Kneejerk reactions to student pass rates in open and distance learning (ODL)

It is that time of the year again when academic departments finalise the moderation of student marks and the interrogation starts – “Why did your pass rate fall with 10% since the previous semester?” and more worryingly “What are you going to do about it before the next semester starts?”

There is nothing wrong in asking these questions – on the contrary. What is worrying (amongst other things) is the fact that when student pass rates suddenly increase with 10% the same panic does not set in…

Except for the discrepancy between how we respond to an increase in student failure and an increase in pass rates; more disturbing are the kneejerk reactions in response to a drop in the pass rate.

There is usually no time (or intention) to interrogate whether the student profile was the same; whether there were changes in the ways we assessed; whether there were any delays in the delivery of study materials or how many times the servers were down at crucial periods of students’ learning journeys. We do not interrogate whether there were macro societal shifts such as a dramatic increase in unemployment. We don’t take time to interrogate whether the sudden 10% drop is a recurring phenomenon over the last number of semesters or a once-off phenomenon. We don’t ask whether the lecturers changed, or whether the prescribed handbook was available.

There is just no time to critically engage with the bigger picture. More convenient are kneejerk reactions landing on the desks of lead academics who must urgently redesign study materials, add student support, increase the number of activities on the learning management system,  or whatever else would please the powers that be.

These kneejerk reactions then result in ad hoc add-on and shoot-from-the-hip responses which are not well-planned and integrated into learning experiences. Many of these add-on responses are also based on outdated epistemologies and ways of seeing student success and throughput.

Student success in open distance learning institutions is a complex, multidimensional and dynamic phenomenon (see Subotzky & Prinsloo 2011) and we can simply no longer afford kneejerk reactions.

Our responses should be based on careful and critical analysis of the student experience  based on longitudinal research and learning analytics. Kneejerk reactions are costly and mostly a waste of scarse resources with no evidence that they actually do make a difference, except for another ‘tick’ on a performance appraisal…


Subotzky, G., & Prinsloo, P. 2011. Turning the tide: a socio-critical model and framework for improving student success in open distance learning at the University of South Africa.  Distance Education, 32(2): 177-193.

[image retrieved from–jerk-reflex/, 8 December 2011).

About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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3 Responses to Kneejerk reactions to student pass rates in open and distance learning (ODL)

  1. Pingback: Kneejerk reactions to student pass rates in open and distance learning | Educations Club

  2. Hentie Wilson says:

    Thank you for stating this (in some informed people’s opinions) very obvious truths. It is high time we get proper statistics and do some real analysis – quickly.

  3. Thanks Hentie. On the one hand we know so little and don’t care to know more; and on the other hand we don’t use what we already know….

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