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When students get in academic trouble

Letter from the Dean of the College


September 3, 2012

Dear Colleagues,

As we prepare to launch the beginning of another academic year, I want to update you on conversations that started last year regarding students in academic trouble. Dean of Students Sidney Evans, Marcia France (Alison Bell last year), Wendy Price and Rob Straughan work on a variety of issues related to struggling students. In some cases these students are having difficulty meeting course requirements due to issues that are easily resolved. In other cases, however, their struggles are more complex, including physical and mental health issues, substance abuse, etc. Faculty occasionally hear from one of the deans (or other support folks in the university) regarding specific students. Many of you are very diligent in bringing struggling students to our attention based upon observations from class. The information that you provide, whether solicited or unsolicited, is vital in helping determine what, if any, response is appropriate.
During the past academic year, the deans noted a significant increase in the number of students struggling in one respect or another and in the complexity of these cases. This has led to a critical examination of our policies and procedures for students in academic trouble. We have made some adjustments in procedure and will continue to examine how we address struggling students this year. With that in mind, I am making the following requests of you as faculty and academic advisers:
  • Please be very judicious in making allowances for students who approach you with physical or emotional health issues. These adjustments or allowances may seem compassionate, but they can actually complicate and compound the students’ struggles in significant ways. Granting requests for extensions on assignments, make-up exams, or grades of incomplete can have the unintended impact of delaying work for students who are already struggling to keep up. These struggles often span multiple classes. As the work is deferred, it piles up even more, leading to academic gridlock for the students. Granting these requests can also conflict with our short-term adjustment and long-term accommodation procedures (outlined below).
  •  Of particular concern are students requesting incompletes. Incompletes are intended to be rare. We have seen an increase in the number of incompletes granted of late, often to the students’ detriment. If a student is ill or has a death in the family right as the term paper or final exam rolls around, an incomplete with a firm deadline for completion of outstanding work may be warranted. If a student has shown a longer pattern of missed deadlines, failure to submit work, or other sorts of struggles, an incomplete is probably not indicated. Incompletes are for discrete, short-term issues with a clear resolution, not for prolonged inability to manage basic class expectations.
  • One recent procedural change concerns intervention from the Student Health and Counseling (SH&C) office. Requests for short-term adjustments due to acute illness, whether physical or psychological, will come from one of the academic deans (either in the College or Williams School) rather than directly from SH&C. In instances where the academic deans are unavailable and time is of great importance, Sidney Evans will serve as the point of contact. If you receive a request directly from someone on SH&C staff, please confer with Marcia or Wendy before responding.
  •  Long-term accommodations (e.g., extra time on exams, a quiet testing environment) will continue to come from Wendy in the form of a detailed letter that these students must present to you at the beginning of every term. Please grant those accommodations noted in the letter, but do not go beyond those noted. Additional leniency, beyond those accommodations detailed in the letter from Wendy, creates problems, including potential claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). If a student requests an accommodation from you based on ADD/ADHD or another diagnosis and does not have an official disability accommodation letter, please refer him or her to Wendy. She will make a determination as to whether the accommodation is warranted in accordance with the University disability policy.
  •  Don’t grant adjustments and accommodations on your own. In some cases, a struggling student (unbeknownst to you) may have been denied a short-term adjustment or long-term accommodation. In the case of long-term accommodations, the condition may have been found not to qualify under the ADA. Granting that accommodation on your own can lead to a claim against the University for the University having “regarded” the student as having a disability.
  •  The University has no blanket attendance policy regarding individual classes. Some faculty factor attendance into grading, while many do not. Your syllabus should make your own policy crystal clear. There is, however, a policy regarding administrative withdrawals that is based in part on attendance (see http://catalog.wlu.edu/content.php?catoid=7&navoid=487#Required_Admin). In cases where students are struggling in the extreme, those deans overseeing such cases need accurate records of attendance. Thus, we ask that you keep accurate class-by-class attendance records whether you factor such information into grades or not. With small class sizes and the close contact we have with our students, it is not too difficult to track attendance. Estimates of attendance without clear records present problems when evaluating administrative withdrawal cases.
  •  If you have any questions about a student who is making undocumented requests or is otherwise falling behind for no clear reason, please contact any of the academic deans and/or Sidney Evans. You might also contact the student’s adviser (adviser info is available from the Student Information Spreadsheet available on the Registrar’s web page). The deans will check to see if the pattern is isolated to your class, in which case there is less concern, or spans multiple classes, which is a red flag of some significance.
Most importantly, thanks for the work that you do to support students facing challenges of this sort.

All best,

Suzanne