Unlocking secrets of ghost students

Students who never submit any work in their first course are “zero fails” and while they generally disappear, they do leave with one memorable outcome – a study debt.

Neil van der Ploeg and Charles Sturt U colleagues think universities have a responsibility to help, so they looked at the performance of 32,000 CSU students in a new paper.

What they found:

  • Zero fails aren’t all ghosts who enrol, but never engage. Some, it seem do have a go – only 24% never engage with the learning management system. Although 45% of those who did engage were gone by census date, nearly 12% were still there at Semester end.   
  • On-line students are a greater risk of zero fail than similar campus-based students, but First Nations and disability students are the only equity groups at marked zero fail risks.
  • A First Semester zero fail sends a message that most get – more than half withdrew afterwards. Of those who stick for second Semester, 63% have more zero fails, while 17% pass most units.
  • The headline result is that zero fails are never less than 17% of all fails.

What universities can do:

  • “Look beyond first year retention … retaining more students with a history of zero-fail grades may not be a great outcome, unless students’ likelihood of success can actually be improved.”
  • Better explain census dates and do more to advise students already at risk of zero fails. That means looking for work not submitted, rather than just LMS activity.

As co-author Kelly Linden and Chris Campbell wrote in Campus Morning Mail (July 24 2022). “ a timely, targeted phone support to disengaged students pre census,” can reduce the risk of zero-fails and increase the chance of a pass or credit.  



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