BACK TO BASICS: Why Is the Dropout Rate so High?


A perpetual question arises as to why there is a huge dropout rate in you name it – high schools, colleges, musical programs, dance programs, sports, and so on.  Court Reporting is no exception.  A student’s account of why she thought there was a huge dropout rate in court reporting programs was that “students were not told how much work the program was going to be and how much time was involved in developing the skill.” She reasoned that fewer students would enroll if they knew what they were getting into and the dropout rate would be less.  Only the ones who understood and accepted the challenge would enroll.

Is this the reason that students drop out of any program?

Maybe it is part of the problem.  However, not all students have this experience.  Many students know what is involved in going into various career, sports, or music programs because they have family members, friends, or acquaintances who have gone through the programs before them. Yet many of these same people who know about how much work and time are involved in these programs still drop out.

What about students who drop out and return?  Don’t they already know what is expected because they have been in a particular program?  What about students who drop out and go to other schools or programs for the same career, sports, or music programs?  Don’t they already know what to expect because they have tried the program?  What about students who drop out and go to other schools and then return to their original program for the same career, sports, or music program?  Don’t they know what is expected in terms of work and time involved?  What about students who drop out, go into programs in different areas, and then return to their original career, sports, or music program?  Do they think that less work and time will be involved now that they have gone into a different discipline?

The real problem may lie in other areas.

For example, in court reporting, do students have defined clear objectives on what they are expected to achieve from the first course that they take?  In court reporting, that course is called theory. Theory is the steno language that students must learn.  What are the student’s expectations for what the student should know after completing a theory course?  What are the teacher’s expectations of what a student should know after taking a theory course?  What are the expectations of the next teacher who will teach that student have about what the student should know from that theory class?  What assumptions do we as teachers make when a student enters our class after just learning theory?

Are students supposed to know the steno language after they have taken a theory class?  What does “knowing their theory mean”?  We certainly use that phrase a great deal.  Does it mean that students are supposed to be able to write every word that they encounter after taking their theory class?  If so, what mechanism is in place to assure that this outcome can be achieved?

If students cannot write certain words in their theory, how are they instructed as to what to do to remedy that problem?  Do all the teachers involved in the program agree on the answers to these questions?

Do we have a plan during theory to set the stage for success?

Setting the stage for success starts by  explaining to students that being successful in court reporting requires that the student 1) learn a steno language referred to as theory and (2) learn to write that language on a machine.

The importance of learning the machine is a given.  However, the importance of learning the steno language cannot be understated. Sometimes because teachers and students are so happy to get the process started, they forget the steps that are needed to help students understand the process.  A good example is a teacher with a background in linguistics enrolled in a court reporting program and completed the program in one year and one month.

Learning what she did was really a revelation to many of us!  She studied the language separate from learning to write the steno language on the machine.  She treated theory as the steno language that it is.  She spent time learning and analyzing the language.

Maybe treating theory as a steno language is only a partial reason for her success, but it is nevertheless significant. As a teacher, how do you engage students in learning the language apart from the machine?  As a teacher, do you ensure that students know all aspects of the steno language before they enter the realm of testing on speed acquisition?  Do you teach the steno language independent from the machine or totally in conjunction with the machine?  How do you ensure that students know the steno language?

Recently, an instructor told me that she counseled a student who was not passing speeds after finishing the theory course.  In the course of the conversation, she asked the student whether the student knew her theory.  The student response was a hand gesture translated to be not really.  Instead of telling the student to go practice her theory lessons, the teacher gave the student a set of flash cards and told her to use the cards to write one theory word on one side of the card and the steno language outline on the other.  When she has filled up the pack of cards with outlines, she was to come back for another pack.   What is important about this is that the teacher had a plan to address the issue that the student had.  The teacher was not placing blame on anyone, just addressing the issue, . and not telling the student to just go practice your theory.

How many students have left our theory classes not knowing their theory?

Do we as teachers forget some of the steps that we know are important in the learning process because we want to get right into the speedbuilding process?  It is easy to do.  If we are doing the same thing over and over every six weeks, twelve weeks, or eighteen weeks–year after year–we sometimes skip a few steps in the process.  Do we have a checklist of what to tell students every class?  Good idea, but most of us don’t.

Are we doing our best at teaching the steno language?   Are we ensuring that students in our steno language course have built a sufficient foundation in the language to move into the speed building segment where the highest drop-out rates occur?