Friday, April 29, 2016

End of Semester Grading Issues: Let Core Values Lead the Way

May... that time of year when Spring has definitely sprung, you really have to get get moving on that end of semester paperwork, and the time when students start coming out of the woodwork to beg for mercy, ask for gifts, and demand satisfaction.

This blog post is in response to the many requests I hear from faculty, young and old alike, to get some help on how to handle all of these end of semester inquiries from students. They generally come in three flavors:

A) Students who have missed assignments or tests during the semester wanting you to let them make them up now.
B) Students who "need an A" or "need a C", and need to know "if there is anything I can do to get a few more points", or even better, "I need to know what you are going to do about it".
C) The most pernicious kind are students who like to nit-pick every grade throughout the semester, trying to get a couple of points here and there on every assignment.

While there is no perfect solution to these problems, first and foremost I recommend that faculty sit down by themselves and clarify their own values when it comes to teaching, grading, and education in general. Firm stances and decisions become much easier when you clearly understand your own principles. This translates into other parts of the teaching and research enterprise as well, such as being treated with respect in the classroom, dealing with academic dishonesty, publication ethics, and evaluation of your peers.  "What is wrong with eating in the classroom?" Don't make up an answer; either there is a real problem, or there isn't, and you should know instantly based on your own values.

Let me share some of my principles that ground my decisions.  Of course, your principles can and should be different based on your institution, personality, and values!

1) Learning: Anything that could possibly get in the way of learning, or could serve as an excuse for not learning, cannot be tolerated.
2) Fairness: All students must be held to the same standards of work, grading, opportunity, timeliness, and of learning the information. Lying or cheating in any form must be stamped out. Others' requests/demands also need to be fair to me.
3) Responsibility: Part of the education process is encouraging and measuring the ability of students to show up, follow instructions, and meet deadlines.  Never harm your students by allowing them to get away with something that would get them fired in the "real world".
4) Difficulty: Students are here to be encouraged, but also challenged: Making students uncomfortable is part of a teacher's duty.  Faculty should (as best they can) provide the tools that students need in order to succeed; it is the responsibility of students to pick the tools up and use them.
5) Who I am: I am a highly-trained professional who cares about what I do, knows what I am doing, but will readily admit to my mistakes. 

These principles are part of my core values-- therefore, making decisions that are consistent with them is not only easy, but necessary.  What are some things that directly follow from these principles related to grading?

A) No, I cannot let you turn in those assignments late; that is not fair to the other students who did them on time. The purpose of doing the assignments when they were due was to help you learn the information before the tests. There is no reason for you to do those assignments now, and several reasons why I should not accept them now. In addition to being unfair, turning the assignments in on time (responsibility) is a purposeful part of the grading process.

B) No, I cannot give you a chance for extra credit or give you "a couple of points". Your need of a certain grade is not a part of the grading process. The grading process is the same for all students- think of how unfair it would be if I gave someone else points.

C) Regarding students who constantly like to question every grade on every question: When I get these, I require that the student write down all of queries/requests for re-grading. I will never engage one of these students in an endless fishing expedition. I also make it clear from the outset that if a student wants an assignment re-graded, that there are strict time limits for bringing it to my attention, and that the entire assignment will be reevaluated, and the grade may go up or down. How can I justify this?  Responsibility and Fairness! All of the other students were graded by me, alone, while evaluating the entire assignment-- not piecemeal, while being hounded, with additional explanations being given, e.g. "See here, you can tell what I really meant, right?" And, nit-picking your yearly evaluation from your superior in the real world is not going to go well for them.

I could certainly go on, but I think you get the point. I must stress that your values, and thus your responses to these situations can, and should be different. But, allowing your core principles to guide your decisions is far superior to making things up as you go along.  Additionally, you are not making these decisions "Because you don't care", quite the opposite: You are making these decisions because you care deeply about what you are doing.  Perhaps letting students in on some of your principles will head off some future problems.

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