Educators: 30% of the graduating class is failing. Who is culpable?

We just found out that 30% of our graduating (nursing school) class is currently failing, at midterm of our penultimate semester. (Luckily, I’m not one of them, but I’m not far from it!)

Whose fault is this? Are the students not studying well/enough? Is this a sign that the educators aren’t educating effectively? That the administration is doing something wrong? That the course curriculum is flawed?

Of course, in reality, the reasons are myriad. Lots of instability within the program, significant changes to the curriculum with no notice, budget cuts leaving us without significant resources and a real “us-vs-them” mentality which has arisen. But there’s some real angry words flying around right now among the student body, and lots of finger pointing from the teachers. I’m just wondering what, if anything, professional educators have to say about it.

What percentage of your students have to be failing before you think, “hmm…maybe it’s not them, maybe it’s something I’m not doing well.”? Are there actual or proposed models (like maybe the Bell Curve) which can quantify something like this with any authority?

Is it a shitty nursing school? I mean, if you start out with pond scum, you’re not going to end up with Evian, to paraphrase Jeff Foxworthy.

I’m in law school now, and practically everyone in my class is failing, based on the normal US grading scale. I think there are a dozen or so of us with aggregate scores above 50%. Of course, only our final exam grades actually count, so there’s that.

We have historically had the second highest NCLEX pass rate in the state, after Rush University. The students all came in with over a 3.5 GPA with at least 24 college credits before the application process. We’re not scraping the bottom of the barrel, student-wise. So, no, historically, it’s not a shitty nursing school.

Right now, this year, I fear it may be. That’s sort of the point of my question. Is it them or is it us?

However, what I can’t find numbers on is the historic attrition rate. It’s general wisdom that half of people who start year one won’t make it to second year of *any *nursing school, and that’s about what happened with our class. I don’t know how many of last year’s graduating class who started their final year didn’t finish, or the years before that. But the attitude from our teachers at the moment is that 30% is a very large percentage for failing students at this point in the program. Are they simply trying to scare us into studying more? I don’t know.
ETA: Oh…another “is it”: Is it the grading scale? <78% is a D in any class. Any D in any class is a failure for the program. A lot of these failures are in the 70’s, and may be able to pull it up with the next three tests, but it’s questionable.

It’s hard to say… my own experience of being in a program with a huge failing rate has been varied. What’s your feel for the student body? Are they really trying to pass? Has the same program produced higher pass rates in the past? Or is the program stuffed full of people who are going to school because the economy sucks and they have nothing else to do?

My first experience of a huge failure was the computer science program I was (briefly) in in the late 1990s. 70% of the students dropped out in the second semester, 50% of those who stayed failed. That was a problem with a particular instructor, both because he was a jerk and because these were all people who had made it through the first semester “weed out” class.

The second was the biology program I switched to. In the first semester, about 30% of the class dropped. That program and instructor was excellent, though; the people who dropped out were the ones who just weren’t cut out for a college science degree. People who stayed enjoyed a pretty fair distribution of grades.

Yeah, that would be my first thought; I suspect that a lot of people who would have dropped out in better economic times, and probably should have dropped out, are now sticking it out in college because they don’t have any better ideas. At the same time, a lot of institutions are bending or dropping their admissions standards because they need the tuition money.

Mine too. In a voluntary program, that high a failure rate usually indicates a lousy student pool.

As a high school teacher, a failure rate that high would cause me to seriously re-evaluate my teaching. It would involve a shift from Ron White to Strother Martin.

My personal feeling is that it’s mostly the faculty and the administration, and the lousy communication. But I will admit that I’m biased, being a student and all.

Most of the students left are really pretty bright, and they’re all, as far as I can see, hard workers (harder than me, to be honest. I’m coasting on intellect; I’m actually a lousy student, but I test pretty well. That’s getting shaky for me now.) As I said, they all have previous college experience with good grades. Most of them are adult learners, and motivation to graduate is very, very high.

If “they” were to ask me, I’d say, "We have too many teachers and too many test programs and too many textbooks. We’re given different things to learn for different tests (ie, learn this for the class test and that for the HESI and NCLEX probably wants this third answer). We’re given conflicting information from different teachers and texts (eg. different lab values as “norms”). We’re corrected after our failures instead of presented with information up front (eg: for three semesters in Med Surg, we’re taught that the first sign of shock is a drop in blood pressure. We got all the way through OB before someone thought to tell us that a drop on blood pressure is the *last *sign of shock in a pregnant or postpartum woman. grr.) Our classes are moved, days and times and locations miles away, sometimes with no notice at all (by which I mean, more than once another student has called me because they heard a rumor that the class today was now at X Hospital instead of Y, and did I know anything about it and I didn’t, because there is no communication from the staff.)

This is another thing I can’t get them to communicate. I just don’t know the attrition rate in the past after the first year.

No. There are a couple of them, but most of us are adult learners, second career, and overwhelmingly because Nursing is what we’ve always wanted to do before life got in the way. We’ve got teachers, paramedics, a lawyer or two, and lots of degreed, white collar professionals changing career paths, but it’s because of passion, not desparation.

Funny you should say that. Admissions used to be lottery based, after you met minimum requirements. Mine was the first class that was “Points” based, meaning you got Points for specific academic achievements (degrees, GPA, etc.), and the students with the most Points were accepted, with a lottery used for the bottom pool of ties. So, theoretically, my class should be BETTER students than classes in the past…which is also what the teachers tell us! They do acknowledge that we’re “better” than previous classes in terms of knowledge and critical thinking. So why are so many of us failing? Theoretically, the Points system seems great, but could that have somehow selected a *worse *class?


Isn’t nursing school one of the hardest, most competitive programs out there? I mean, there’s a difference between a 30% failure rate amongst Drama students and the same with Nursing students. The standards are set higher for nurses.

I don’t mean this to sound offensive, unfortunately I can’t make it sound any other way.

In my experience, nursing students, on average, are the worst students I have ever taught. My spouse has taught nursing students at another institution and concurs.

Now, not all of them. As with any population, there is variance. I have met multiple bright, motivated students that will make wonderful nurses. My sister in law is a nurse. I have nothing but respect for the profession.

But in general, the majority of the nursing students I have interacted with are lazy, intellectually uncurious whiners. And they cheat. Badly.

Frankly, a 30% failure rate seems low to me.


When I was at secondary school 25 years ago, 78% was a very good B, maybe even an A grade. A D grade was < 50%. I realise the subject matter is rather more serious, but that sounds like a seriously high bar unless the tests are easy.

It’s nursing, not business school. Do you want someone who only learned/retained/excelled at a little more than half of their schooling sticking a needle in your arm?

In the graduate program where I work, we are running at about a 10% failure rate. This is higher than it has been in the last couple of years, and the consensus is that we are getting a lower quality student.

We push most through first year by making them repeat the courses they get below 70% in or by giving them second chances on their final exams. After that, they seem to do ok, but they will probably just squeak by. Second year is tough, they cram pathology into one semester when it should likely be a two semester course, again failing students are allowed to retest over the summer. If they fail the summer course, they cannot enter clinicals. We give them every opportunity to pass their basic science courses to move ahead to rotations.

Our administration frowns upon students dropping out and will milk them for all the tuition they can get from them while keeping their grades above 70%. Those at the bottom of the class will graduate as DMD’s but will have little success if they want to specialize or enter a graduate program.

No, I don’t take it as offensive. If that’s your experience, then that’s your experience. I might have found it more useful if you had anything to add about that, though. What about them is bad? They don’t pay attention? They don’t take notes? They just test poorly? What? Why were they good students before nursing school and then bad students?

The tests in class are much harder than the tests on the actual nursing exam (NCLEX). Don’t get me started. Nitpicky, unclear, unfocused, terribly written. I’d much rather take a dozen NCLEXes than one classroom test.

In theory, of course not. But part of my frustration is that the things that drag everyone’s grades down are things that don’t need to be internalized, and shouldn’t be memorized, because every hospital will have its own policies and ranges. That is, we spend all this time being confused about what the normal lab value of X is and getting it wrong on the test because different teachers give us different ranges, but every hospital uses a slightly different range anyhow. So why drag the students’ grade down for something they’re going to be required to forget as soon as they graduate? At the very least, why not use the same range as the nursing exam we have to take to get our license?

We get a lot of questions like “What should the nurse do first…” with several options that in the real world would be done simultaneously, or as simultaneously as possible depending on the layout of the room. Tell a woman to turn to her left side while grabbing the oxygen with my right hand and stopping the pitocin drip with the left, for example. A student could get zero points on the test, but be a very capable nurse in reality.

But this is all getting more specific than I was really hoping for. I understand that none of you are in my school and can tell me what’s broken with that particular program anyhow. I was using it in the OP as an example of what I mean, not a problem to solve. What I’m really wondering is how and when educators decide that their system is not giving the students what they need to succeed, and how and when they determine that they’re doing everything right and it’s the students problem.

I mean, I think we’d all agree that if 98% of the students failed a single test, it’s more likely that the teacher didn’t explain the material well than that all 48/50 students slacked off or were idiots. What about if it was 50% of the students who failed? 10%? What’s the number that lets you know that your educational methods aren’t working?

All of the above (and I don’t know that they were good students before). I’m not in a nursing school, but I often have nursing students in my classes.

Also, I have seen a larger proportion of cheating with these students. I don’t know why.

They seem to get into nursing not because they have a vocation for it, but rather because “hospitals always need nurses!”.

They get annoyed when asked to learn anything they consider irrelevant. For example: “What do you mean, we need to know how to do math”?

Uh, how else are you going to calculate a dosage correctly?

“I’ll use a calculator!”

What if you have a patient who is dying on you - do you really think you’ll have time to reach for a calculator?

“The doctor will have the dosage on the chart!”

What if the doctor is wrong? You need to be able to see that.

etc etc…

Ah, I see. Yes, we had some proportion of those students in the first year, but I think 98% of them didn’t make it to the second year. At that point, I think attrition is probably a good thing. :smiley:

Could be it - I think the ones I get are beginning students.

For what it’s worth, mozchron’s post dovetails with my experience: pre-nursing, along with a few other majors – notably, elementary ed, health education, general business, and physical and speech therapy – tends to attract the weakest students on my campus. (I’m speaking of them in the aggregate; of course some of the individual students in these fields are very good.) I teach them mostly in gen ed classes before they’re admitted to the nursing program, so it’s not that they used to be good students and then nursing school turned them into poor ones. It’s that a disproportionate number of weak students seem to want to be nurses in the first place. Most of them don’t make it through the nursing program, and a good many of them are never admitted to it, but still they keep trying. In most cases, the problem isn’t a lack of note-taking or anything behavioral, they just have low reading comprehension and extremely poor writing and reasoning skills.

I don’t know exactly why this is the case, but I do note that all of these programs are vocational; students majoring in traditional humanities-and-sciences fields or in fine and performing arts tend to be noticeably stronger. (That said, there’s at least one major exception among the vocational programs on my campus: Culinary Arts students are often very good. So are many of the secondary ed majors, but they have to have a second major in the arts and sciences.)

If I had to guess, I’d say that there’s probably a combination of factors at work: 1) these programs attract many students who are going to college because they want a job, but who don’t really have a particular passion or aptitude for academic work; 2) they also tend to attract a disproportionate number of working-class, first-generation students, who are often poorly prepared through no fault of their own; 3) I teach at a mostly-female college in a part of the country where gender roles are still very traditional, and I suspect some of our female students may not have explored careers other than teaching and nursing out of sheer lack of imagination.

In medical school, what do they call the person who graduates last in the class?


I worked for two years as an elementary school English teacher in rural Bulgaria. The older my students were, the higher the failing rate. Based on what I saw, this is because the education system was failing the kids, and it became more obvious and acute the more advanced the students were supposed to be. We were required to follow a government mandated curriculum, and when the kids fell behind because the system (by which I mean teaching, parental involvement, school interest, and educational infrastructure) it became impossible to keep up. I once gave out a test to my eighth graders (my oldest kids) where three kids out of ~25 passed. It was completely obvious that they were missing many of the fundamentals and I wanted go back and start at the beginning because it was totally fucking pointless to teach lessons that the kids couldn’t follow. I was informed that no, this was not allowed, the government said we had to teach XYZ to eighth grade classes, not ABC, so we barreled on, continuing on in with lessons that were increasingly incomprehensible to the students. It was a complete waste of time and energy.

So when I hear about massive levels of failure, I have a tendency to believe that there is system breakdown.

I was thinking when I read Mozchron’s post… I’ve taught a linguistics survey course, which is taken by the spectrum of liberal arts students, and also elementary ed students. The el eds were… special.