ask a scatterbrain: when to give up?

I hate to post another ask a scatterbrain so soon after Andrew’s rather solid example, but I have a related issue. When my students prepare for their final exams I often tabulate how well each would have to do on the final in order to get an A, B, C, or D for the course as a whole. Normally this is a fairly uncontroversial process for me and students often appreciate the concrete knowledge. This semester, though, I have a student who will have to earn a grade on the final that is several letter grades higher than s/he has ever achieved on a test in order to pass the course at all. This student has also not asked me to tell them about their situation. Now, I am certainly hoping that the student manages to pass, but I’ve started wondering: if you have a student who can’t pass even if they get a perfect score on the final, is it appropriate to tell them not to bother taking it? On the one hand it seems like you’d be doing them a favor by telling them, if only so that they can devote more energy to other classes. On the other hand, it just seems wrong somehow. Again, my student does have a chance so I think s/he should take the final, but I’m curious whether anyone has ever tackled a situation like this before.

13 thoughts on “ask a scatterbrain: when to give up?”

  1. I have given students information that led them to decide not to bother to do the final paper (which was worth 20%) — less work for me, I say, as well as for them. Why should we waste our time? I’d give the student the information for all the reasons you said: what’s wrong with letting them make rational decisions? If you don’t like that option, the only other one that is fair from the student’s point of view is to offer some sort of additional way to raise a grade.

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  2. I think I agree – if it’s not possible to pass the class there’s no real reason to take the final. On the other hand, to the extent that the exam (or, moreso, a final paper) is a learning experience in itself, that would be a reason to suggest it be done anyway. BTW, I’ve never heard of doing that work for students – sounds like a lot of hassle but a very nice service you do them!

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  3. i don’t like students to drop in large part because UCLA has a serious (and worsening) enrollment crunch and it really offends me to see people slack off and late drop when a few weeks before i had to turn away the waitlist. as such what i usually end up doing is after the midterm announcing that instead of being 45/45/10, i’ll automatically let anyone who improves on the final have their total grade calculated as 40/50/10. this reduces the hopelessness element and i don’t mind as it takes me three lines of stata code and zero office hour meetings to do this.

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  4. This post and the previous one make me long for my undergraduate institution’s medieval approach to grades, something I wouldn’t have thought possible at the time.

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  5. I’m with Andrew and OW — you’ve put the time into figuring out the consequences, why not go all the way with the generosity and give those consequence to students and let them decide. What good does it do anyone to delay such news?

    In light of Kieran’s longing, let me give a happier story about telling students not to bother with exams. One of my undergrad professors did had a 40/30/20/10 grading system, but where the 40 was whatever you did best on, 10 was whatever was worst. He also didn’t apply the “90 is an A, 80 a B” thing, but used actual variation to get a better spread and shot for a median of 50. And when you were going into the final guaranteed an A because it was only worth, at least, 10% of your grade, he told you not to bother with his final and to put your time elsewhere.

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  6. The student may retake the class in the future. Preparing for and taking the final may be very useful to them when they take the class a second time so I would still dangle the carrot in front of them that they can pass.

    Also, in general, if the final is cumulative, I think anyone who gets an A without cheating should pass the course.

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  7. I have to admit that I am always blown away at how poor the quantitative skills of my students are – in all aspects and especially in being able to calculate their grades.
    I have been secretly tempted to pass students that can figure out on their own that it is not possible for them to pass. Can you imagine the email…”Surprise! I see you were not at the final today, you must have done the math to figure out that you couldn’t pass. Because you were able to do that, I am giving you a D!” Ok, I would never do that, but I have to admit I have been tempted…

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  8. Geez, Drek, there is a simple solution: Don’t stick with the formula!!!

    If the student can study hard and show mastery, why stick them with an F? You wouldn’t give them an F, but if they can do well on the final, why not give them a C? Of course, be judicious. Don’t pass people who skip the class and just attend the final. But what’s the problem with giving them a C or D if they have really started with an F and pulled up to a good level by the end?

    AS an undergrad, there were many classes with that system. Most profs would be willing to give you a break if you worked hard and pulled up the grade. Otherwise, you are saying “just quit.” And that’s silly.

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  9. Why would you figure this out for the students? And if you do it, why would you tell them? Most of them won’t calculate it (as rvlvr says) and the goal of teaching (to me anyway) is not assessment. The goal is to do all you can to help the student learn the material. Assessment is secondary and should not drive the teaching and learning part of the class. So I think your role (or how I think about my role) is to do what you can to teach and the student does what they can to learn. And if that results in an F, so be it. But they took that seat, they did not drop, why would you tell them to stop trying to learn? I say shush – especially if the student has not asked.

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  10. Those who are only there to get a grade, get credit, get a job, etc., are allowed to be there and deserve to be treated fairly, but I try not to spend any unnecessary energy on them. The class is made for people who want to learn – call me idealistic. I don’t provide an exact formula for the final grade so I have wiggle room on questions like this, and I don’t give this kind of detailed report as we go. (I am surprised how many students do figure it out themselves, though, and come to me with their own theories and calculations of what their grade should be.)

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  11. Students, like us, have to make trade offs. We believe in good teaching, but that does not mean that we don’t sometimes sacrifice teaching for other values. Students have good reason to care about their grades as much as we care about our salaries. I think if we respect the complex realities of students’ lives we do them more justice than if we imagine that the work they do in our class is the only important thing they are concerned about. If you want students to keep working until the end, then structure the grading policies so that there is an incentive to do so. It might interest you to know that the students who decided not to do the final paper I mentioned in my first comment were not failing; they were accepting a lower grade in exchange for doing less work. My course also offered the chance to re-do all assignments for a higher grade. Other students looked at the printout and concluded that they would not only do the final paper, but also re-do some of the assignments. Frankly, I respected both sets of choices.

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  12. The answer depend upon the student. If she is only marginally interested in the course and has no chance of passing, advising her to skip the final to focus on other subjects would be in her best interests. If she is interested in the course but is struggling for some other reason, personal problems, health issues, etc., she should be advised to take the exam if only to improve her chances if she were to take the course over.

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