Half of my students are currently getting a D or an F in one of my three classes.

That’s 11 out of 22 grades, exactly.

This makes me really upset.

Any time a student is doing badly in class, there are only a few possible reasons: 1) the student is not applying him- or herself, 2) the student is not capable of completing the coursework accurately, or 3) I am not teaching the material well.  Realistically, it is often a combination of all three.

Do my students apply themselves?  Sometimes students are genuinely lazy and they don’t want to do their homework.  Maybe passing with a C or a D is good enough in their book.  Often, they never learned good study habits in high school, they are accustomed to having assignments and deadlines spelled out for them repeatedly, they simply don’t stay on top of their work.  In a 12-week term, there is often time to catch back up.  In a 6-week term, it’s a lot harder.  You don’t check the syllabus, you fall behind, and suddenly, the class is done.

For reason number 2, I originally phrased it as “the student isn’t capable of learning the material,” but most of the time that really isn’t the problem.  The reasons why they can’t complete the work are legion.  My students often work 40+ hours a week, have children to raise, partners and family members to spend time with, household chores to do, and on top of that they are trying to get a degree.  So often there isn’t enough time to get everything done.  Add to that the fact that, in my computer classes (which account for 19 of my 22 students), many students don’t have regular access to a computer at home, or the Internet, or both.  They are expected to do 2 hours of homework outside of class for each hour they are in class — that would be 16 hours of homework each week.  And many of them need to do it on a family member’s computer, or a friend’s mom’s computer, or at the public library, or during the few hours they have on campus just before or after class.  If they have a computer at home, they may not have Internet to allow them to email me their homework assignments.  They may not know how to install the trial software that comes with their book.  Even if a computer is readily available, I have students who don’t speak English as their first language, so the directions, “Point to the Title cell style in the Titles and Headings area of the Cell Styles gallerty to see a live preview of the cell style in cell A1” is extremely confusing.  Even I find it confusing!  Hell, despite the fact that I have walked them through the process at least one time per class, I still have students, on Day 8 of class, who don’t know what to do when we are in Word and they need to send me their assignment as an attachment to an email.  They can’t remember how to open Internet Explorer and navigate off the home page and go to their online email provider.  I have students who have had so little exposure to computers during their life, they can only type roughly 10 words a minute.  So whether it is because of a lack of access to computing resources, or reading comprehension skills, or previous exposure to computers, many students are unable to complete the work I assign them.

But I always, always worry that the real reason my students are failing is because I am not teaching them what they need to know.  I know that computer classes are difficult to teach in a large group setting.  I know that I have students of all skill levels in the class, so some are surfing between steps during demonstrations because they are so bored, while others are completely lost.  Knowing those things doesn’t make it any easier when you see your students failing, and you don’t know what you can do to help them.  When there are dozens of zeroes in my grading spreadsheet, is it because they are too lazy to turn their work in, they can’t do the work, or because they don’t understand what they are supposed to do?

I don’t know.  And without knowing why they are not turning their work in, I can’t help them.  And that’s the worst feeling of all.