritized, do not have enough time to spend on preparing for all these things. These faculty members are under considerable pressure to conduct research and produce results, as well as to teach large classes. Few can do both successfully, especially if there are no faculty development programs that focus on this issue in a given institution.

To succeed, students need to have good reasons for taking a given course and for being in school. Students also need to care about themselves and their education by setting expectations and achievable goals for themselves. In short, academic success is not governed by a student’s cognitive abilities alone. Students need to be motivated to want to learn and work hard at it to make faster gains and learn better than those who are bright but less motivated (Blue 2012). Those who do care seek help and ask questions when needed. By doing so, they ensure their own success and that their education meets their individual needs.

Faculty who participated in this study ranked student-related factors first in causing students to fail classes or drop out of college (415 times, or 68% of responses). According to the respondents, a significant number of students come to college with poor academic backgrounds, and they lack prerequisites for college courses. Colleges and universities enroll many students who need remedial or developmental classes in at least one necessary discipline before taking courses for college credit. The problem is not that of providing developmental classes at the college level, but rather, the fact that while the majority of colleges offer developmental coursework, “statistics confirm that less than 25% of students who enroll in remedial or developmental classes go on to finish their degrees” (Academic Impressions 2013, 1).

Participants also indicated that some students lack the motivation and/or the interest, and thus they fail to invest the effort, time, and energy needed to complete college work. This situation is compounded by the fact that some students lack self-responsibility and come to college classes with an attitude that they developed in high school, which means that attending is enough to get a passing grade in a given course. For some students, getting an F in classes is no longer something to be ashamed of but a cool thing that you must experience before leaving college. Furthermore, faculty members at both the two-year and four-year college level agreed that time management can make or break students’ efforts to succeed in college courses and environment. Unfortunately, many faculty members believe that a significant number of students do not know how to manage their time and thus they end up doing things at the last minute, taking on more than they can manage, underestimating what every class task needs to complete, and so on.

While the second most-often offered root-cause factor for students’ failure (125 times, or 20% of responses) is failure of the educational system, the two-year and four-year college faculty who participated in this study differ on the effects of education system and life issues, work, and economic issues. While four-year college faculty ranked the failure of the educational system, including the ways in which faculty members teach and colleges help students, as second in terms of contributing to students’ failing college (97 times, or 24% of respondents), the two-year college faculty cited this as their third most frequent root cause (28 times, or 14% of responses). The two-year college faculty ranked life and socioeconomic issues, including poverty, the cost of education, and the need to work and to take care of family as second in terms of contributing to students’ failing college (40 times, or 20% of responses). The four-year college faculty ranked this as the third root-cause factor (30 times, or 7% of responses).

Faculty members with whom we had face-to-face discussions about the findings of the study provided us with deeper insight on the significance of the outcomes and their meaning. They also provided us with tips and recommendations on how we as faculty and administration can help students by providing them with better opportunities and options to succeed at the college level.


Academic Impressions. 2013. Redesigning developmental courses to improve retention. Webcast, April 8. http://www.academicimpressions.com/webcast/redesigning-developmental-courses-improve-retention?qq=16811v274891yT#.

Bain, K. 2004. What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Blue, Laura. 2012. Motivation, not IQ, matters most for learning new math skills. Child Development, December 26. http://healthland.time.com/2012/12/26/motivation-not-iq-matters-most-for-learning-new-math-skills/.

Cherif, A., F. Movahedzadeh, G. Adams, and J. Dunning. 2013. Why do students fail? In A collection of papers on self-study and institutional improvement, 2013, 35–51. Chicago: The Higher Learning Commission.


Note: The authors have included the summary of in-depth face-to-face discussion with faculty in the appendices of this study. Readers who are interested in that summary or in details of the study’s methodology, basic demographics of the participants, breakdowns of the data into categories by college level, and so on, will find an expanded version of the paper at http://www.abourcherif.com. Interested persons are also encouraged to send any questions or comments.



About the Authors

Abour H. Cherif is National Associate Dean at DeVry University in Downers Grove, Illinois; Gerald E. Adams is Professor of Geology and Earth Sciences at Columbia College Chicago in Chicago, Illinois; Farahnaz Movahedzadeh is Assistant Professor of Biology and Margaret A. Martyn is Vice President of Academic Affairs at City Colleges of Chicago–Harold Washington College in Chicago, Illinois; and Jeremy Dunning is Professor of Geophysics and Dean Emeritus at Indiana University Bloomington in Bloomington.

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