Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The late withdrawing student

The Philosophy Smoker has a lively discussion of students' seeking late withdrawals from classes under circumstances like these:
This has happened at least once a semester since I took this job. A student who has been underperforming all semester--turning in half-assed homework assignments, missing a lot of class, earning failing grades on exams--realizes suddenly that he or she is going to fail the class. But it's after the late withdrawal deadline, so there's no simple way to get out of it. So they write me an email or come to my office and ask me to give them permission to obtain a late withdrawal.
An anonymous commenter (6:50) makes a forceful ethical argument against granting these withdrawal requests:
when you grant these requests, you aren't simply doing them a favor. You are going on record as vouching for their having a reason that the University considers sufficiently extenuating. If you just grant it to make their lives easier, *you are lying*. You are also misleading people at other schools to which this student might transfer, etc. grades convey information, notably about the amount of effort a student put into a class, even if they do so in a broad way only. And so on. Your job is to teach people, part of which involves having the grades students receive at least somewhat accurately reflect the performance of students in your class. A student might ask nicely to have you change a C to an A, because then they could get into a better grad school. But it is, basically, wrong to do so. It constitutes an act of deception on your part. The fact that such deception benefits a student is beside the point.

I confess I don't deal with late withdrawal requests like these often (perhaps a byproduct of a quarter system?), but I think Mr. Zero's attitude is the right one: Allowing late withdrawals for "extenuating circumstances" (illness, family problems, etc.) is reasonable, but letting failing students do this sends the wrong message to them, lets them take up precious class slots, and puts the faculty member in the awkward position of having to attest to the legitimacy of the student's excuse.

So I say 'no'. What say you?


  1. This does occasionally happen to me. My policy is not to grant the request for the reasons stated, plus the additional one that students do not then learn from their mistakes. If there are extenuating circumstances that warrant late withdrawal I have the student go through the process outlined by school policy. I have Administration inform me that they are allowing a student to withdraw late from my class, but always with a good reason that helps to explain why they need this help. More often then not, this occurs with students who are doing well enough in my courses to warrant a good grade if they were able to stick it out and complete the course.

  2. At my university the withdrawal deadline is the last day of classes, but there is a maximum number of withdrawals a student can have on their transcript.* I find this a much more humane system, since the student is not put in the position of trying to justify the withdrawal to me, and I am not put in the position of trying to judge whose situation merits special treatment. I think it is a kind of hubris to think that I can reliably tell the difference between the 'lazy' student and the student with genuine but difficult to document family difficulties, for example. It seems to me that this would be especially so in the US, where the lack of universal health care may make students unwilling to seek treatment for certain kinds of chronic problems.

    If I did have to grant late withdrawals I would almost certainly grant the first request of any student for one with no questions asked, much as students in my class get one late assignment accepted no questions asked (though I don't tell them that up front, instead telling them only that they must have advanced permission or documentation of an emergency to hand assignments in late.

    *Students can withdraw from an entire terms worth of classes with appropriate medical documentation without that counting towards their withdrawal maximum.

  3. At my university, a late withdrawal shows up on a transcript as "DP" or "DF" (drop pass or drop fail). It does not count against GPA, but it is a 'black mark' nonetheless.

    I wonder about the ethical responsibility of the institution itself. Perhaps I'm not remembering correctly, but when I was a student 20 years ago, the last day to late withdraw for a course was, I think, six weeks in -- not the LAST day of class.

    If this change in policy is widespread, we should ask why it has occurred. Is it that administrations are doing their best to assure that students don't fail or drop out, leading to less tuition dollars? If so, the policy itself -- and its motivating cause -- is the root of the problem.

  4. At my community college the issue is complicated by financial aide. Students who withdraw must pay back their financial aide while students who fail may retake the class without financial obligation. So, my syllabus states that students must complete 50% of their work to get an F. I see more and more students who are taking classes as a source of income or as a means to stay on their parents' health insurance.

  5. I concur with the tough policy and I think the idea that it asks us to lie is an important one. We are also lying to the student when we grade high for mediocre work because they needed the grade/ tried really hard/cried in your office. Sometimes we need to facilitate a student's own search for integrity but simply saying, "No, your reason is not compelling."


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