Are Fs Due to Inability, Weak Preparation, or Lack of Effort?

By Peter Connor

Dysfunctional Illusion of Academic Rigor #1:

"Hard courses weed out weak students. When students fail it is primarily due to inability, weak preparation, or lack of effort"

—Craig E. Nelson.

This is the way it has always been, and also as it should be, implies the first dysfunctional illusion of academic rigor in Tomorrow's Professor – Msg. #1058.

Nelson (2010) states that, for many years, he did not even consider that a flawed pedagogy could be held responsible for his own failings as a student; more accurate would be his own lack of effort. That is until, as a teacher himself, he began seeking better teaching methods.

In a growing body of literature Nelson found credible alternative pedagogical models that significantly improved the grades of otherwise failing students. It changed his way of thinking. A more realistic view he suggests might be that students often fail due to ineffective methodolgies.

Substantial improvements were produced…even in classes traditionally regarded as necessarily difficult, among them calculus, physics, chemistry, and economics. This is not to say that students have no responsibility for their own work. Rather, we have grossly underemphasized the faculty members' responsibilities (Nelson, 2010).

A short list of supporting literature includes:

Barkly, E., Cross, K.P., & Howell Major, C. (2004). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Copper, J. L., Robinson, P., & Ball, D. (Eds.) (2003). Small group instruction in higher education: Lessons from the past, Visions of the future. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press.

Millis, B. J., & Cotell, P. G. (1997), Cooperative learning for higher education faculty. Phoenix, AZ: American Council on Education and Oryx Press.

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


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


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.