Course Withdrawals as an Indicator of Student Distress


Sandi Bramblett
Georgia Institute of Technology, Assistant Vice President of Institutional Research and Enterprise Data Management (IR & EDM)

Donald Pearl
Georgia Institute of Technology, Director, Center for Academic Success


Many researches looking at key indicators for student success will use the grade point average to determine how well a student is performing in his or her classes. However, this is an inaccurate measure and can often be hide other earlier indicators of trouble. In review of the transcripts of students who become academically dismisses one can often see signs of distress occurring several semesters before this occurs in the number and types of courses from which a student is withdrawing or receiving low grades, defined as a D or F. A withdrawal does not adversely affect the grade point average, and often a D or F grade are offset in the calculation by an A in another course, which may not be helping a student progress towards a degree. Thus, the student may not raise any of the usual warnings that are created by a change in his or her grade point average, but is showing clear indications of not making progress towards a degree.

In this presentation we look at data that shows the relationship between the number of course withdrawals a student may have and his or her eventual success in college. We look not only on the effect this has on the probability of graduation, but also as how many semesters it may take a student to finish a degree. Additionally, we find that withdrawing or getting a poor grade in a foundational course that is taken early in a student’s college career can be an indicator of later struggles in later class that may led to the student being unsuccessful in degree attainment or require additional semesters to complete. As an example, it will be shown that getting a grade less than a C or withdrawing from the first attempt at physics is an indicator that a student will struggle in mechanical engineering. Even if the student is doing well in his or her other courses, which results in what appears to be a satisfactory grade point average, eventually he or she will take struggle in enough mechanical engineering courses that rely on physics to the point that he or she will finally end up on academic probation or dismissal.

Knowing this information is critical for the setting of academic policies and creating interventions that will inform the student that he or she is in danger of not completing a degree and to enforce an earlier recognition of this lack of degree progress to keep the student from using resources and spending money in an attempt to attain a degree that he or she is not fundamentally making progress towards.


Sandi Bramblett is the Assistant Vice President of Institutional Research and Enterprise Data Management (IR & EDM) at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Prior to joining Georgia Tech in 1989, she worked with the State Auditor’s Office in Georgia. At Georgia Tech, Sandi has served as a cost accountant, budget analyst, research coordinator and director. In her current role, she leads a team that develops and maintains data resources to support the strategic planning and policy-making processes at Georgia Tech. IR is responsible for the production of the award-winning Georgia Tech Fact Book, specialized student and faculty studies, peer analyses, strategic planning support, survey responses and federal and state institutional reporting. Enterprise Data Management is responsible for the development of data governance, an enterprise data warehouse, and a business intelligence solution that provides campus users with information that can drive timely, effective, and informed decisions. Sandi has co-authored two studies on grade inflation, two book chapters on institutional research and has been invited to present on numerous topics related to institutional research, strategic planning and decision support at regional and national conferences. Sandi has served as president of the Association for Institutional Research (AIR), the Southern Association for Institutional Research (SAIR) and chairperson of the University System of Georgia’s Committee on Institutional Research and Planning. She is currently serving as the chair of the governing Council of the Association of American Universities Data Exchange (AAUDE).

Dr. Donald Pearl is the Director for the Center for Academic Success at Georgia Institute of Technology where he oversees extensive programs that supports more than 4,000 students each semester through tutoring, supplemental instruction, and academic coaching. He has taught introductory physics and mathematics at a variety of colleges and has held a number of administrative positions, in support of faculty instruction, student learning, and assessment. Previous to coming to Georgia Tech, he served as the Assistant Vice-President for Academic Affairs at Georgia Perimeter College where he was responsible for its Complete College Georgia programs, tutoring, advisement, and dual enrollment. Dr. Pearl earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Nebraska and M.S. in mathematics from New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. He has presented at a number of conferences concerning instructional technology and student success, most recently presenting at the American Association of College and Universities conference on Diversity, Learning, and Student Success.