FREMONT, Neb. — Midland University is taking aim at campus slackers with an innovative new student accountability program.
No more goofing off and waiting until the night before an exam to study.
Since last fall, Midland students have been required to attend class. And faculty members are required to administer frequent pop quizzes, assign regular homework or use other techniques to ensure that students read and understand their texts.
Three black marks — for skipping class, failing quizzes or missing homework — and a student will be kicked out of that class. The only way back is by talking the school's top academic officer into a second chance.
It's an unusual policy — one geared to keep students focused in an era where tablets and smartphones make it easy to look up answers instead of following a disciplined train of thought.
“To me, it helps out a lot,” said Josh Gaines, a sophomore sociology major. “I study more, and I'm prepared for class.”
Gaines, a Midland football player who recently transferred from the University of South Dakota at Vermillion, said students are less likely to doze off during class.
Midland University officials say they know of no other college or university with a similar policy.
Marshall Hill, executive director of Nebraska's Coordinating Commission on Postsecondary Education, said he is unaware of any other college or university in Nebraska with a similar across-the-board policy.
At most colleges, including the University of Nebraska's three undergraduate campuses in Lincoln, Omaha and Kearney, attendance policies and homework requirements are set by professors and their academic departments. Grades usually depend on how well students do on a few exams and projects.
NU officials say a policy like Midland's would be difficult to implement at their larger campuses.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, with more than 24,000 students and 1,100 faculty members, recently launched an early-warning system in which professors can use UNL's computerized advising platform to email “flags” to students who are missing class or whose grades are weak. Three flags generate a computerized notice to the student's academic adviser.
Amy Goodburn, an associate vice chancellor for academic affairs, said UNL would be reluctant to use the system to remove students from class.
“We want students to have authority over that choice, not a computer system,” she said.
Midland's president, Ben Sasse, said his institution, which serves about 1,000 students, has no worse a problem with students' cutting class than any other college. The new policy helps freshmen, in particular, make the transition from the structure of high school to the independence of college, he said.
“Nationwide, we have far more people going into higher education than ever before,” he said. “But preparedness is less than it's ever been.”
Steve Bullock, vice president of academic affairs, said he doesn't see it as baby-sitting students. The policy is intended to stop students from “skating” through college — and to turn them into critical thinkers.
While some colleges rely on standardized tests to measure how much students have learned during their college years, Midland's approach holds students accountable for the effort they put into learning.
“Nobody's going to hold your hand in real life,” said Hannah Steen, a freshman biology major from Le Mars, Iowa. “You're not going to learn the material unless you go to class and do the work.”
Midland, which also administers standardized tests, came up with the accountability measures to resolve accreditors' concerns that student test results weren't being used to improve teaching and academic programs.
Midland was put on notice late last year by its accrediting agency, the North Central Association's Higher Learning Commission, because of “concerns related to the university's finances and planning and its processes for assessment and utilization of student learning outcomes.”
The commission gave Midland until mid-2014 to address those concerns. In early March, the commission gave Midland a favorable progress report. In addition, the U.S. Department of Education gave the college a clean financial bill of health in March after reviewing its 2012 financial audit.
The benefits of a campuswide policy are many, Bullock said:
» It prevents students from seeking out more lenient professors for an easy grade.
» It keeps bright students from coasting through the semester, studying just enough to earn a B-plus on their exams.
» It identifies struggling students early, so they can get help before they flunk the midterm exam.
After recovering from the initial shock, Midland students and faculty say the approach is working.
Jerry Denogean, the student body president and a senior secondary education major from Pueblo, Colo., said many upperclassmen were skeptical at first because they didn't think it was the college's place to force students to attend class.
“Once the ball got rolling and kids could see the benefit to the system, it became self-supporting,” he said. “If you're showing up for classes and your grades are going from a 2.0 to a 2.5 or from a 2.5 to a 3.0, that's a good motivator.”
Kenji Kekela, a junior criminal justice major from Hawaii, said the system pushes him to make his good grades better.
“I needed that motivation — I'm kind of a lazy student,” said Kekela, who plays on Midland's football team.
To ensure that introductory psychology students complete their required reading, assistant professor Jamie Simpson makes them report weekly to a computer laboratory for a monitored quiz. That saves class time for questions and discussion.
Grades are rising in her class, she said, from an average of about 75 percent on the first exam of the semester last year to 88 percent on the first exam this year.
Midland's approach may signal a shift back to the time when colleges assumed a more parentlike role toward students, said Hill, with the postsecondary coordinating commission. Such policies were largely abandoned in the 1960s and '70s as colleges adopted a philosophy that students should be treated as adults responsible for their own classroom success.
“Most parents expect their students to be going to class,” he said. “I have felt for a long time that we just have not been expecting enough of our college students — that they could do better than they do if left to their own devices.”
Contact the writer: 402-473-9581, firstname.lastname@example.org