Quitting has been in the news and on my mind recently.  David Petraeus quit as director of the CIA.  Some question whether he should have.  Earlier this fall, Todd Akin didn’t quit the Senate race in Missouri after making prehistoric comments about women.  Some argued that he should have.

Yesterday I heard an interview on the radio with Oliver Berkeman, whose new book is called The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking.  Berkeman criticized those self-help books and seminars that promote happiness by dropping words like “impossible” from our vocabulary and repeating endless positive affirmations.  “Actually,” he said, “there's a lot of research now to suggest that many of these techniques are counterproductive.”  Berkeman went on in the interview: 

"I think anything that is based around eliminating words from your vocabulary, like the word 'failure' or 'impossible' — I know that they don't necessarily mean it quite literally, but that idea that you should just ... pretend that they don't exist I think is incredibly annoying.”

“Quit” would be one of those words.

Dropping Courses – When is it quitting, cutting losses, or good strategy?


The issue of quitting was on my mind because last Monday was the deadline at my university for students to drop courses.  Among the more difficult judgments I have to make as a professor is if and when to bring up the subject of dropping a course with a student who, despite my best efforts to keep them apprised of how they’re doing and encouraging them to take steps to improve their performance, is in danger of failing—or of not doing as well as they could.  Do I suggest, advise, encourage, or insist that they drop?  For some students, one failing grade or one D on their transcript won’t make much difference.  For others, including those thinking about graduate school, a poor grade really can make the difference between successful and unsuccessful applications.  

Sometimes students can’t drop because their financial aid requires enrollment in a minimum number of credit hours.  This is a bad policy because it creates a conflict of interest between educational benefit and monetary concerns. 

Speaking of conflict of interest:  When I advise students to drop, I need to make sure that my major motivation is the student’s welfare and not primarily my own convenience.  The welfare of other members of the class might factor in as well. (I’ve discussed this before in terms of students whom I may not like, or who may be disruptive in class.)  Sometimes it’s simply not clear what the best choice is for a student, and I need to make sure I present options fairly without undue influence. 

Back to Quitting

Some students resist the idea of dropping when it’s clearly in their best interest.  Avoiding a D or an F would be well worth the lost tuition.  In these cases I try to help students see the consequences—both long- and short-term—of their options to stay in the course and to drop.  Students often need to weight the long-term benefits of dropping more heavily.  But many of these reluctant students express a value such as this:  “I don’t like to quit.”  Or, “I never quit.”  Or, “I’m not a quitter.”  It’s at this point that I believe a little attitude readjustment is in order—usually involving a discussion of perspective.  What are the prizes that students should keep their eyes on?  A particular assignment, course, major, degree, school, career?  Depending on what metaphors a student relates to, and how tired they are of hearing me go on and on, I might offer the following examples of putting a decision to drop in persective:

  • Is it quitting to kick a punt to gain better field position and win a football game?
  • Even the best generals make tactical retreats.  Is that quitting?
  • Was President Obama a quitter in the recent campaign because he “gave up on” states like Kentucky and Montana?
  • Professional authors revise their manuscripts.  Does that mean they quit on their first draft?
  • Most anybody who makes a plan needs to make mid-course corrections and revisions to the plan based on the evidence of progress they collect along the way.  Maybe the catchphrase is not, “Never say die,” but, “Pick your battles.”

Transferring and Leaving College

There are broader decisions in which issues of quitting emerge, including transferring schools or leaving college entirely.  Colleges are very concerned these days with “student retention,” and their statistics look bad when students leave school before they graduate (or, sometimes, if they take longer than four years to graduate).  Advisors and instructors may face conflicts of interest in the form of retaining students who shouldn’t be retained.  When I advise students one at a time, however, the retention statistics are simply not as relevant as the academic, intellectual, and personal growth of the student in front of me. 

I often talk with students about the varieties of college experiences, including the traditional 4-year, 18-21 career, but also the 20-year plan that some students do.  Some students work for a while before entering college—many work during college.  Full-time, part-time, switching majors, taking time off:  There is no right way to do college.  Therefore, leaving college may appear to be quitting when it may actually be one or more of the following:  (a) a leave of absence, after which the student will return to this or another college, (b) an experience that will enrich their education when they come back, (c) an experience that will be so rewarding that they won’t come back, (d) a mistake that will waste them some time, but probably not as much time as they’ve already spent on Facebook.  Few such decisions are final, catastrophic, or irrevocable.  I’ve seen so many students return to college in their thirties, forties, fifties, and beyond, that I would never bet a student who takes time off from school is making a devastating mistake.


Sometimes, of course, students don’t want to hear these stories of my 30+ years in the business.  But I often tell the stories anyway.  After all, I’m no quitter….


Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach(Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).  He is also an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology(American Psychological Association, 2012).

© 2012 Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved

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