Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Teaching Issue

One thing I find difficult as a teacher is explaining to students that even though they might have legitimate reasons for missing class at times, they are still responsible for finishing the work, and that missing class almost always affects their grade negatively. This is not because I take off points for absences, but because by missing they lose out on stuff they just can't get from merely reading the textbook or borrowing their friends' notes.

Yet, year after year, I have students come see me who have missed a substantial amount of class because of a health issue, or because of family problems, who believe they should be given the grade they "would" have earned if they had not had the problems.

Leave aside for the moment that I have no way of predicting what they "would" have earned if they hadn't had personal issues. They always know, and it's often at least a letter grade above what I think likely. When students do have legitimate reasons for missing, I allow them to make up assignments, but I cannot go back and insert all the information in their brain that they would have gotten if they had been in class.

A student came in recently who had missed a lot of class because of family issues. She'd made a "C" on test 1, but because of all the missed classes she got an "F" on test 2. I worked out what she needed to get on test 3, the final, to get a "C" for the class. Her first question was, "What about a 'B'?" A "B" was statistically impossible. She then asked me, "What if I make like a 95 on the final exam?"

I told her that I'd be happy if she did so but that it still wouldn't get her to a "B." I could see she was hoping I'd tell her that I'd curve her grade to a "B" if she made an "A" on the final, but that's not the way it works. There is a certain amount of information a student masters in a class to earn an "A." There are other amounts for "B" and "C" and lower. Even if she mastered the last section at the "A" level, she would not have mastered the earlier material at that level.

She was nearly in tears when she left, and I felt badly for her. I know she has been through a lot this semester, but I can't morally sign off on work as having been completed at a certain level when it has not. And I don't know how to explain this to students.

I've tried telling them that we are not judged in the world on what we do 'one' time. Most people can get up for one test, one game, maybe even one story. Instead, we are judged on what we do across a semester, across undergraduate or graduate school, across a season, and across a career. We don't have to be great every time, but we need to be consistently good if we are going to get consistently good results.

Most of the students I talk to about this seem to think I'm just being mean. I don't feel very good about that myself.


Paul R. McNamee said...

I suppose given the emotional charge of failing a class and having been through an issue (family and/or health) the unfair reaction is to label you as "mean."

I think learning responsibility is a big issue. I see it with my 3 yr old. She really doesn't understand why she should apologize even if it was an accident and not her fault.

Unfortunately, there are many adults who won't take responsibility and that doesn't make for good role modeling.

I remember seeing someone who had found "Americans for Responsibility" many years ago on t.v. It was a problem then, too. He was trying to get Americans to own up and stop running to courts suing everyone in sight whenever something didn't go right.

Paul R. McNamee said...


Ron Scheer said...

I don't have this particular problem (poor attendance), but students come to me anyway with requests for grades based on "effort," improvement, need, special circumstances, other commitments and priorities. My response is always that I grade only on performance. Period.

My guess often is that this is a ploy that has been used many times before to get around the consequences of choices made. Tears will flow; I've learned to be unmoved.

At my school, students are used to getting A's, and often without trying very hard. A tough one for me is explaining that a paper is not A work. It's superficially "correct," but shallow, and the argument facile. What do you say in that case that doesn't sound mean?

Glad to be retiring.

jodi said...

Charles-It's not you being mean. It's a simple matter of mathmatics. No guilt for you on this matter!

sage said...

Stick to your guns... Especially if you've given the chance to make up their work!

BernardL said...

The only other solution would be to allow the student to complete a thesis quality paper on the section of time missed, but again, it would be you being penalized for the absence because of the extra paper to grade. My bet would be if you gave her stiff enough parameters for the paper so it would be an acceptable accounting of her knowledge gained, she'd probably look at the C with a different attitude. Otherwise, I guess you'll have to just be 'mean'. :)

Deka Black said...

You should not feel guilty. It hurts when you have a legitimate reason to miss a class. but... well, can't be helped.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Crap, wait until those kids hit real life - your class will seem like a cake walk compared to reality!
Don't feel bad. If those kids were working a job and missed all those days, they'd be fired, and that's an F for sure. You're teaching responsibility. Stick to your guns.

Chris said...

Yeah, I'm with everyone else. It's just the way the world works . . . unless you can work your way to the top. Then you can still be half-ass it seems and even lose a bunch of jobs . . . with huge bonuses, severance packages and new job offers. Hell, probably some board of directors posts too.

David J. West said...

It may seem "mean" but in the long run you are doing the best thing for them.

I also have to admit in the eighth grade I argued my science teacher in changing my F to a D for the quarter, and I considered that a great victory at the time.

But that was the only time I have argued a grade-it was long enough ago that I can't recall the exact issue other than I felt I had been wronged (of course/human nature) and told him so.

Other than that, I took the lumps.

Charles Gramlich said...

Paul, taking responsibility doesn't seem to be as respected or as important as it used to be.

Ron, I'm absolutely sure some of what I see is ploy, although it's hard for me to know which. I probably won't mind being retired either.

Jodi, it's not even guilt I feel as much as it is a kind of hoplessness. Not serious, of course, but just a general sadness.

Sage, oh I will, even though it isn't the most pleasant thing. I feel I have to.

Bernardl, other than the extra work for me, I find another problem with makeup work and that is that if you offer it to one student, no matter how deserving, then they all (or many) will want it too, and then you breed resentment that way. I've actually learned to not give extra credit work like that because of the problems I've had in the past.

Deka, yes, and all of us have to take responsibility for what we miss and realize we may not get quite to where we'd like to be because of it.

Alex, I know they'll get the lesson for sure when they hit real life, but you can't really just "tell" somebody that. They have to learn it for themselves it seems.

Chris, yeah, there's a certain level where the rules no longer apply. Not sure how that works but good money if you can get it, I guess.

Charles Gramlich said...

David, I tried to argue with a professor in grad school about a grade on a paper, in which I lost points 'only' for formatting. I didn't win, and I see that he was right about it. He did say it on the syllabus.

Tom Doolan said...

Yep, you're teaching responsibility. As a current grad student, it would never cross my mind to argue a grade. I've never gotten a grade (good or bad) where the teacher didn't rxplain the reasoning behind it. Of course, as a military vet, it's kind of been ingrained in me to not question my "superiors." Which may be the crux. To a student, the teacher is the superior. Despite what Hollywood shows us, teachers don't generally do things out of spite.

laughingwolf said...

part of their education is, like you say, to show they've grasped and understood the subject matter, consistently

while it hurts you to see them 'fail', it's beyond your control if they miss too much time, maybe beyond theirs as well...

that being the case, a simple withdrawal is in order, so the 'f' does not appear in their academic record... even if it does, so what?

if regs allow them to move on to the next level, and they're allowed to retake the single class failed, a later 'pass' will negate the 'fail'...

grades don't matter much in the 'real' world, unless they're used to get into grad school, or some such... and bragging rights, which are juvenile: i got a 'b', and you didn't!

i think all grades should be pass or fail, only... it's the system that demands other standards

pass/fail should be based on overall 'performance' for the school year, not on tests/exams

i know many otherwise competent students who 'freeze' during those

often, those with a good memory parrot back on the tests/exams, without showing competence in the material covered...

that's not being educated, just rote memorizing enough to obtain that grail of a 'pass'

of course, as touched on before, if parents 'pay' for their kid's education, they will demand the kid gets a 'pass', one way or another, or funds for the school, somehow, 'evaporate'!

to keep your job, you must follow guidelines... as must students, if they are to graduate

Deanna Visalle said...

This is a great input. This is my second time through college and all the 'BIG' things have happened to me: Death of my father, the birth of my daughter, not having rides, not having money for gas (I actually ran out of gas on the highway and a truck driver to me to the gas station.

Sometimes I would go to the Prof and see if there was alternatives and sometimes not.

I have had many different reactions and offers of help and (non) help but I always respected their decisions despite if the outcome was favorable to me or not. I have not thought any was 'mean' or 'unfair'.

Just my two cents of a second time around college student! :)

The Golden Eagle said...

I agree with the other commenters--the students do have a responsibility.

Charles Gramlich said...

Tom, it takes way too much energy to treat students with spite. So many other enjoyable things to do when you get a moment. :)

Laughingwolf, I think the pass/fail rule would be a fine one. Many students wouldn't like it but it would decrease some of the hassle we teachers face at the end of the year. Xavier does have a withdrawal policy but too often students wait until it's too late anyway.

Deanna, if there we actual assignments to make up we could work that out, but when it's specifically a matter of missing material and not coming to the professor in time for them to help review it, then there definitely isn't much to be done.

Golden Eagle, yes, it's mutual, and not always understood on the student side.

Ron Scheer said...

It's a mistake IMO to talk of school as if it's not the "real world." Being a student is a job like any other. It begins with showing up.

As for accountability, the students who *don't* come to you about grades expect you to hold everyone to the same standard and the same rules. You owe that to them.

the walking man said...

Charles I am not a teacher in any parochial sense of the word but why would you feel bad by being fair to them who did show up for class, completed assignments and did study for the tests despite whatever else was going on?

Do the work and if it comes up short that is different but not doing the work is unfair to the rest of your lecture class if you cut the slackers even more slack.

When I talk to my young friends abut school one of the first things I tell them about college is that it falls on them. They have to be responsible for all of it, getting to class, homework etc. Mom and Dad are not there to oversee their progress.

Some get it and some have to do their first year over for that GPA that is acceptable to them but a part of the idea of higher education is to train children how the world works.

That is not to say you can't have feelings about a persons situation but that too is a part of life and if you can name me one person who life has not bitten in the ass at least once...then you know a higher quality of people than I do.

I can feel bad for the young lady and her situation but I am fairly certain there is some peripheral issues that factored in as well, like party time and I just don't feel like going today.

No my friend you extend yourself as far as you own morals allow and that to me seems to be enough. Don't be one of those that takes the easy way and shortcuts your own sense of right and wrong.

SQT said...

I can't dredge up any sympathy for the student. I was working two jobs and dealing with an ill parent while in college. I had to drop a couple of classes and take them later but sometimes that's what you have to do.

Planning ahead is key-- to the best of your ability. That's part of growing up and living in the real world. The fact is that no boss I ever had was as understanding as the college professors-- and we can't all stay in school forever.

In the long run you're doing your students a favor. Better they learn to take responsibility now, when it's a highly recoverable circumstance, than later when it might really hurt them.

ivan said...

I can relate.

I've had similar problems here in Canada and abroad.

While teaching nonfiction in Mexico, on a U.C. accredited campus,I found the adult students there, mainly on the G.I. bill, to be really slacking off. One poet, who seemed to use the same sets of his poetry to get credits in his undergraduate work in english, seemed stumped when I gave him an assignment in formal journalism. And he wasn't there for the test. I told him I couldn't pass him.
Well, vale of tears. "This is really my living, The G.I. bill...If I went back to California, I'd be almost unemployable,likely having to make my living as a gardener."
I softened, since I did like some of his poetry, but I was teaching journalism at the time.
I did give him a pass, but felt bad about it. Still do.
Especially when another instructor, similarly frustrated,yelled out from another classroom, "Nothing for you,Curtis!"
Well, I guess I was no meanie, but I think that I myself missed an object lesson.
I was still under 40 at the time and unaware there were bamboozlers too in higher education.

Keith said...

I feel your frustration, man, as I deal with the same thing every semester. And while I can and do sympathize with the ones who had legitimate life issues arise, I'm not doing anyone any favors by cutting corners or lowering standards. The real world, which most of these types of students haven't experienced, isn't going to cut them any slack. The students need to learn to deal with it now. And outgrow the fairy tale that things are supposed to be "fair."

And for those times you feel like you're fighting a losing battle, remember sometimes a lost cause is the only one worth fighting for. What you're doing isn't a lost cause by any means, but as you know, it can feel like it at times.

Carole said...

Personally I think you are a big meanie. "It's Christmas, Theo, it's the time of miracles!" Just give her an A and go on your merry.

Just kidding! You did fine and it made for a good blog post!

Richard Prosch said...

On your last bit about consistency --had an art prof in college tell me that the great masters (he was talking painters, but it works for just about any endeavor) are the people who were most consistently good. There's always a flash in the pan or three, but they tend to be forgotten in time. Never forgot that -- and it seems to hold true. Hang in there.

G said...

Most of the students suffer from either the "it's not my fault" syndrome or "what do you mean I have to do the work?" syndrome.

You're not being mean, you're just being the type of teacher that none of your students probably had during K-12, which was to enforce the rules, damn the self-esteem issues and perpetually give the kind of blunt reality check that none will ever get again once they leave your classroom.

Ty Johnston said...

You're being "mean" because you're not giving them what they want.

I don't want to go off on a tirade, or sound like some silly politician, but self responsibility seems to have flown out the window. Cheating, taking short cuts, outright stealing, all seem to be seen today as "reasonable" ways to get whatever you want.

Charles, have you ever tried to explain to any of these students that 1.) It's not about just passing a test, but that they really do need to know the information passed along in the class, and 2.) "Uh, I can't give you a freebie because I could, ya know, like, lose my job."

I'm so glad I'm not part of the higher education system, and I have considered it at different times. It's no longer about knowledge or bettering oneself. It's about getting past a class and getting out the door to get a job. And I'm not saying this only about students.

Cloudia said...

Have to say I both agree and sympathize with you.

Now if you had a TAIL, you could just swing away and play in the trees!

Aloha from Waikiki

Comfort Spiral

> < } } ( ° >


< ° ) } } > <

Cloudia said...

How do we teach them that meritocracy is real, when our whole culture seems to be about 'never give up" or having influence to 'change' the odds in your favor?

Travis Cody said...

You know, I don't necessarily think it's your job to "teach responsibility" by withholding credit for work not completed, particularly at the college level. If a student hasn't learned responsibility by the time they get to college, then they are going to flunk out of school and that's got nothing to do with you.

Personal stuff can happen, but that's got nothing to do with you either. A student can drop a class or leave school and come back when they get their personal issues sorted. If an 18-21 year old college student doesn't understand that, there's not much a teacher can do about it.

I guess you can't make them follow the rules if they can't for whatever reason...or won't for no reason at all.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ron Scheer, I think that “real world” stuff is kind of a shorthand people use for paying jobs. It’s not accurate but it may illustrate a “transitional” kind of thing. I think college is often transitional, although those who have already gone through the transition do the best in college. I agree about the standards. It’s a must. There’s no way around it. All must be held to the same standards.

Mark, a friend of mine at work points out to me that I want the world to be fair when I know full well it isn’t and will never be. I think that’s part of it. But I’m also sure, just like you said, that although the young lady had issues to deal with, she also allowed a lot of other things to distract her. Consequences are the result of all such actions.

SQT, oh, I agree. And I’ve had plenty of students who also had issues who rose to the occasion and exceeded expectations. I always remember them when I’m speaking to a student who doesn’t rise to the occasion.

ivan, I got “taken” a few times when I first started teaching. It wasn’t until one young lady who I’d cut some slack threw me under the bus with the administration to try to save herself from a failing grade by blaming me that I learned a wide eyed lesson.

Keith, yes, it does seem a lost cause at times. But I know it’s a small number of students who particularly give me that feeling while most are doing their job as best they can and not looking to cut corners. I sometimes feel bad at my inability to reach certain folks though, and convince them of what they will either have to learn at some point or they will not survive.

Carole, If she’d just came to me next week! But I don’t start celebrating Christmas season until December. :)

Richard Prosch, I agree. I think of that a lot and it relates to writing for me. I just hope the consistency pays off before I die. :)

G, I tend to get more “blunt” as the student climbs the ladder from Freshman toward Senior. By the time they are Juniors I can be pretty blunt and there are some who appreciate it.

Ty Johnston, It seems a lot of short cuts are being expected these days. Maybe they always were but it seems worse. I talk about the remembering the information after the test a lot. A few years ago there was a move at Xavier to eliminate Senior comprehensive exams, which are just that sort of a measure. I opposed the elimination very vocally and the idea finally died a well deserved death.

Cloudia, that would be nice. I’d like that. The swinging in the trees that is.

Travis Cody, The best way for me to “teach” responsibility is probably just to require it of them and not let them get around it with some trick. I try to do that. But even if I succeed, I’m only one small part of their whole education.

Tyhitia Green said...

There's nothing to feel guilty about. Everyone has hardships at some point in life, so that's no excuse.

Granted some people have a harder time than others, but if the issues were that serious, they probably should have sat out a semester or so.

Angie said...

You know what? The student's health (or whatever) issues aren't your problem as the instructor. And I say that as someone who had massive health issues as a college student; the first 15 years of my college career was before I was diagnosed (that's why there were 15 years in there -- but damn it, I was persistent [wry smile]) and I regularly missed a week, and about every other term I'd miss a month or nearly. I never expected my instructors to award me extra Compassion Points because of it. In fact, if I was handing in a paper late or something, I'd tell them up front that I understood they'd have to take off a letter grade, or however much, and that I was fine with that.

The thing is, if you're doing really well before you get sick, you'll generally have enough padding to catch up or at least get a good grade. If someone was phoning it in for the first chunk of the term (a C on the first exam? seriously? for a college student, that's practically failing) maybe planning to make it up by cramming later, but then they got sick? Wow, sorry your how-to-barely-slide-through plan failed.

And if you think back to the discussion we had on how people learn, and my near inability to memorize things, you'll see that even keeping up, much less getting ahead in high-memorization classes, meant a lot more work and study and exercises I made up for myself, once I figured out WTF was going on in my head. I have no sympathy for someone who isn't willing to buckle down and study, and do whatever it takes to absorb the material, especially if they're part of the vast majority that can master the material just by doing all the reading and assignments and going to lectures. Or who can't at least suck it up and take the grade they earned when their lazy habits had a head-on collision with a real emergency.

Habits like that are going to bite you in the ass all your life, and better they learn that in college ('cause seriously, 99.9% of the employers out there don't give a damn what your grades were in college, so long as you got your degree) rather than maintaining that bad habit into a professional life where it can trash their rep with an employer or clients for good.

If your class is organized such that twenty or thirty or forty percent of the info comes from lectures or other in-class experiences, and only from that, then I have to say your class is unusual. In most classes, 90+ percent of the material is in the book, or other take-home study aids, or available from classmates' notes, and things like videos or tapes or whatever can usually be checked out or used in the library. It's possible that the young lady you mentioned absolutely could NOT get a B in your class because she missed material that wasn't recoverable, but I doubt very much that's true of all her other classes. If she was working hard before her emergency, she should've been able to at least mostly catch up afterward, and if she got a C in your class, that won't hit her GPA too much if she did better in her other classes.

If you were willing to offer her some make-up work -- an extra paper or something -- that'd be great, but that's completely your choice. Life happens, and people who are used to stepping up and handling it, and to being enough ahead of the game to be able to weather the crunches, will do a lot better than the people who've gotten used to being able to whine their way out of a tight spot.


Prashant C. Trikannad said...

I'm not a teacher but as the eternal student I think you're being reasonable with your students and understanding of their situation. Best of luck, Charles!

Charles Gramlich said...

Tyhitia, at that age I think a lot of folks overestimate what they can handle. But we do have procedures in place for folks to get help and aid under these circumstances so there shouldn't be any reason for them to fall through the cracks.

Angie, I stopped doing the extra credit papers almost fifteen years ago now after it bit me on the ass a couple of times, and led to huge increases in my work load. No good deed goes unpunished. You're absolutely right about the cushion if you'd done your work well up to the point where the problem occurs. as a teacher, I'm also more inclined to go an extra step if the student has been working hard during the time before the issue. This student really hadn't. About 20 percent of the stuff in my classes is typically from lectures and in class discussion. That's partly because I've taught these classes many times using many different books.

Prashant, I find I have to keep an even keel for my own health, and try to be fair but firm across the board.

pattinase (abbott) said...

My husband runs into this all the time. He has a student now who was rehired at GM and wants to finish the class with him in special sessions at night! I am always amazed at the dedication they expect in a professor and how little they exert as students.

Charles Gramlich said...

Patti, I know what you mean. Professionalism is hard to come by

Oscar said...

It has been a long time since I was in any school class, but then it was pretty cut and dried - you do the work, you pass - you don't, you fail. I think everyone understood that. I never heard of any grade-changing.

Erik Donald France said...

That's a tough call, but a correct one.

As a student once upon a time, very few of my peers complained over such things, accepting them as part of life and not the end of the world.

I complained once when a US Marine officer teaching Amphibious Warfare took a disliking to me no doubt due to the large beard and "noncomformist" clothes I sported at the time. I knew the subject well but he scored me way low on essays -- and then left teaching at the end of the semester. There was no recourse once he departed so that was that.

Erik Donald France said...

i.e. nonconformist . . . ~~!

Greg said...

I've never been on the teaching side of that issue, but it doesn't sound fun. People today definitely seem to think they are more entitled to things -- grades, a good job, whatever -- than in the past. But at the end of the day, you're the teacher and it's your class, so what you say goes.

By the way, thanks for the heads up about the Nook app -- I just downloaded it for my computer and I'm gonna get some of those free books.

David Cranmer said...

I remember students in college that lived on the curve they expected from professors.Some things will never change and folks wanting something for nothing is one.

Charles Gramlich said...

Oscar, oh I get asked for special favors at least several times a semester, every semester.

Erik Donald France, it complicates the issue that teachers aren’t always rational or fair either. If they all were then we could complain more about the students, but teachers can be just as bad in their own way. Being human, I guess.

Greg, yeah, the Nook app is pretty cool. My students the other day were talking themselves about how so many of their generation seem to feel “entitled.” It was fascinating.

David Cranmer, very true. I guess I’d want it too but I just know I ain’t gonna get it.

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eric1313 said...

This is tough, but good call. Some of the newer students expect too much, when I tutored English I would get people writing papers who are completely lost in front of me, sliding their notebook in front of me as I was explaining what they needed to do. I would try my best to slide it back in front of them in one fluid reverse of motion and nearest to the speed that they slid it in front of me.

Most people would smile but they understood, though I did have to explain it further to a couple persistent ones a couple of times.

ivan said...

Well said, M.M Fahren.
I feel your pain of experience.

But I think its true that by graduate school, it doesn't hurt to
get chummy with your course head.

Otherwise, in my cynicism, there would be fewer PhD's and MDs. :)

M. M. Fahren said...

Ivan (pardon, Charles!): Yes, one must shine the mirror if one wishes to see the view.:) As the Coach says, "It's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice."

Charles Gramlich said...

M.M., the pressures put on by teachers by students and administrators, and on colleges and universities by government requirements make it difficult at times to maintain quality. And too, not every faculty member lives up to their duties. Much can get worse rather than better, but fortunately there are many at all levels who still do care.

eric1313, most people will take an easy out if they can get it. But it's important for us as teachers not to let them have it.

Ivan, it never hurts, almost never I guess, hurts to know the teacher.

Dionne Charlet said...

This is wonderful insight from the teaching perspective that I'd like to share with my college freshman son. Thanks so much for sharing! Just another reason you are my idol. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Dionne, you're very kind. :)

Snowbrush said...

"Most of the students I talk to about this seem to think I'm just being mean."

Well, but of course they would. They're young, and they want what they want; they want it now; and they know they can only get it by manipulating you. Plus, some of them have just been through a very challenging illness, so they're out of slack for dealing with frustration. But these facts are about them, not about you or the rightness of what you are doing.

Steve Malley said...

Funny, just talking about this same thing with a client yesterday!

I think, for me, martial arts were a great teacher this way: If I don't practice (whether it's because I was sick or at the beach) and I show up clumsy and slow and uncertain, I've got no one in the world but myself to blame for taking a stick to the face.

And no way am I getting that broken nose changed to a black eye just because that's what I would have gotten if I *had* done my homework! :)