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Student Dropout Process Mimics a Trial

Decisions relating to student dropout often resemble a trial with students as defendants and teachers as prosecutors and judges. This approach can create barriers between students and staff and raise the issue of the university's mission, according to Ivan Gruzdev, Evgeny Terentiev and Elena Gorbunova of the HSE’s Internal Monitoring Center.

In the Dock

Ivan Gruzdev, Director of the HSE’s Internal Monitoring Centre, and Evgeny Terentyev and Elena Gorbunova, Masters of Sociology and analysts of the Centre, have identified three key mechanisms of student attrition in their paper ‘The Court Is Now in Session: Professor Discourse on Student Attrition’, published in Educational Studies, Issue 2, 2015. Underlying these three mechanisms are three types of discourse used by university administrators and faculty to decide on measures applied to underperforming students. These three types can be described as prosecutor-style, attorney-style and judge-style:

  • the prosecutor-style approach is the most common of the three and focuses on blaming the student. The school faculty use phrases such as ‘academic underachiever’ and ‘underperformer’ to justify attrition as something unavoidable, while denying their own role in student dropout;
  • the attorney-style approach, following the same 'courtroom' logic, seeks to justify the student by referring to mitigating circumstances, i.e. reasons why students can be forgiven for their failures; and finally,
  • the judge-style approach refers to formal policies and regulations, while disregarding more personalised aspects of student-faculty interactions, and presents student expulsion as a bureaucratic process where faculty merely serve as officials with specific functions.

The analysis is based on data from 33 semi-structured interviews with faculty members of Russian universities, including teachers of socio-economic and engineering disciplines, of whom five, in addition to teaching, held administrative positions, such as faculty dean and vice rector for academic affairs.

Students Must Conform to Expectations

According to the authors, in the most common scenario, faculty members tend to put all the blame on students for poor academic performance and subsequent attrition. Just like a prosecutor in the courtroom, they focus on building a case against the defendant, i.e. the 'underperforming' or 'underachieving' student who is portrayed as sloppy and lazy.

In this scenario, faculty members assume the role of prosecutor and refer to a set of expectations about students, such as a demonstrated commitment to learning, and dismiss anyone who falls short of such expectations as ‘not really a student’. In addition to academic diligence, students are expected to act as independent and responsible adults, while 'underperformers' are often described as infantile 'kids' and 'youngsters’, too immature for university.

Instead of viewing the university as a provider of education and research, the prosecutor-style discourse assumes it to be primarily a business seeking to maximise profits and minimise costs. One would expect that under this approach students should be treated as paying customers, but instead, they are held solely and fully responsible for the outcome of the educational process.

Faculty members sharing this approach often refer to the dangers posed by lazy students – such as negative peer influence (meaning that negligent students may set a negative example to others affecting their academic performance), unfairness (diligent students may resent seeing others get by without making any effort at all), and undermining others' motivation. Thus, the faculty see attrition as a solution and believe that a fear of expulsion can motivate students to work harder.

Immaturity as a Mitigating Circumstance

Faculty who take the role of mock attorneys use typical courtroom defence strategies to fully or partially justify a student's poor performance; yet once again, they never attempt to address the role of the university and faculty as actors in the educational process.

Instead, the attorney-style discourse uses three main arguments, namely the 'new generation' argument, the 'childhood' argument, and the 'criticism of the educational system' argument as reasons to give the student another chance.

This 'new generation' argument shifts some of the responsibility from the student to society. Examples of such discourse are that the internet and mobile phones have changed the nature of communication and that mass media today propagate the wrong values and expectations, which negatively affects young people and their academic performance. Since the entire 'new generation' is affected, giving an individual student another chance seems to be the only option, as being too strict could leave a university without students, all of whom belong to this 'new generation'.

In contrast to the 'prosecutor' discourse that refers to students’ immaturity as an aggravating circumstance, this time, the argument that ‘students are still kids’ is brought up to mitigate or deny their responsibility, essentially in a similar way as the juvenile justice approach used in many countries to treat minors differently from adults.

Criticism of the educational system also aims to relieve a student from responsibility, at least partially, by shifting the blame to the general school system.

In particular, the introduction of the Unified State Examination (USE) in schools is criticised by many as damaging to education, because training students to take tests fails to encourage creative thinking and build verbal communication skills. In addition, many people associate the USE with a current trend among school leavers of choosing a university, regardless of their own interest or ability, based entirely on whether they have a chance of winning scholarship.

A Wig-and-Gown Approach

The judge-style discourse is fairly impersonal: instead of labeling certain students as 'underperformers' or 'underachievers', it determines whether or not a student's academic performance and conduct are consistent with the formal rules and requirements of the institution. Those who cannot or would not follow the rules shall be expelled; the rules, applied universally to everyone at all levels, similarly to the principle of equality before the law, include formal academic performance requirements.

According to the authors, the judge-style approach, once again, fails to address the university's role and mission. This time, formal rules substitute for the teacher's judgment in the expulsion decision, as students' knowledge assessment is virtually automated and based on formal criteria. This discourse, like the ones above, relieves the teacher of any responsibility for the student's performance.

According to the researchers, the three approaches described above serve as symbolic barriers between the university and faculty on the one side and students on the other and deny the faculty's role in student dropout. Any criticism of the educational system and its contribution to poor academic performance is targeted at secondary schools, but never at universities.

None of the three types of discourse address the university's mission as it is expressed, in particular, in the Humboldtian model of the classical university integrating education and research, where student serve as teachers' junior colleagues and together pursue the advancement of science as a shared goal.


Author: Гринкевич Владислав Владимирович, July 31, 2015