Reducing or Eliminating Fs, Even in Hard Classes

By Peter Connor

Is it Possible?

Yes, Nelson (2010) says in Tomorrow's Professor – Msg. #1058, but to get there he suggests setting aside three basic dysfunctional illusions of academic rigor commonly held in higher education regarding traditional pedagogies.

Key findings from educational research conducted between 1990 and 2010 shed light on the effectiveness of newer, more interactive pedagogical models that applied in addition, or as an alternative, to standard lecture practices result in fewer students receiving Fs.

Several studies found that the D, F, and W rates dropped from 60 to 4 percent when students in "large lecture" classes were required to work together in study groups outside of class (Treisman, 1992; Fullilove & Treisman, 1990).

Calculations by Hake (1998) showed that the average normalized gain in conceptual understanding, derived from pretest and posttest scores, jumped from 23 to 48 percent when using various forms of structured interactive student-to-student engagement rather than just traditional lecture methods.

Finally, meta-analysis findings for science and related fields illustrated that small-group learning had elevated students, on average, from the 50th to the 70th percentile (Springer, Stanne, & Donovan, 1999).

The following tips explore the three basic dysfunctional illusions of rigor and the alternative views that Nelson suggests might be more realistic.


Fillilove, R.E., &Treisman, P. U. (1990). Mathematics achievement among African American undergraduates at the University of California, Berkeley: An evaluation of the Mathematics Workshop Program. Journal of Negro Education, 59(3), 463-478.

Hake, R. R. (1998). Interactive engagement vs. traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. American Journal of Physics, 66(1), 64-74.

Nelson, C. E. (2010). Dysfunctional illusions of rigor: Part 1 - basic illusions. In R. Reis (Ed.), Tomorrow's Professor: Msg. #1058. Retrieved from

Springer, L., Stanne, M. E., & Donovan, S. S. (1999). Effects of small -group learning on undergraduates in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 69(1), 21-51.
Treisman, U. (1992). Studying students studying calculus: A look at the lives of minority mathematics students in college. College Mathematics Journal, 23(5), 362-372.


Thanks to Dr. Erica Suchman, Assoc. Prof. in the Dept. of Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology and Master Teacher Initiative (MTI) Coordinator for the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University for this Teaching Tip suggestion.