Sunday, July 26, 2009

Professor Ethics Question

Here's a question for thought and discussion:

There are several areas of study required here at NWU that students take placement tests, even though they may have a fair number of high school credits in the area. Imagine a foreign language, math, or English composition, for example.

A student tests into a fairly low level class, lower than one might expect based on his/her high school transcript. Nonetheless, the test places the student into that low level class.

The student signs up for the class; the syllabus for the class requires a small number of tests or essays (50%), class participation (10%), a small project (10%), homework (30%). (Usually the homework, project, and participation help students who are trying hard but having real difficulty with the material.) The student passes the tests, not excelling, but demonstrating that s/he understands the necessary concepts and can do work necessary for the next level. But the student doesn't complete the project or the homework, and participates minimally when present.

Mathematically, the student would fail the class, which is required for graduation. But, the student has demonstrated that s/he knows the material and can do the work necessary to go to the next level.

Should the professor give the student a minimal passing grade (because the class is really a hoop, and the student doesn't need to spend the time/credits retaking the class, and besides, it costs the school money for students to retake classes, especially these lower level classes that other students really need the class).

Or should the professor give the student the mathematically earned grade (because the syllabus is like a contract and the student didn't do the work required to pass).

What do you think, and why? (The why really interests me; you don't need to be in academics to answer.)

Does your answer change if you know that the student will be suspended if s/he doesn't pass? Or that there's a scholarship of some sort on the line?


  1. You know, I feel like the "right" answer is that the student should fail, but in real life I'm a soft touch, so I'd probably pass him.

    Come to think of it, in real life, the student probably passes mathematically if he's in one of my classes. I calculate all grades using the 0.0-4.0 scale, so assuming that the student has at least a C average on the tests / essays which are worth 50% of the grade, he should be pulling a D average for the course. I can see that the same student would have an F if the instructor grades on a 0 to 100% scale, though, and I sure wouldn't fault the instructor for assigning an F.

    Come to think about it some more, situations like this are exactly why I don't use the 0-to-100 scale; I can't think of a good reason why the penalty for not completing an assignment should be that much worse than doing it really, really badly. (Well, that and the fact that I do NOT need some neurotic straight-A student freaking out about why she has a 97 instead of a 100.)

  2. You say that the student participates "minimally while present." Well, an important thing to me in this case is just how often that student IS present. If a student comes to class only every so often, showing up for "important" days like exam day, but blows off the class the rest of the time, then they'd fail. If they come, but just sit there, not asleep... sort of engaged, then their participation grade would not be in peril. To me, a lot of effort is shown just by showing up to required, hoop-style classes. But then again, not doing assignments would really rankle me too. I'd probably figure the grade mathematically, check to see what the person's attendance rate is like, and then make a decision. If the mathematical grade is too low for this to make some sort of difference to me, then the student would still fail. If the grade were boarder line, I'd probably pass with the lowest possible grade.

  3. From a British perspective, it seems bizarre that university students are forced into doing courses outside of their areas of interest, just to meet their course requirements. While there's a lot to be said for a broad education (mine was much too far the other way) and the student knew what was required from the outset, you have to ask what the point of university study is? To meet the course requirements, or to study the things that interest you?

    If I were in the position of power here, I'd probably base the grade on the student's results in other courses. If they're trying to coast through everything then it's a fail, but if it's just the required courses they can't be bothered with, then pass.

  4. To me, it's a matter of fairness. How fair is it to the other students in the class who have shown up each day, participated, and completed assignments that someone who's coasting is given (hasn't earned) a passing grade?

  5. Fail.

    And this is coming from someone who frequently did not do busy work/homework. If you choose to not do the work, you have to accept the consequences. Even in high school (which is when I did this) I knew that I could have gotten a better grade if I had done the work. I chose not to and I received the grades I earned. I never complained. It's a matter of taking responsibility for your choices. (oh dear, I sound like my mother!)

    The side issues (scholarships, etc) don't matter (unless we're talking about a serious illness hindering the students ability to do the work - then I'd allow an Incomplete). What matters is that the student needs to take responsibility for his/her actions and lack of action. Sometimes we have to jump through hoops - it's part of life.

    And, it isn't fair to the other students. Unless, of course, you want to bump all of their grades up the same number of points as this student received. I wouldn't do that either, though. If the syllabus and assessment are fair, all students need to abide by it. They know what they are getting into and they know what they need to do to pass the course. Failing to do the work is not one of those things.

  6. Hmmm. To some extent, I feel like I need more information. What it sounds like from the description is that this student was placed too low for his/her ability level, but it's not clear whether that was by design (a student who intentionally bombed the placement test in order to coast) or mistake (bad day, bad tester, whatever). So my question is, when did this become clear to the instructor? If it was within the first three weeks of classes, this student could have been (and probably should have been) moved to the appropriate level for his/her ability (which is what happens at my institution in the foreign languages, for example). Even if it was later than that, did the instructor talk to the student about his/her performance in the course? About what was required to pass?

    Yes, i know it's on the syllabus, but if this is a first-year student, I do think that there should have been a conversation around the midpoint of the semester, which would have given the student a chance either to buckle down or to continue to slack. That's what would make the decision for me. If I had that conversation and the student turned it around, the student wouldn't fail - not because I was being a softie, but because mathematically the student would have pulled the grade up. If I had the conversation and the student kept on with the slacking? F. And no guilt about it.

  7. For once, I'm going to post a comment without reading the ideas above... so, I may reverse myself :).

    I wouldn't pass this person. Neither the scholarship nor the cost of re-taking the course are factors I'd consider. Clearly, the student doesn't take them into consideration when they fail to do more than show up for the exam.

    First of all, just because their high school transcripts indicate they have the skill, it doesn't mean they actually HAVE the skill. I've had plenty of students with AP English credits who can't write etc.. So, if you trust the placement test, this student probably needs to be in the class and thus needs to show that they've mastered the skills.

    Second, the skills these lower level classes teach go well beyond the core competencies of the course. This kind of class teaches students to follow directions and/or work well with others. They also teach time management. For some reason, the student who does well on the exams but doesn't do the in-class / project stuff hasn't learned at least one of those lessons.

    The in-class/project stuff shows that the student can apply the principles the class is supposed to teach. The student hasn't demonstrated that they can take these skills into other courses, and passing them would be a disservice to the student when they hit other courses and are expected to be able to apply those skills.

    Assuming the in-class/project stuff actually applies to the class and teaches/demonstrates the skills, I also don't think it would be fair to pass students who failed/missed the exams but did pretty well on the other stuff. They'd have a valid complaint if they found out you'd deviated from the syllabus.

    I also think that the excuse that the student doesn't test well, thus was placed inaccurately doesn't hold, because they do seem to test well. The other alternative is that they are good at reading into exams, so they don't actually know the material, rather they know how to derive the answers from the other questions on the exam. Writing assignments don't allow this kind of shortcut, so the student didn't do them.

  8. (Not having read the other comments:) I'm a contract person, because it's not fair otherwise to the other students who'd have liked to get by with doing as little as the student in question, but didn't, because they thought it was required because it was in the syllabus. That feels like you're changing the rules for one student without changing the rules for all. I can't say that I'd never pass the student along, mind you, but I do tend to see the syllabus as a contract. (I also used to say in my syllabus that students must complete all assignments to pass the class, so it's not like they're not warned.)

    I also score REALLY high as a J on the Myers-Briggs, FWIW. :-)

  9. Anonymous6:41 AM

    Another "J" personality here saying its not correct or fair if you don't follow the contract.

    Now whether the system needs some changing (perhaps the class needs to be just a pass/fail on the basis of whether they succeeded in the goal of the class (to be ready for the real class) rather than succeeding on the assignments given - if this really is that big of a problem)

    But really - I don't see where the issue is - whether you were borderline and had to take the remedial class or not - you still have to do your homework

    (or - at least what homework you have to turn in =) I will admit to the fact that if I'd tried a little harder or taken French earlier in my college career (at the beginning when it was still fresh in my mind instead of at the end, I probably could have skipped at least one semester of French - BUT I paid attention, participated, did all assignments that had to be turned in, I just never did the workbook assignments that didn't, because their purpose was for us to learn, and if I'd already had a refresher from class - I saw no reason to do it when I was preparing for my senior recital =)

  10. PS re: scholarship/suspension: nope, I don't factor that in. My stock response is that the student should have remembered those things when they were making the choice not to do the work.

    I really like Dr. Crazy's points about talking to the student throughout the semester.

    (And I'll admit that if the student were on a student visa and facing deportation back to some terrible area, I'd be more likely to take that into account. But usually such students don't blow stuff off!)

    This is kind of reminding me of what ranks of one of my all-time frustrating student conversations, with a guy who didn't come to 1/3 of the classes (in a 10 week quarter, so classes were long/counted for a lot), therefore didn't complete 1/3 of the daily quizzes (all advertised right up front in the syllabus), and the quizzes were 25% of the final grade. (Apart from whatever participation was, which was lowered for missing 1/3 of classes.) His argument was that the quizzes were pointless and not helping him learn the material, nor was discussion, so he didn't see why he should have had to do them when he was otherwise meeting the pedagogical objectives of the course. (Yes, he got As on his papers.) This was sort of the flip side of your hypothetical: he was a senior, taking grad classes in his major (I think business), taking an Intro to History course designed for first- and second-year students. I completely agree, actually, that the quizzes weren't necessary for him (although plenty of the students were scraping by with Cs on them), and, in fact, that they weren't very helpful (they didn't work that semester for a variety of reasons). But he didn't get to change the terms of the course - especially since he didn't talk to me about this until the end of the semester (his comment was something like, This won't hurt my grade, will it?). If he'd come to talk to me about this once he figured out the problem, we could actually done something! But I pointed out to him that it was his choice to take the required intro course as a senior/grad student, and I had to teach it as an intro class to the first- and second-year students to whom it was marketed (and he just had to suck that up). I didn't overlook the quizzes (and he was in no danger of failing, he just wanted the A he believed he deserved), I went by the math on the syllabus, but I had the world's most infuriating conversation for half and hour about it, because somehow the idea that I couldn't just IGNORE that he'd failed to complete 1/3 of 25% of the class did not compute for him.

    (Sorry, that was a long digression!)

  11. Anonymous7:35 AM

    I teach 1-3 courses like this each year, and I vote for fail. Most of the time, the course I teach like this is a foreign language course. I have four things to add to the good comments above:

    1. HS coursework is very rarely easily translatable to true proficiency. I've had students with 5 years of college (language I teach) fail to show they they should be placed even in our second-semester course (which is of the level you'd find at good universities). I've also had students with only one or two years of very poor instruction (by their admission and description) test above the level their HS coursework should place them due to their own interest in the subject. I was in fact in this boat myself. I would imagine that math and maybe writing would fall into this boat, too. Sometimes a college (like ours) explicitly aims for "proficiency," which to me includes some retention of the material, not just short-term mastery to pass a HS class.

    2. A good placement test (at least in foreign language teaching) should have multiple parts: perhaps the necessary evil of a computer/bubble test (if, for instance, the Dean insists despite departmental disagreement--ahem), but also portions that aim to assess the student in other areas: we have a brief written section and an oral section with simple questions. It takes at most 10 minutes to conduct each assessment but it's worthwhile: some students do poorly on the awful computer multiple-choice test but splendidly on the communicative oral portion. You can correct for poor tests by adding another assessment instrument.

    Doing so is especially important if, as most college foreign language teachers do, you emphasize reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills. Only the very best HS foreign language teachers are able to achieve this broad level of language training with their students. I've had students with very high levels of reading pronounce (language I teach) as if they had had no instruction in pronunciation. I've had excellent speakers with lexicons chock full of slang who are incapable of constructing a simple written sentence.

    3. The placement test needs to be normed every couple of years (at least) to make sure you're appropriately placing incoming students near a level of performance reached by the students you're teaching. This isn't done enough.

    4. Finally, the course should appropriately assess learning by giving reasonable percentages for all aspects of a course. Don't overemphasize the tests, but don't overemphasize the HW either. Have many assessment opportunities that evaluate all aspects of the training you're supposedly giving the students. Make sure your assessment instruments are reflective of the skills you use in class. Failure to get this right really messes up a course like first-year foreign language.

  12. Anonymous7:37 AM

    Whoops, sorry for a very important typo in my anonymous post just above:

    "1. HS coursework is very rarely easily translatable to true proficiency. I've had students with 5 years of college (language I teach) fail to show . . ."


    "1. HS coursework is very rarely easily translatable to true proficiency. I've had students with 5 years of HS(language I teach) fail to show . . ."

  13. For me, it partly depends on the class and on the student -- but on the whole, for the class as you've described it, I would pass the student.

    The argument that part of our job is teaching them to follow directions, do what they're told --what, now?

    Do we really want to argue that this is the purpose of a university education?

    Isn't the question whether the student has the skills the class purports to give or not?

    Now I can be argued out of this position -- for instance, when I'm teaching Chaucer, I want students in class because discussions of the work matter and they can't contribute if they aren't in class -- but surely we've got some better argument than teaching students that they need to do what they're told when they're told or we'll smack them with the F-stick.

  14. I would need more information too. How is the rapport with the student? How often does the student show? What else is going on in the student's life? Does the student know s/he is near failing? I would mostly choose to fail the student because I too see a syllabus as a contract. But flexibility is rational as well, if the circumstances call for it.

  15. The argument that part of our job is teaching them to follow directions, do what they're told --what, now?

    Do we really want to argue that this is the purpose of a university education?

    Yeah, count me as another one who's skeptical about this argument. I'm here to teach skills and content, not deportment (unless this is a first-year-experience type course, where How To Be A Good Student is the subject matter). Thus, any student who shows reasonable mastery of those skills and content should pass, though not necessarily with a high grade. (I assume all of the students who have been doing their homework like good citizens will still be getting better grades than this particular student, or if they're not it's because they really haven't mastered the course content, so I don't think passing him is especially unfair to them.)

    The more I think about it, though, this is really a course design issue; since I'm in the "mastery" camp, I doubt that I would have weighted the homework / project / participation grades quite as heavily in the first place.

  16. Perhaps my perspective as a CC prof skews my answer, but I think that a basic college course teaches high school students to be college students. A lot of that is actually following directions and playing well with others. A significant amount of college work is doing stuff you aren't so interested in -- like life. The basic skill can be boiled down to doing things that aren't fun, but they are necessary because that's the process. Students who are permitted to skip the process in developmental courses come to my course thinking they can do the same. When those papers / assignments or whatever are actually part of the teaching process, giving them the message that they can pass without doing that stuff means that they'll fail my course.

    A while back I ran into a prof in the restroom at DIA... for some reason, we bonded quickly and started talking about the challenges of teaching. She told me that her students don't follow directions, can't write and often can't be bothered to come to class. Further, she said they don't work well on group projects and that assigning presentations were a challenge because they couldn't cooperate. I agreed with her about the horrible way high school supposedly prepares students for college work. Finally, I asked her where she taught -- her answer was Harvard... she was on her way back to Boston after skiing in Colorado.

    This tells me that, yes -- we need to teach our students to fulfill the requirements of the course, because they aren't being taught that at the high schools feeding my community college, nor are they being taught those things at the high schools feeding Harvard.

  17. i'm the mom of college student who flunked her freshman writing course. daughter was seriously unhappy that i agreed, she should have flunked it, even though she has some natural writing talent.

    she missed classes and assignments. if i recall, she missed a quiz or maybe more. her defense was that it was an 8 a.m. class, and anyway, she didn't need help writing.

    everyone's writing can improve with practice and feedback. academic and professional writing generally requires more rigor than jotting down a series of random thoughts. i have spent a good chunk of my career as a lawyer editing the work of other lawyers, and i can testify that it is really hard to try teaching lawyers the basics of writing.

    the other reason daughter got no sympathy from me goes back to the contract: she will be expected to do things that seem silly or meaningless to her in most jobs. at some point, she may learn the requirements aren't silly; or she could just get fired before she has enough experience to figure that out. so, i have no problem with requiring students to adhere to course requirements, purely as a life training exercise.

  18. p.s. -- daughter re-took the class the next year and did well. it was not the end of the world. she suddenly developed a sense of wanting to do well in classes, and started working harder.

  19. For the most part, I'm in the camp that "a contract is a contract". Often because the students who fail to do a significant part of the work are those who haven't been willing to open their minds to anything new. To them? Class is a punishment, an embarrassment, something for lesser people. They already know it all. And until you get them past that sense of superiority, into a sense that we're all learners and they still have something to gain, they're going to have problems in everything.

    Rarely, you get students who have some sort of performance anxiety or other problem that's sabotaging them. Those are the students whom I try to reach "I see you did so well on this presentation or that assignment -- why didn't you hand in the essay? Is there anything we can do so that you can complete your term work?" Sometimes that'll do the trick. Other times? I think they need to drop out and reorganize themselves.

    Funnily enough, if I offer the chance to "make up" work for the "I already know it" students, they never follow through.

  20. I'm mostly in the "fail" camp for the "contract is a contract" reason. Though I'd also wonder about a placement test that didn't pick up that a student really knew something.

    If I figured out early in the semester that a student in such a course "knew" everything, I'd talk to hyr about building further relevant skills, or maybe helping those who are struggling.

  21. Anonymous6:29 AM

    I teach at the medical-student level and mostly deal with overacheivers, so take my comments with a grain of salt.

    There are at least three possibilities here:

    1) There is some sort of substance abuse (drinking, heavy marijuana use, etc.) going on here, which is impairing the student's ability to participate. The student should be referred to student health service.

    2) There is some sort of mental illness here, such as depression, which is making the student withdrawn and unmotivated. The student should be referred to student health services.

    3) The student is simply lazy.

    I myself was one of these lazy students in High School. I was exceedingly bright and classes were simple and boring. Truancy and failure to do assignments were a problem for me. I had excellent test scores and my ACT scores were in the top 1%. I could simply coast by showing up for tests and doing the minimal amount of work. My grades were mediocre, and I'm sure I missed out on scholarships. I am grateful, however, to the college admissions department for giving me a chance.

    In college, I knew my grades would follow me the rest of my life and I straightened up. I did the homework assigned, even if simple and boring, but most of the time, it wasn't. College was very exciting and interesting, because I could study what I wanted in depth. I did well and went on to medical school, etc., and am now an associate professor at a medical school.

    The point I'm making is that a lazy, unmotivated student CAN get her/his act together and I'm grateful that someone (at the level of matriculation) gave me a chance to change my ways and demonstrate what I could do.

  22. As I tell my students, "real life" does NOT begin after college: college IS real life, and the skills needed to succeed in a class are the same ones needed in other parts of life, and a big part of success is doing what you are expected to do. The course is what it is, and parts of it may be boring or seem insignificant, or be so easy for the student that s/he can pass even without doing everything. But passing such students lets them get away with thinking that they don't have to do everything expected of them. How many bosses are going to feel that way? Stu knows what the grade will be based on, since the syllabus spelled that out, so if s/he CHOSE not to fulfill the terms, no matter what the reason is, stu fails. Period.

    Yes, we are teaching skills needed for higher level courses, and maybe it seems like student mastery should be enough to get a passing grade. But we are also teaching other skills, that are just as necessary for the student's future life, like doing what it expected even when it is simple or boring or pointless or whatever, because we ALL have to do those kinds of things in our adult lives.

    I think we do students a real disservice to pass them just because they know the material, if they haven't met course requirements. And for what it's worth, I teach at a top-tier SLAC.

  23. I agree that doing the job, showing up, being prepared, being on time, that all of these are excellent skills, and I like students to have them.

    My objection is in the assertion that a university should be teaching those skills, so that our students will fit snugly into their corporate (or other) position.

    They have to learn to obey us, and follow our rules, because the mean boss and police will be even rougher on them <-- that sort of reasoning. It's that sort of reasoning, I put forth as a possibility, that leads to a society that can argue, with all apparent seriousness, that Henry Louis Gates Jr deserved to be arrested for sassing the police; but that, OTOH, it's just fine if the state should decide to cut everyone's pay by 1/5 while requiring the same amount of work from us.

    Obedience to authority is not what we should be teaching. Arguing with authority, maybe a little more of that.

    (Yes, I do change grades for students who talk back to me; but only for those who give me really good arguments.)

  24. As with many other acts of humankind, we need to learn the rules in order to justify or comprehend how/when to break them.

    The fact of the matter is that (at least my) students don't know how to follow directions. This frightens me on many levels, especially since a significant percentage of my students go into medical and law enforcement fields. Do you want your nurse giving you "kind of" the right amount of medicine? Do you want a police officer to pull you over and fail to follow procedure, or arrest you without Miranda?

    As for the disobedience of authority, I'm all for that -- BUT, they need to understand the function and purpose of authority in order to see what needs to be disobeyed. Thus, they need to know the rules in order to see which ones are unjust.

    Also, having just read a bit of MLK Jr and Kant as class prep, it seems to me that it is unfair NOT to punish students who fail to satisfy course requirements. MLK Jr. would say that if their failure to complete requirements is an act of civil disobedience, then accepting punishment is part of the process. Kant would say that to do otherwise is treating the student as a less than rational human.. either way, it isn't good.

    As for the 'training for corporate America' dig -- come on, keeping just about any entry-level job requires the ability to work with others and follow directions.

  25. i love ItPF's comments!

    delager, i hear what you're saying about blind obedience and not questioning at a larger societal level, but that certainly wasn't my point -- in comments here, or as a parent. the last thing i want for my kids is to mold them to fit into some corporate cog -- and i don't see that happening for either of them.

    i want them to have basic skills, and lots of them. i want them to see a larger picture, before they start complaining that they should be exceptions. i want them to think about others -- in the same position, in harder positions.

  26. Sorry if I'm coming across like an attack. I don't mean it that way. Down here in Arkansas, we get too much of the "we need to teach these students we mean business model." It gets down my neck a little, especially since these students are way too obedient already, in my opinion.

  27. i hear you! love that you might change grades for students who talk back and have *good* arguments. you want your students using critical thinking and not just parroting what someone else has said, and that's all to the good. [but, teachers need evidence that students are using relevant skills, no?]

    don't mean to wander too far off-topic, but when my daughter was floundering, i found out that my sister and i have wildly different expectations of a college education. i'm firmly in the camp that believes in the value of a broad-based liberal arts education, and that college is a time to learn to think, to explore a variety of interests; my sister sees it as job training, period.

    she wanted me to sit my student down and make her write a list of life goals, and then make her map out exactly how she will meet each goal, with a timeline. she was serious, and i was horrified. who can map out their whole life at 19? i want windows and doors to new ideas to be open to my daughter during this time of her life, not to be closing them before she has a chance to be exposed and consider everything that might be interesting to her.

    i don't think it is particularly inconsistent to require students to meet basic course requirements, and also [depending on the course] to encourage creative thinking and questioning of the material.

  28. This thread here I think makes my point much better than I've been making it:

    Now it's discussing graduate students, not undergraduates; but it's dealing with the notion of rules and how we address them, and makes the point I was (badly) trying to make, much better.

  29. Pass.

    The requirement for a course is knowing the material. The rest is immaterial. Education, not bureaucracy.