Chronic Course Shoppers: What is the Impact of Dropping and Adding Courses?

Most colleges and universities have fairly lenient drop/add policies. Students can drop a course well into the semester, and courses can be added during a short time window at the beginning of the semester or term. During that course add period, some students do course shopping. They sign up for a course, attend the first couple of sessions, then drop the course and replace it with another course.

A group of researchers was curious about the details of this course-shopping behavior. They wondered how prevalent it was, whether students who course shopped shared any demographic characteristics, whether students shopped for some kinds of courses more than for others, and most important, if the behavior influenced GPA and course completion.

Two types of course shoppers
The researchers studied course shopping at nine Los Angeles community college campuses, and in this community college system course shopping could only occur in the first four weeks of the semester. The research team identified two basic kinds of course-shopping behavior: cyclic shopping and bulk shopping.

Cyclic shoppers dropped a course one day and shortly thereafter added a course to replace it. Bulk shoppers enrolled in a set of courses (frequently a lot of courses) and then proceeded to drop half or more of those courses. If cyclic shopping happened more than 30 percent of the time a student enrolled in a course, it was labeled “frequent”; if less than 30 percent, it was labeled “occasional.” They also discovered that some students did both cyclic and bulk shopping. This group of very active course shoppers they referred to as mixed bag shoppers.

In this sample, almost a third of the students did cyclic shopping with about 7 percent doing it often enough to meet the “frequent” level. About 7 percent of students engaged in bulk shopping and 1 percent were mix bag shoppers. Thirty-eight percent of the sample engaged in some kind of course shopping.

Bulk and frequent cyclic shopping were widely distributed across this student population. There were some slight correlations with characteristics such as gender, employment, and high school GPA, but the associations were very small.

Math courses were more likely to be dropped than English courses and remedial courses were less likely to be dropped than either. When course shoppers did drop a math, English, or remedial course, they were likely to select a replacement course in another sector.

“The cyclic and mixed bag shoppers were more likely to achieve lower grade point averages than those achieved by students who were classified as nonshoppers. Similarly, nonshoppers had higher course completion ratios than the frequent cyclic and mixed bag shoppers.” (p. 479) Mixed bag shoppers had the lowest GPAs and course completion ratios.

How you can reduce course shopping
Researchers point out that drop/add policies exist for good reasons. Students need the flexibility they provide, especially students who attend community colleges where life schedules and course schedules are more likely to conflict, and where students are more likely to need remedial work. They do point out that their findings challenge the assumption that “course shopping is just a benign part of college culture.” (p. 465) Some students overuse the practice, and this is to their detriment.

“While occasional shopping may have its advantages, it is clearly better for students to make initial wise choices in the enrollment process so that they do not need to drop and add subsequently.” (p. 481) The researchers offer a variety of suggestions that might help students make those wise first choices, such as posting all syllabi online, making academic advising more readily available to students, and instituting a flagging system where computers could be programmed to identify frequent shoppers likely to be hurt by the practice.

Reference: Hagedorn, L. S., Maxwell, W. E., Cypers, S., Moon, H. S., and Lester, J. (2007). Course shopping in urban community colleges: An analysis of student drop and add activities. Journal of Higher Education, 78 (4), 464-485.

Excerpted from Course Shopping, The Teaching Professor, Aug.-Sept. 2007.