“Never tell me the odds”: why scaring students into engaging probably won’t work (without a bit of a tweak)

I am currently looking at our own institution’s approach to attendance/ engagement monitoring and then the associated follow up actions. One of the approaches I hear from frustrated colleagues and senior managers is that we just need to tell students about the association between attendance and success. Whether done by scaring them with the risk of low attendance or the virtue of frequent engagement, we just need to communicate it properly. Unfortunately, I think that might be bad psychology; it may require a little more.

It's an asteroid, I couldn't find a picture of an asteroid field and a protocol droid to explain the odds of successfully flying through
Yes the quote is from that film

Three anecdotes (one is from a book though).

Economics Induction – (NTU)

(A very long time ago now) I was part of what we called the ‘induction circus’ and due to give a short guest lecture about study skills to a group of first year students. The course leader was just finishing off his motivational speech. He made the pretty shocking point that “1 in 3 of you will fail the first year” and paused for full effect before telling them to work hard and really get to grips with the subject. It was a well delivered point, spoken with conviction and a certain amount of old testament zeal. And 150 students looked around the lecture theatre at one another and decided “Nah, I’ll be alright, I think it’s him”

Engineering Induction (a European University (1))

In this HE system, there is an open access policy to university courses. In an attempt to drive down academic failure the course team offers a pre-entry test. Students who fail the test are warned that they will find it difficult to cope with the course and strongly encouraged to consider a different option. A highly esteemed colleague delivered this presentation to over 400 potential students who had failed the test and explained that if a student failed the pre-arrival test they had around a 5% chance of passing the first year without complications. And of course, the students decided “5% aren’t bad odds” and “someone has to pass”.

Graduate School exam preparation service

Berger (2020, pg. 33) cites an example of an American graduate school entry test preparation service. One of the biggest problems was that as students had already passed the exams needed to get into college they often assumed that they’d be able to do the same for graduate school with minimal effort. The tutor, Nafeez Amin, needed to change expectations. Instead of threatening students with the data, he started by asking what their goals were and why they wanted to get into the graduate schools. During the conversation, he then introduced the number of students who applied for these courses compared to the number of places available and then moved on to “So, to get a score that places you in that top percentile, how many hours a week do you think you’ll need to study?” (pg 35). Only then did he share his expectations with the students.

Of course, this story sounds hokey and the popular science book doesn’t have the rigorous data to prove the impact but I think that we often miss that engaging (& re-engaging) students is a a sophisticated teaching skill that requires strategies, relationship-building and empathy. Just telling students the odds probably won’t work, but tying it to their goals and helping them work out the answers for themselves might. 


(1) I’ll ask permission from the person who told me this story and if she’s happy to, will name the institution


Berger, J., (2020), The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind, Croydon, Simon & Schuster

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