How I Reduced the DFW Rate

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Student Success
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Sandy Keeter is a Professor in the Information Technology department at Seminole State College


What is a DFW rate?

The term “DFW rate” refers to the percentage of students in a course or program who receive a D or F, or who withdraw (W) from the course. Course completions (A, B, C) are an important indicator of student success at most colleges. If students are not moving forward, they may never graduate, earn a degree, and move into the workforce.

We expect our courses to have academic rigor and would love to see a perfect (100%) course completion rate. However, certain courses may have higher-than-average DFW rates because of the challenging nature of the material. Large gateway courses with high enrollment tend to have higher DFW rates than courses with fewer students. Online classes tend to have less completions than in-person classes. Patterns of high DFW rates can indicate opportunities for improvement. If a particular course in a program seems to overwhelm students, it’s worthwhile to review how it’s taught.

You can calculate your DFW rates by looking at your grade rosters and comparing the results with other sections you have taught, or with other courses in your program. Courses with very high unproductive rates or large numbers of students who do not complete should be closely looked at and considered for re-design. A total overhaul may not be necessary, but a few tweaks could be all you need.

Research has shown that courses with high DFW rates become barriers to long-term college completion and success. Some courses are required for students to progress in a degree program. They’re often the first courses students take when starting their college careers, so it’s important to ensure their success and help move them closer to graduation.

When students aren’t given the support necessary to succeed, the impact on their progress can be detrimental. Additionally, students often end up taking on debt for college courses or using up their financial aid eligibility. This can negatively impact their ability to stay in school or to return later. Data also shows that high DFW rates greatly affect minority, low-income, and first-generation students. This impacts their ability to graduate and further worsens institutional and educational inequities.

Students take your course to grow in knowledge and get some form of transformation in their lives. Our goal is to have high course completion rates and MORE graduates entering the workforce.


Why do students NOT complete courses? LOOK at the DATA

Questioning why a course has high DFW rates, especially when it’s the beginning of a degree path, can reveal equity gaps in your courses.  Apart from the obvious differences between on-campus and online classes, and mini-term versus full-term classes, perhaps the biggest one is the attrition rates. Our challenge as instructors is to reduce the risk of students failing to complete our courses.

Students should find your courses welcoming and accessible. You should design your courses to encourage students, not drive them away. We should cultivate enthusiasm and determination in our students in a way that prepares them for long-term success. However, in some colleges, gateway courses are designed to “weed” out students. They typically have high enrollment, which means less individual attention for each student and less personalized support if they are struggling.

Data shows the larger the class size, the higher the DFW rate. Classes with more than 100 students, especially online classes, can have non-completion rates that are twice as high as classes with under 25 students. Some may argue that high DFW rates are not necessarily the result of course design and implementation. They instead blame students’ inability to meet academic standards on a low level of college readiness. While high DFW rates may be the fault of under-prepared students, it could be the course design or the professor.

We looked closely at our student surveys and program review data to see where students were having issues and which group of students were having issues. This data can be very telling if students are saying the same thing. It can also show if certain groups of students are not completing the course. Reviewing weekly grades and frequency analysis reports is another good indicator of where students are getting stumped or falling behind. Is it a course, mode, term, instructor, or student issue?

What we learned by analyzing our data across sections and various semesters is that some ethnic groups need a bit more assistance, some topics were more challenging and needed additional training and resources, new instructors needed a bit more guidance and students craved community and support. Using data to make adjustments as the semester progressed allowed us to continually improve our courses.


Student outcomes and success

Course completion rates are an important indicator for student outcomes and success. We have made significant progress and improved completions by 25%. This occurred through instructional and non-instructional approaches. There were also changes to the online and on-campus experiences to improve student progress, learning, retention, and ultimately, graduation rates.

Looking at program data is a very effective way to analyze course completion rates and identify opportunities for improvement in student outcomes. We had some course incompletion rates as high as 50%. This resulted in thousands of students who paid for classes and never received credit for them. The DFW rates of Black students were in many cases 25% higher than those of white students, as shown in our program data.

Dropping out or failing a course can lead to several negative student outcomes. These include loss of future enrollment, longer time to earn a degree, reduced retention rate, and potential loss of scholarship or financial aid. Some students don’t see the repercussions of this until it’s too late.


How to reduce the DFW Rate

We reduced our DFW rate and improved course completions after taking a hard look at the data. We made some simple course design changes across all course sections, instructors, modes, and term lengths for course consistency.  Our goal was to ensure all students were receiving the same content and an equitable learning experience.

Online courses can be the culprit for low completion rates, so it’s important to counsel and train students on how to be successful in online learning or simply guide them to a hybrid or on-campus class if available. This past year we created a First Year Experience (FYE) course for new students that should also help with retention and course completions.

Embedding multiple learning and assessment opportunities and creating a community of help added to our success. We also tutors, librarians and student success specialists. Using the publisher and LMS tools and resources we had at our fingertips was an added plus.

Getting all the instructors aligned around the same goals, providing faculty training, and including adjunct faculty in the course design allowed us to create a better and more consistent learning experience for our students. We also solicited feedback from campus tutors and advisors since they encounter our students regularly and can provide additional information and data to guide our redesign efforts.

Checking the gradebook often to see where students stand and looking at analytics aids in mid-semester course changes as needed. You can check for how often students login and access the material. You can also check how much time students spend reading and doing assignments. It may take a few years to see major improvements in course completions, so pick a few strategies and over time you will see a difference!



Want to find fresh ways to support your students and drive their success? Watch our 2023 Empowered Educator Online Conference sessions. They’re all about embracing the new to create endless learning possibilities for your students. Plus, look out for our 2024 conference coming this February.