My institution allows students a number of opportunities to late drop (Q-drop) a course--far too many in my opinion. The precise number of times a student can late drop a course varies from college to college. There are always a few students who have done absolutely no work for the course, ever, and show up to late drop. This happens with such regularity, semester after semester, that I suspect some sort of financial aid or other scam. They need to be enrolled as full time students, but never had any intention of completing the course. Then there are the students who have, say, taken the first midterm and most of the quizzes, but have done very poorly--at a level that is really only possible if they were putting forth minimal effort. When I talk to these students, it becomes clear that, though they took some/all of the assessments, they did very little work for the class. Sometimes this was planned, other times personal issues have come up and interfered in the student's ability to complete the assigned work. And then there are the students who are earning a decent grade, a B or C, but don't want their GPA to go down. Oddly, many of them concede that their GPA is already in the B or C range (they are often science/math majors), but it's somehow ok to get a C in a Computer Science class but not in a liberal arts course.
I was hoping that the frequent assessments in the form of weekly quizzes and ethics worksheets would cut down on the number of late drop forms I sign. Students would know where they stood and it would be much more challenging for them to be in denial about their grade. Ultimately, it hasn't had any affect at all. I am signing the same number as always--perhaps even more than usual thus far. In most cases, it is a case of the student doing very little work and clearly failing the course. If they are in a position to earn some kind of B, I've encouraged them to stay in the class and dedicate some time to finishing it off. In the midst of talk about time to degree and 4 year graduation rates, it seems imperative that institutions tighten up the rules governing late drops. It appears that students are using these largely as a way to maintain full-time student status, even when they had little intention of completing a course. I am not opposed to a student dropping a course that s/he is failing after working hard at it; but it's ridiculous for someone to be able to drop a course in Week 10 that they never showed up for.
The one bright spot: all but three of the students who wanted to drop were of the "never showed up" sort rather than ones who didn't like the grade they were getting. I'm sure that others have changed their grading option to pass/fail. But overall, I do feel like the quizzes have done their job of keeping students informed of their performance and forcing them to be realistic about their chances of getting an A in the course.
One of my plans this summer is to work with our Center for Teaching and Learning assessment specialists to get a better sense of who drops the class and why. The number isn't very big, but it's big enough that I think we might be able to sketch some "types" and think about how to address this. Even though this course is just fulfilling an elective requirement, dropping it late means that a student is going to have to pay for and take another course down the line, perhaps instead of taking a course in his/her major that would move him/her closer to graduation.
Update 5/26/2013: In Fall 2011, I had 5/220 students late drop (Q) or withdraw (W). In Fall 2012, 12/387 students earned a Q or W. In Sprint 2013, 16/387 students earned a Q or W. The numbers between Fall 2011 and Fall 2012 stayed relatively stable; they increased slightly in Spring 2013. This was surprising to me since the students received significantly more feedback on their performance and had multiple opportunities to make necessary adjustments. Interestingly, though, the most influential factor was likely the fact that, in Spring 2013, I was no longer giving high-stakes midterm exams. In previous semesters, 30% or so of the grade was outstanding by the last class day. Some students clearly decided to dig in, study, and see if they could earn a passing grade. In Spring 2013, all but about 13% of the grade was determined before the final class day. The increase in Q drops actually represents students making informed decisions--they knew that their chances of earning whatever grade they wanted were slim (or non-existent) and so opted to drop the class. At least half of these students, I noticed, had never engaged in the class discussion board and had often done poorly on the weekly quizzes. In essence, they were "bad fits" for a class that required a "learn as you go" rather than "cram for the exam" approach. I suspect that one way to decrease the number of late drops is simply to be able to have a better sense of "who" the typical late-drop student is; and then remind students that, if this is them, they will not find that my class is a good fit for them.