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SavoirFaire's avatar

When is it fair to fail a student on an assignment?

Asked by SavoirFaire (28715points) March 8th, 2012

I’m in the middle of grading right now, and I have just given someone’s paper a D. One of my colleagues would almost certainly say that I am being too lenient and that I should have given the paper an F. I am by no means an easy grader; however, I am typically loathe to give out F’s unless a student neglects to turn in an assignment, resorts to cheating, or submits something completely unreadable.

The paper in question does not answer the question that was asked and betrays numerous misunderstandings of the class material. It gets almost nothing right past a few expository comments. Still, it is an honest attempt to engage with the issues—even if they are the wrong issues. The paper is clearly unsatisfactory, but a D seems to express that. Should I have failed the paper anyway?

•The course I am teaching this semester is meant to be introductory and assumes no prior experience in philosophy.
•I am a teaching assistant (TA), not the lead professor for the course.
•The lead professor has instructed me that the average grade for the course should be a B.
•This is the very first assignment for the course.
•I gave copious notes on how to do better next time.

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48 Answers

Imadethisupwithnoforethought's avatar

D was the correct answer, especially on the first assignment. You state he/she made an honest attempt.

Follow up with this person as to why it was wrong. If there was an honest attempt to do the assignment, and they just messed it up big time, then the student will most likely be receptive to feedback and learning. The goal is the person learning how to think about things, after all. Not the grade.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Well, I might give it a 0 with an option to redo. The student may very well be testing the waters to see what they can get away with. You aren’t doing them a favor by letting them slide on instructions.

CaptainHarley's avatar

If someone fails to meet the minimum standards, they should get a failing grade.

Aethelflaed's avatar

Does the student show up to class? And then stay awake and pay at least minimal attention to the lecture (so, not technically being there, but playing Angry Birds on their phone/snogging their “special” friend the whole time)? If so, I’d say D for a first assignment on an intro class, with detailed instructions why, and maybe a note reminded them of your office hours/email should they want to try to hammer down just where they went wrong. And they’re trying, so that’s good.

Now, if they’re still having this problem at the end of the semester, F, totally.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@Imadethisupwithnoforethought @Aethelflaed Yes, I have given copious notes as to what went wrong and requested that the student meet with me to discuss the paper. I have added an extra note to the OP explaining this. Thanks!

stardust's avatar

I think it was the right call this time given that it was the first assignment. The next assignment will convey whether or not the student has taken your feedback on board.

nikipedia's avatar

I gave Fs when students got 59 points or fewer out of 100.

I found rubrics very helpful for the last class I taught. Students got some points for trying (e.g., named a dependent variable) and full points for delivering (e.g., correctly named the dependent variable).

And if you give the rubric to the students ahead of time, they know exactly what is expected of them.

I don’t think their attendance or attention is relevant to their grades, unless you specifically have a portion of their total grade allocated to something like participation.

CWOTUS's avatar

If you think the student’s effort was honest but unsatisfactory, and if you think your grade is an honest and satisfactory assessment of that effort, then there’s no issue. You done good.

Aethelflaed's avatar

@nikipedia I’m guessing you taught a science class? Because the humanities are just so much more subjective, and very rarely have clearly outlined rubrics (and even when they do, criteria like “clearly explain x” is subjective, because what constitutes clearly explaining things?). I also find rubrics often just flat-out don’t exist in many classes.

nikipedia's avatar

@Aethelflaed, the humanities are just so much more subjective—one of their many flaws.

I’m mostly kidding. I was surprised by how much subjectivity there was in grading things in science. But rubrics help a lot, and I think you can make them work in any class. It’s good for the students and it keeps things clear and consistent while you’re grading.

Aethelflaed's avatar

@nikipedia Rubrics are awesome. But, only if they are actually created and handed out. Also? I might be a bit POed that none of my teachers this semester thought it necessary to create even one damned rubric.

MollyMcGuire's avatar

I think you are part of the bigger problem of uneducated people leaving public school. An F means one did not do the VERY MINIMUM required.

Bellatrix's avatar

I think you also have to be careful about sending the wrong message. If an assignment does not address the problem/question, how can it pass? They were set a task and failed to provide an appropriate response.

In saying that, because it is a first-year student I would probably have given it a pass conceded. This is just below a pass but not quite a fail. I would also have given lots of feedback on where they went wrong and how they could improve. In our courses, there would be other assessment and this one piece would represent only part of their overall mark for the course. We also mark to specific criteria. Each assignment for my courses has a document that sets out the marking criteria. Students have that document from day one of the course.

Dutchess_III's avatar

@MollyMcGuire You have a good point, but you don’t need to attack the OP.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@MollyMcGuire But what is the very minimum required? The student worked on the assignment, handed it in, and doesn’t appear to have cheated. She tried answering the question, she just did a very poor job of doing so. Plenty of students didn’t do the minimum required for an A, but that doesn’t mean they should get an F. So this notion of “the minimum required” doesn’t really make sense. There’s a minimum required for an A, a minimum required for a B, a minimum required for a C, and a minimum required for a D. This question, then, is about what we think the minimum requirement is for getting a D rather than an F. I have suggested one standard that seems appropriate to an introductory course, and I have asked for alternatives. Feel free to suggest a different standard for consideration if you have one in mind.

Also, how am I supposed to be responsible for what happens in public schools while teaching at a university?

saint's avatar

If you delay the Reckoning, it simply becomes more painful.

Bellatrix's avatar

@SavoirFaire how much is this assignment worth in terms of marks that count towards passing the course or not?

Did the student attend tutorials? Did they have no instruction about what you (and the other markers) would be looking for? Why are they so far off track? Did they have an opportunity to talk to a tutor about the work they were doing before they handed it in?

I can’t speak for your university, but at mine there is a lot of discussion of assessment and each assignment and so much work put in during tutorials to help students to get through and especially in the first-year units. They do have to listen and act on what is being said though.

Aethelflaed's avatar

@Bellatrix Ok, I’m changing to your school.

Bellatrix's avatar

And we would welcome you. You are a great student.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@nikipedia I agree that rubrics are helpful, but I do not grade papers on a 100-point scale. I grade them on a 12-point scale that directly converts to letter grades (where 1 = F and 12 = A+). I do have a rubric, and I did explain it to the students. There are very specific things to look for in a philosophy paper, and it is typically quite plain which ones have and have not been adequately provided (even leaving open the fact of philosophical disagreement). I would suggest that however subjective one might think that the humanities are, and however objective one might think the sciences are, the task of grading introductory level work in both is about the same. There is more objectivity in my process than one might think, just as there is more subjectivity in your process than one might think.

@Aethelflaed The student does show up regularly, never seems distracted, and is often engaged. She has asked a few good questions in our discussion sections. Philosophy is a difficult subject, though, and sometimes deceptively so. I teach ethics, which many people think they have a strong handle on prior to learning what it is to philosophize about the subject (rather than merely opine). Because I am teaching a skill as much as anything else, and because it is assumed that the students do not yet have the skill when they show up for class, I tend to think it is a bit too much to fail students for not catching on completely in the first few weeks of class. I like to re-read some of my first philosophy papers before grading just to remind myself of where I was back then. It gives me perspective (and reminds me of how stupid I can be sometimes).

Imadethisupwithnoforethought's avatar

I think when people say flunk the person, they are missing the point.

There is every possibility that @SavoirFaire did not communicate effectively. Perhaps he set poor standards. The guy needs to touch base with the kid and make sure he is doing the job of a good teacher prior to starting to fail the kids.

Saying “flunk the kid if you don’t get what you want or you are encouraging laziness” seems to be the exact recipe for kids dropping out of high school. It also explains to me why some kids sail through with minimal skill sets. You are encouraging teachers to never examine their own methods and blame the kids.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@Bellatrix The assignment attempts to answer the question; it simply fails to do so. I suspect the student is confused about exactly what the issues are. And a D is only a pass in a purely technical sense. It’s not an F, to be sure, but someone who got a D in the class would not be able to transfer the credit to another school and would face limitations in applying it to earning her degree at this university.

This first paper is worth 25% of the final grade. The student has attended almost all of the discussion sections (the American equivalent of tutorials), including the one where I explained how the papers would be evaluated. I am available during office hours and by appointment, which includes some time every day of the week. I explicitly offered to come in on the weekend if anyone had trouble making an appointment during the week. I imagine that the student thought she knew what was going on and will be unpleasantly surprised at the results. I hope to meet with her and find out exactly what went wrong.

It’s not like I’ve never read a paper like this before. It happens, and figuring out why it doesn’t meet expectations is part of the learning process for the students. I’ve been having a lot of conversations about assessment (and grade inflation!) with my colleagues lately, though, so I thought it would be interesting to get Fluther’s take on the matter after reading this paper and thinking about how some people I know would react to it.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@Imadethisupwithnoforethought I’d like to think that I did communicate effectively, and my past evaluations would support that contention. As you say, however, there is every possibility that some part of this rests with me (or with the lead professor). Ultimately, my priority is to get the student back on track. And I agree completely that teachers should never stop examining their own methods.

Bellatrix's avatar

Well it sounds as though you have given your equivalent of a PC. You don’t want the student to be destroyed by an F and especially if you can see they are trying and just aren’t quite getting it.

Grade inflation is partly what was concerning me. However, I do think if a student paper didn’t do enough to pass, for their sake we can’t pass them. Sounds like you took the middle ground. I agree with your choice from what you have said here.

DrBill's avatar

you gave the correct grade.

DaphneT's avatar

Is D- an option?

My first thought was that it’s fair to fail a student’s work when they don’t complete the assignment in accordance with some declared expectation or criteria. If the student is in possession of the instructions for completing the assignment and the criteria for completion are clearly stated and the student fails to meet any of the criteria, then an F may be the only option.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Whatever you decide, let the student know that it isn’t a slide. I’ve found that my students test me early on to see what they might get away with….how much effort I’M going to put into them.

Bellatrix's avatar

As to your original question – and being less specific to this student – there is no simple answer to that question. When I mark it isn’t black and white. I will take into account their participation, the effort that is evident in the assignment, where they are in their academic studies. Whether I know the student was struggling with emotional problems, family issues or is working with some sort of physical, learning or emotional disability. Certainly the final guide is based on the work they produced and how well it meets the criteria, but all of those other elements come into play.

I think we have a responsibility to help students to learn the techniques, to learn what the appropriate standard is, how to unpack questions and to research and not to destroy them by marking them so harshly they drop out. We have to give them the opportunity to learn how to study successfully.

However, I have also see the other side of this argument. I have seen students producing work that is barely reaching the required standard and being given a passing grade. They have managed to get that passing grade only after working with academic support people and with extensive support from teaching staff. I have seen people scrape through the first year and into the second year this way. I think we have an ethical responsibility to let students fail if they can’t reach the standard required. The students I am thinking of had no chance of ever working in the fields they had chosen. It was never going to happen. The support they were receiving helped them to limp through though. Every course costs them money. So they end up with a debt and the eventual reality that they will not get a job in the field they are aiming for. I don’t think that’s right either.

dappled_leaves's avatar

“But what is the very minimum required? The student worked on the assignment, handed it in, and doesn’t appear to have cheated. She tried answering the question, she just did a very poor job of doing so.”

From this, it sounds as if your student is being graded on having made an effort, instead of the specific requirements of the assignment. But you need to grade the student on the requirements. It sounds to me, from the details you first gave, like you see the difference between a D and an F as a personal choice between whether the student passes or fails. But you’ve also said that you have minimum grade values to qualify for each letter grade. How does it become your personal choice whether the student passes or fails? If the student earned an F, they should receive an F.

Don’t put the responsibility on yourself to make sure the student can “transfer credit” after having been in your course. It is the student’s responsibility to make sure that they understood the requirements, and met them. Further, the grade they receive in the first assignment (a) is not their final grade, and (b) will instruct them how to respond to future assignments. It sounds like this student will need to put a lot more effort into future assignments to even pass this course. Will he know this from the grade he received in this one? Will you have to grade the next assignment as leniently, because you’ve set a precedent? Will he be able to meet the requirements in other classes after yours? As was said earlier in this thread, you are not doing students any favours by grading leniently. The bar is higher in university, and not all of the students are going to make it over.

CWOTUS's avatar

What a great discussion. And worthwhile.

When my kids were much younger and in elementary and high school I often helped them with their homework. I would never – not ever – “do the work” for them. But I would spend hours to help them to discover the things that were puzzling them so that they could do the assignment, whether it was something as objective as algebra and geometry or as subjective as marshaling thoughts, topics and arguments for an essay.

One of the methods I would use would be to ask questions about the things we were going over, questions that could be answered in pretty limited ways in an effort to guide their thoughts toward the object of the lesson. If they got that right I’d tell them it was “a win” and we’d proceed from there. If not, I’d tell them it was “a flunk”, and we’d go over what they had missed.

My son, the older of the two, never did appreciate the purpose of the “flunk”, but my daughter always rose to the challenge in a – how can I say this? – “academically combative” way. (We have great arguments to this day, like I used to with my own dad.) She also became a star student, and he never did. (I still have hope; he’s a crew chief doing helicopter maintenance for the USAF, so he’s no dummy!) If I can take credit for the star student, I guess I have to take the blame for the under-motivated one, too. My wife used to cringe, herself, every time she heard me say “flunk”. We had our own discussions on the topic, as well.

Buttonstc's avatar

All things considered, I think your grade was quite fair. It gives the student the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. This early on, an F could have been needlessly discouraging and overall effort should count for something. A grade of D gets your point across to them that they need to pay attention to this red flag.

And I do believe that overall effort does count for something and should. I done think you’re sending the wrong message at all. And any honest educator admits that grading is subjective.

Of course, I’m coming from the perspective of years of experience teaching Elementary schools which is a different atmosphere than University. But still, for the first time in an Intro course, a little grace and patience cant be that harmful IMHO :)

I think you exhibited both.

augustlan's avatar

I agree with the D grade.

Dutchess_III's avatar

I hate grading!

SavoirFaire's avatar

@DaphneT A D- is an option, but I don’t actually think this particular paper is even as bad as that. The student gives arguments for her conclusions, and some of them almost work. She has just severely missed the point of the paper.

@Dutchess_III A part of me hates grading, too. It’s necessary to the process, of course, but I often wonder if the way we do it is really the best way of fostering education. And you’re quite right about being clear this isn’t a slide. Luckily, the students at this school are all overachievers. They tend to see anything less than a B- as failing. As such, I’m pretty sure a D will be a severe wake-up call. In our meeting, though, I’ll have to indicate just how close she came to getting an F and which parts of the paper saved her.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@dappled_leaves I think the whole of the post to which you were responding gives a different impression. My point was that the whole notion of “the minimum required” is vague. The minimum required for an A is different from the minimum required for a D. So part of my question—which is not, ultimately, about this particular student—is what people here think the minimum requirements for getting a D are. Telling me that the requirement is meeting the requirements just doesn’t answer the question. And I don’t think the difference is a personal choice. In fact, I don’t know where you are getting that from at all. I have offered one standard that I think is appropriate for the type of assignment this was, and I am asking for alternative opinions.

I’m also not sure where you’re getting this bit about transfer credit. The bit about a D not transferring was a response to something said by @Bellatrix. The point was nothing more than this: a D is not a good grade, even if it is technically a pass. Nor do I think I am being lenient just because others might have failed the poor girl. I think they would have been wrong to do so. It’s not like she was asked to write a paper about Plato and wrote a paper about Don Cheadle instead. She just wrote a bad paper about Plato that misunderstood what the central issue was.

So yes, the student will need to do a lot more work in the future if she wants to bring her grade up. I imagine a D will get that message across. I don’t think many people think “I got a D on my first paper, so I’m sure I’ll do well in this class.” Moreover, I have been clear that I expect more as the semester goes on, so there will be no need to be extra lenient in the future. But again, I don’t think I’m being lenient now if lenient means “being nicer than is appropriate.” I currently think that people who would fail the paper are being overly harsh. The D was not an act of mercy on my part. It was the grade I thought appropriate. I am open, however, to hearing why that might have been an incorrect judgment.

nikipedia's avatar

I feel like I’m misunderstanding your question somehow. I don’t think there is a big difference between a D and an F; to me it really just is a matter of points. There is no D quality or F quality; in fact an F can mean a lot of things—getting 50% of the points sucks, but is much better than getting 10%.

dappled_leaves's avatar

@SavoirFaire I’m sorry if I misunderstood what you wrote. I guess I still don’t understand what kind of answers you are seeking. What I am hearing from the original question and your responses is, “If I follow the guidelines I am given to grade the assignment, the student fails. Is this fair?” My answer to that is that it is fair.

Am I still misunderstanding your question? If you think the guidelines for grading result in a D for the student anyway, then I’m afraid I don’t see what you are asking (maybe I’m just missing the point utterly).

SavoirFaire's avatar

@nikipedia I agree that there isn’t a big difference between a D and an F, which is perhaps why the question arises. Unfortunately, though, I do not grade papers on a point-based system. The final exam will be different: the questions will be narrow enough that there are clearly right and wrong ways of answering them because the point will be to show you understand very specific content. There is not just one way to write a philosophy paper, however, even if there is a shared format in most cases. The prompt given by the lead professor asks the students to explain a standard problem of philosophical ethics and then take a stand on one of the questions the problem raises. When a problem arises in the first part, there is the question of how much that should affect (or infect) the second part. If a student gets the first part wrong, they will not be able to get the second part right. But they might be able to get the second part right relative to their misunderstanding of the first part. And that’s just one issue when dealing with papers rather than exams.

@dappled_leaves You are misunderstanding my question. I was not given specific grading guidelines. I was given training when I began teaching, I have had my grading reviewed by established professors for further training purposes, and I have had discussions with my colleagues about grading, but the lead professor of this class has not given any specific guidelines. I am expected to base my grading on what I already know.

According to my understanding, this paper deserves a D. I know that some of my colleagues would disagree, though, as grading is not exactly a perfect science that always leads to unequivocal answers. As such, this paper got me to thinking about when it is fair to fail a student on an assignment, which in turn led me to ask my fellow jellies what they thought about the issue. Thus the question title: “when is it fair to fail a student on an assignment?”

DaphneT's avatar

So, @SavoirFaire, you’re trying to establish if you’ve made a good judgement call in this case and is that a good basis for future cases? So is the paper good in technique/method/execution but not in content? When any paper is presented, are technique/method/execution and content what is being graded? Are these items to be graded equally? I’d say you are making a good judgement call and that from here you have a good basis for evaluating pass/fail status for future efforts presented to you.

Applying the concept of fairness to evaluating a student’s work means you must evaluate each effort on it’s own merits, on the criteria given as guidance for completing the work, and on the standards set by a governing body on what any student should know coming into the work and what they are expected to comprehend upon completion of the work.

If student A has a lessor knowledge base than student B at the beginning of the work, then student A must work to acquire the difference if they intend to have a grade equal to or better than student B at the end of the work, assuming a steady state effort on the part of student B. This knowledge base would include technique/method/execution skills and content appropriate to the work in question. Technique/method/execution skills would likely include ability to write sentences, paragraphs, spell most words correctly, use jargon appropriate to the coursework, format papers in accordance with accepted practices for the coursework, and probably a few others I can’t remember. Content is dictated by the particular work in question.

Applying a standard of fairness at the college level should be much more discerning than at the high school. Passing a work that failed to comprehend content at the college level just reinforces the student’s belief that someone else will look out for them. Passing a work the failed to demonstrate competent technique/method/execution just reinforces the student’s belief that someone else will look out for them. How is that fair to the student?

Aethelflaed's avatar

@DaphneT But part of high schools’ problem is that they (theoretically…) keep passing you on your final exams, in the higher-up courses. This is the first assignment of an introductory course – there is not necessarily any reason to believe that just because the student failed to comprehend the material for what may be their very first assignment in university, they could not learn to comprehend the material. Universities are as much about teaching you as they are about grading you.

And, really, since you can’t get financial aid with a D, this really doesn’t send the message that someone will look out for them.

talljasperman's avatar

Depends on what was agreed upon before the student signed up for the class… one can’t just change midstream. To do so is cruel. Would you like your pay scale screwed with after you just signed a mortgage (or put 25,000 debt on a student loan to find out that the rules have changed after you have paid and are locked into a program)? I wouldn’t like it either.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@DaphneT I am confident in my judgment call already—I’ve been doing this for a while now—but I am open to the possibility that I was mistaken. Indeed, the question was not originally meant to be about me. The example I gave was for illustrative purposes, and I expected people to abstract from it. My own wording is to blame for that, however, and I am nevertheless happy with the discussion that has come about. As such, let me say that I agree that technique/method/execution and content are both important. One reason I did not fail this paper is that it could have been a C-level paper if only the essay prompt had been a little different. That is, it’s a bad-but-not-terrible answer to a closely related question, and the reason it misses the point so badly is because it starts off incorrectly.

Consider a somewhat (but not entirely) parallel case: making a huge mistake in the first step of a math problem and then doing the following steps more or less correctly. The original mistake will just be compounded even if the rest of the math is done perfectly simply in virtue of the fact that it’s almost impossible to get back on track once you’ve made that kind of miscalculation without making another huge mistake. Yet if someone shows their work such that the teacher can see exactly what and how much went wrong, the possibility of partial credit is usually there. Insofar as the case I mention in the OP seems similar, some partial credit for what the student did get right (or would have gotten right were it not for the original mistake) seems warranted.

@Aethelflaed “Universities are as much about teaching you as they are about grading you.” This, I think, is the key—and I completely agree with you on it. My job is surely not to just evaluate what the students already know, but to figure out what they don’t know and how to change that situation. People who enter the class with extra skills will typically deserve higher grades (assuming they don’t get lazy!) because grades reflect how much skill you’ve demonstrated relative to the level of the course rather than merely how much you’ve learned. They say “this person has demonstrated the following level of aptitude for the subject.”

Still, we must also consider that the point of the class is to get students to a certain level of aptitude. This means, as you say, teaching them in such a way that they are prepared to show a higher level of aptitude next time. It winds up being a much more complicated issue than it originally seems when you get into questions of how much a final grade should represent the abilities with which a student is leaving the class and how much a final grade should represent the abilities with which a student entered the class. I could ask a whole other question comparing a student who enters a class with above average skills but never gets any better and a student who enters a class with below average skills and becomes the best in the room by the semester’s end.

In fact, maybe I will.

@talljasperman I’m not sure I understand. The student did not make any agreements with me prior to signing up for the class. And again, this isn’t about me and this student. I am asking a general question about what people think the standards for failing a paper assignment should be.

talljasperman's avatar

@SavoirFaire Not meeting expectations are grounds for failure… Both sides need to know what the expectations are before doing work.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@talljasperman But again, I find that to be about as helpful as “not meeting the minimum requirements.” Not all the papers that do not meet the expectations for getting an A deserve an F.

talljasperman's avatar

@SavoirFaire When I went to university I was given a chart of what each grade means. from 1 to 9… with a description of what is a pass and a fail. It is disturbing that the people who are grading assignments don’t have access , or care, about that information… I feel better knowing that it was not my fault for my grades, seeing the grades are arbitrarily distributed with out logical rules and agreements. Now I can move on. Thank you I was taking my past performance personally… now I know not to have guilt for things out of my control, and better indicators of things that are reliable and fair…and not.

DaphneT's avatar

@SavoirFaire I await your next question.

Response moderated (Spam)
saylo_0's avatar

If you absolutely sure and are 100 percent positive that that student did not even try, copied of others,copied of internet, wrote something absolute other than the topic or the question asked, doesn’t care about their grade anyways, dared you to fail them ^_^, are using false language on their paper, and has the assignment ripped wrote badly (not understandable)-and Unreadable writing.

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