Thursday, February 24, 2011

I do not know what to think anymore

I had my first take home exams turned in this week from 2 of the three courses I teach this semester. Out of a possible 52 exams that could have been turned in, I received 28.  Oh, the pain.   They had two weeks to do the exam.  The questions dealt with Socratic philosophy and covered topics discussed extensively in class.  This exam is worth 20% of their final grade.  I simply do not know what to think.  I have a 'no late work accepted' policy clearly stated in the syllabus so I am disinclined to offer extensions.  Usually I give 0 points for work not turned in, but I could give then 50 points that would represent an F, but then what do I do with exams that were turned in that merit a failing grade?  I have told students that I take improvement into account when determining final grades, but how is simply turning in a exam an improvement over not turning in an exam?  I can drop these students from the class for not doing required work.  Or, I can simply let them take their lumps and deal with the total points they have earned at the end of the semester and give them the grade they merit.

Any suggestions?


  1. Stick with the rules you established at the beginning of the class!

  2. I agree with Bob. Let the students deal with the grade they earn. They made a choice, having been informed of the consequences, so let them face those consequences.

  3. I don't see how you can give them any points for work they have not turned in. If you decide that you didn't do enough to make it clear that this work was due, that it counted for 20% of the grade, and that no late work is accepted, then you might consider offering some kind of alternative assignment. But if you decide that is not the case, then I don't see what you can do but give zero to the students who didn't turn the exam in. Weird, but not your fault.

    I don't usually do this, but my verification word was 'kinsad'. UK readers might appreciate this.

  4. This is tough. I agree that you should not waive your stated policies, unless there is a case where it is reasonable (e.g., someone was having surgery).

    I also have a "no late work accepted" policy in all my classes. However, I also have an extension policy. If a student comes to me in advance (three days or more) and asks for an extension, it is automatically granted (a week for papers or take home exams, three days for shorter assignments). No excuses required, indeed, I prefer simply to be asked for the extension. The policy puts the decision-making firmly in their hands. And when they see that they had a chance to have an extension, but didn't take it, they recognize the degree to which they are exercising their agency. Two notes: 1) when a student takes an extension, they forfeit their right to a speedy return, including returns that might help them progress in the course and 2) assignments turned in on extension are very rarely improved over the assignments turned in on time. Since the policy is open to all, all the time, I have never received complaints about it being unfair.

    How would this have helped you? I'm not sure it would have. However, we know that students (especially beginning students and students who are the first in their families to go to college) are terrible at time management. Time management skills that some students find self-evident (e.g., keep a calendar) others do not. It is a real and honest struggle for some. The extension policy might have helped you with the number of students (how many - who knows) who remembered that the exam was due only days before it was due. They could have taken the extension instead of panicking and giving up. But who knows how many of your students found themselves in this scenario.

    Last bit of advice, for what it is worth: remember the Stoics. You can only control what you can control. You can't turn in their work for them. If you try to play catcher in the rye with them, you will wind up as exasperated as you sound. Try not to speculate about all the things you could have done or could do. Some students simply chose not to do the work - and a good number of them did so for reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with you. Don't assume that they would blame you for it. On the other hand, normal human psychology is such that if you give them a sense that their not turning in work has anything to do with you, they will jump on it automatically. All humans take opportunities to shift blame. Don't do that to yourself.

  5. Give them extra credit assignments days after the grades are due that are worth tons of points and involve no real effort on their part!

    [If I actually did what I would ask myself to do if I were in their shoes, that's what I guess I'd end up doing.]

    In all seriousness, I think it's a tough call. When you are dealing with performance that bad, it makes us question our judgments about what reasonable people do in such and such circumstances. I'm a pretty lenient guy, in part, because you can still teach them about responsibility and philosophy with second chances. But, that might involve making them pay for their poor performance.

    Good luck,

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  7. I agree with Bob; the policy should not be changed now. If you do, they'll be *less* inclined to take due dates seriously for the rest of the semester.

    How about this: Assign a grade tally. Twice. One now, and one in another month or so. Give them extra credit points for completing the second one. You can call this whole shebang an "accountability reflection opportunity" or something like that, instead of calling it extra credit.

    Then, the ones who did not submit this time can tell *you*, instead of you telling *them*, what they need to do to improve. They'll have an opportunity to gain some points back. And you won't have to change your late work policies.

    Here's how you could do it; this is how I do it in my ethics classes:

    A week or two after this assignment has been returned (to those that turned one in!), set aside 10 minutes or so in a class, and have them do a grade tally. The instructions can go something like this:


    On a piece of notebook paper, complete the following; take all information about points and such needed to complete this, from the syllabus.

    1. List all points opportunities (assignments, etc.) in this class; indicate the points possible for each item.

    2. Indicate the points you've earned for each opportunity that has come due, so far.

    3. Indicate total points possible so far, and total points earned so far, and your grade percent so far.

    4. Write a brief paragraph in response to each of the following questions:

    - Are you pleased with your efforts and achievements in this class far? Why or why not? Please focus on *your* efforts and achievements, not mine.

    - What areas for improvement can you identify, and what strategies do you propose for achieving success in those areas?

    ...I think that's all. If I think of something else, I'll chime in again later.

  8. Oh, for what it's worth, my own assignment policy goes like this:

    Any assignment can be submitted one session late. There's a 30% penalty.

    No exceptions. Not for emergencies, anything.

    This works, because no assignment is worth more than 100 points. (It's a 1000 point scale).

    Both paper assignments go like this: the draft worth 100 points, the final version worth 100 points.

    I've maintained this policy for two semesters now, and it's worked like a charm, in terms of them taking it seriously, and in terms of a fair dispersal of grades across the roll sheet.

  9. Many fine suggestions so far. I have nothing novel to add in that direction, but I'm inclined to think that giving them two weeks to work on a take-home exam was too long. Gives them a longer time to procrastinate and forget (and--unfortunately or not--surely overestimates the kind of time students will put into this kind of thing). Perhaps try giving them a week. They may not like this, but that itself will help them not forget! (I'm distributing a take-home worth 20% tomorrow, in an upper division class, and they have a week. Did the same thing last semester and things were fine.)

  10. Thanks for the many good suggestions here. Particularly liked Becko reminding me of the philosophy I revere:-).

    I am not going to deviate from my policies, or there is no point in having them. I am not going to offer extra credit - why should I do more work when they will not do what was assigned. Besides, I have a no extra credit clause in the syllabus. I am going to have them suffer the consequences of not doing the work by giving them a 0 for this grade, as I have done in the past.

    I like Karla's suggestion, but am not sure how well it will work with those that ought to know that a 0 is a 0. If they are satisfied with that - then what is the point? But, I do think it is a good idea generally speaking, so I will give it a go.

    I will give Matthew's idea of giving them a week a try. My reason for giving them two weeks was so they could fit it into their schedule and other responsibilities, but maybe it is too long given that they know the dates that exams are due at the start of the semester.

    To put completely honest about this experience, my general frustration is not that students did not do well on this exam. It has been my experience that in intro courses students tend not to do well on the first exam (paper) but do show significant improvement over the next two exams (papers). Where at the beginning (the 1st graded assignment) the trend is @ 30% C+ or better versus 70% C or worse, by the end of the semester those numbers are reversed. My frustration is that so many did not even do the work! I have been teaching for @ 25 years now, teaching mostly intro courses and while I have always had some who do not do the work and get 'weeded' out so to speak, this is the first time almost 50% did not do the work. And, for this I have no explanation. My teaching has not changed, nor the material that I cover. Do not worry, I still get as excited about teaching Socrates, Epictetus, Descartes, etc. as I did before. I love teaching intro courses. I have had many students go on to major or minor in Philosophy. But I am beginning to question why I do this. I am not asking for confirmation or validation here. I do not need a pep talk. My question is, we talk about the value of our subject, but for whom is it valuable? Are we shying away from looking into the desire of our students to actually study and learn about things other then what will give them the tools to achieve some economic goal and to become materially successful? If we look into this will we find an abyss? I am reminded of Kurtz from Conrad's Heart of Darkness - "the horror, the horror."

  11. You know what you would do if it was up to you and you didn't have to worry about some bottom line obsessed administrator making your life miserable: hold them to your standards. You didn't do a thing wrong. You taught the material skillfully and enthusiastically- they simply have no desire to learn philosophy (or anything else that doesn't promise financial gain). I deal with this problem all the time and it has no principled solution sans an administrator who cares about academic standards more than profits. You do what you have to do to keep your job.

  12. I agree that you should stick with your policy and give a 0, no matter how uncomfortable.

    In future years can you make it a requirement to turn in all work? In other words, that they will get an Incomplete (and thus F) if they don't turn everything in. That increases the incentive for individual pieces worth small percentages, where some students might calculate they they don't mind the 0. I think this would mean that it has to be turned in to even get the 0.

  13. You should stick with your policy, but you should also try to get to the bottom of the very low return rate.

    I'd want to rule out the possibility of a major mishap, like a bunch of people turning their papers in to the department office and the office misplacing the box, or a previously unrecognized mono outbreak, or something.

    Ask your colleagues if it's common so many students in these particular classes to blow off a major takehome. Ask your TA. Above all, ask your students.

    Maybe you just drew an unusually high percentage of slackers by chance; but you won't know until you do some digging.


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