The almost-theres

May 11 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I think everyone who teaches runs into some sort of almost-there, but they are impossible to avoid when you teach an upper-level course in the spring. I'm talking about the students who earn a grade that is oh-so-close to what they need to graduate (or in other cases, keep a scholarship, stay on a team, etc., etc.). In my particular case, it's the students who are majors and need a "C" in my course to get their diploma on time. Every year I have a few hovering around 70% that are on pins and needles at the end of the semester.

On the one hand, they've made their bed. Should I be giving them bonus points based on a need that seemed far less important to them during the semester than at the end? Certainly that would be unfair to the other students.

But, is it worth it to hold a kid back and make them do a summer course over a few percentage points? Seems kinda, I dunno, douchey.

What say ye?

33 responses so far

  • Alex says:

    I prefer systems in which the minimum grade for a course to count is lower than the average needed to graduate. So, say that a D- (or whatever) is enough to get credit for the course, but you need an average of a C (or whatever) to graduate. That way you can give the student the C- (or whatever) that they earned and know that as long as they get a C+ (or whatever) somewhere else they're fine.

    Reducing the stakes on any individual grade, while still requiring a high average, is a way to maintain a standard without putting on too much pressure to nudge a student over. Yes, there's still some pressure (there always is) but the pressure to inflate the C (or whatever) is lower this way.

  • a says:

    my undergrad university had some sort of special pass for the situation where someone just needed that final course to complete. Can't remember any details since I didn't have to use it! (-:

  • Mokele says:

    I'm a big fan of giving students a sort of "heads up" about their grades right before midterms and finals, possibly including a "You need to get X% on your final to get an A/B/C".

    Other things I've seen that I've liked include taking improvement into account and offering a decently big bonus assignment that's also fairly demanding of their knowledge.

    Attendance might also be something to consider, not necessarily quantitatively, but if I've got a class of 20 and still think "Who the hell is this?", they're not getting a bump.

  • Sam says:

    There's probably no single rule to determine every case
    without having some kids fall through the cracks so to speak but I
    think the phrase "budge an inch, give a mile" applies pretty well
    here. It seems each case would vary and would require a degree of
    creativity to ensure that the student can graduate on time without
    being unfair to the rest of the students that didn't slack off
    throughout the semester.

  • LadyLobo says:

    I think it depends on the student. If they have showed you that they have put in extra time and effort but cant translate that into a test score, then I dont see the harm. Especially if you have spoken to them and they show they understand the material. A number of people don't test well. But in the cases where they know they need a specific grade but don't put effort into their work, then tell them to snuggle up in that bed of theirs.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I think it depends on the student.

    But this way there be dragons, no?

  • becca says:

    Is the precision with which you believe you are assessing the knowledge precise enough that a 3% difference in final points is actually a meaningful difference in learning?

    If so, you are teaching a course much more precisely than any I ever took. Unless there is no subjectivity in any grading (including no partial credit judgment calls you made at any time in any assignment), I think it's pretty safe to say there's a case to be made that the actual grade was 'within the margin of error'. Since that isn't an option in most grading schemes (although sometimes the +/- can be used as such), I'd say give them the nudge.

    The only thing that would concern me as a student about fairness is if you count only 'almost-graduating' type situations and not all 'almost-a-C' situations. And that's only because it would suck to give the extra nudge to a senior who you knew needed the grade to graduate on time, who didn't learn the material as well as someone who had terrible test anxiety and 'needed' the grade to keep a scholarship that you didn't know about. That way be dragons, indeed.

  • Namnezia says:

    I usually make them go through their final and explain to me why they got all the questions wrong that they got wrong. If they can do it successfully, or at least mostly successfully, then I'll bump up their grade those few percentage points.

  • Alex says:

    becca-

    You aren't wrong, but consider this: We agree that a 3% difference from the cutoff is too small to matter. Is a 4% difference from the cutoff too small to matter? Maybe, maybe not. So we pass those students. Fine.

    Now, say we agree that an X% different from the cutoff IS significant. OK, we fail the student who differed from the cutoff by X%. What about the student who differed by (X-1)%? Still clearly in the fail zone? Fine. Fail them. What about (X-2)%? Still in the fail zone? OK, what about (X-3)%? Maybe that one we pass.

    Uh, oh, we've just introduced a new cutoff. Not where the old one was, because we wanted to allow for the fuzziness of the old one, but it's still a cutoff.

    It is left as an exercise for the reader to show that this new cutoff is fuzzy and necessitates leeway. Bonus points: Prove that by recursion any cutoff can be reduced to zero, effectively passing everybody.

    Conclusion: Some hard cutoff is necessary.

  • I agree with Alex--the line has to be drawn somewhere, and there will always be someone who is right at the cutoff. My policy is to tell the students on day 1 what the grading policy is, and stick to it for the whole class. I am uncomfortable making exceptions, since that introduces issues of fairness.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Basing it on the student is, of course, going to be problematic. For every student who tells you they have an issue, there is another who might not speak up but have the same problem. Plus, just because a student comes to me for help doesn't mean another isn't working their ass off independently.

    No matter where the cut off, as Alex said, there will always be someone knocking on the door. Based on Becca's premise, one could argue that I push them back to a D+ just as easily. At least then they would feel like they missed by a hair.

  • Heavy says:

    I feel that a C is being generous to many of my students. They really should be D's and F's. Hence that cutoff is not really where it should be and they are not actually missing a passing grade by a hair; more like a whole head of hair.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Heavy, a C isn't passing, it's what majors need to get credit to count towards the major.

    Alright, seriously. Who is voting "other" and what the hell does that mean? Maybe? Sometimes? Make a call people.

  • In the UK, most universities give a viva voce (oral exam) to all students within a couple of per cent of a given grade at graduation. Performance on the viva determines whether you get bumped up, or are stuck with your actual score. This applies on the fail-to-pass boundary all the way up to B-to-A (or 2:1-to-1st, as it is there). I believe Stephen Hawking earned his undergrad 1st on the back of a viva.

  • gerty-z says:

    I agree with Alex. Set a line and stick to it. I think that is the only fair way to go about it.

  • SB says:

    My 2 cents: No individual student should be given
    preferential treatment for any reason (including the need to
    graduate). Full stop. As an aside, I was shocked to see that 70%
    equals a C at your university... is this the case in most of the
    US? I'm at a large Canadian research university and here C = 60% or
    above. 70% would be a B- and 72% is a B.

  • Julian Frost says:

    In my degree, we had the following. You had to submit
    assignments and get a certain number of points before you were
    allowed to write the exam. The pass mark for the exam was 50%. If
    you got 45% or above, you were allowed to retake the exam in
    January/February (academic year starts in Jan in SA). If you passed
    then, you passed.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    As an aside, I was shocked to see that 70% equals a C at your university...

    No, a C is 73-76%. Those hovering around 70% are on the border of that. 90s = As, 80s = Bs and 70s = Cs. I've seen plenty of grade inflation, but making a C = 60 means you're giving a satisfactory grade to students who mastered less than 2/3 the material. That's not how I roll.

  • Dr. Zeek says:

    OK, so I voted other. If a true C is 73%, someone scores a 72.5, I round up. Anything below that, no go. Maybe I am just a hardass. It was how my professors at SLAC operated as well, so maybe it is ingrained in my brain.

  • SamW says:

    I'd say, if it's within two percent or so, give them a chance to demonstrate their learning, e.g. by an oral exam. With that they can bump their grade up, but can't loose anything. This should however, apply to all grade boundaries, so also between a B and an A etc. Otherwise, the system would be unfair.

    Re.: grades in the other countries.
    Giving a percentage on an exam does not mean that the student has mastered that amount of material. That depends on the marking scheme. Here (UK), getting over 70% require mastering all material and demonstrating extra reading, as well has writing a good essay (structure, style etc). (And yes, essay based exams in biology suck.)

  • re. grading

    Yeah, I was shocked when I came to the US and found that you were expected to get 90%+ for an A... But the assessment is completely different. At my UK undergraduate institution, we were told by perfectly repeating everything taught in lectures, we would get a B at most.

  • The situation is not quite so simple. Even though it may come down to just one course grade, yours, the reason a student is in such dire straights is that their over all performance in a number of courses was sub-par, but now their degrees of freedom has been reduced to zero. So it's not just one course that is keeping them from graduating.

  • brooksPhD says:

    I don't think I ever bumped a student, but TBH it's been 6 or 7 years since I last taught and I am a total softy...

  • TV says:

    Never, under any circumstances, should a student get more points than they deserve. I find it very strange that their is even a question about it. I can't imagine why anyone would even consider that, in fact doing so could probably get you in trouble for fraud...

  • Optional oral exam worth X. It'll make you feel better about not bumping people up.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    The situation is not quite so simple. Even though it may come down to just one course grade, yours, the reason a student is in such dire straights is that their over all performance in a number of courses was sub-par, but now their degrees of freedom has been reduced to zero. So it's not just one course that is keeping them from graduating.

    No, it is that simple. Our majors need a C in all the courses that count for the major to graduate. If it's their last semester and they have one course left, they need a C in it regardless of their other courses.

    Never, under any circumstances, should a student get more points than they deserve. I find it very strange that their is even a question about it. I can't imagine why anyone would even consider that, in fact doing so could probably get you in trouble for fraud...

    If you look at the poll, it turns out there is quite a question.

  • Certainly not by 3%! That would be grossly unfair to students who earned their grade. But if a student is within 1% of passing I'll usually pass them, just to save myself from the whining I'd otherwise get.

  • I'm known around these parts as being tough on this kind of stuff and my students get the grades they deserve. They know they are welcome to make an appointment with me to complain but that I will not change their grades. Regardless of how much they cry or how many times their poor old grandmother dies.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I'd say, if it's within two percent or so, give them a chance to demonstrate their learning, e.g. by an oral exam. With that they can bump their grade up, but can't loose anything. This should however, apply to all grade boundaries, so also between a B and an A etc. Otherwise, the system would be unfair.

    The idea isn't to create a massive new amount of work for myself just because a few students didn't study all that hard in the senior spring.

  • Natalie says:

    Working as a (young) tech in a small town with an undergrad institution means I sometimes end up hanging out socially with (mature) students, hearing the other side of this story. In this case, after years of traveling and working in environmental outreach and wilderness camps, this particular student came back to upgrade her education in the "environmental sciences" field. Her entire four years were a struggle, but she was particularly worried about a single demanding class that she needed to graduate.

    She knows she's not very good at school, she knows now she would rather be teaching kids about trees, and she really just wanted to finish so she could get the hell outta Dodge. She was SO HAPPY when she heard she passed. It was odd seeing this from the student's perspective. I wouldn't want to be the prof who made her stay for another semester to retake a class to graduate, hence the grey zone of fuzziness.

  • Arno says:

    When in doubt about whether give a certain point or not, I'd often check whether such points would bring the student over the/a threshold or not. If the points help, they get them, if not, then not. Hence, there is little "almost passing", but rather a clear divide. Alternatively, if the conversion from points to grades is fixed after the exams, I like to set the borders so that almost no student misses the next best grade by a single point.

  • cookingwithsolvents says:

    RE: grade % numbers.

    I'm sure we can write an exam where the average is an arbitrary number. However, I've found the results to be most representative of true knowledge when the exam is written at a difficulty level that results in a broader distribution. e.g. 100-80 is an A of some flavor, 60-80 B etc. The questions are written such that I'm measuring their *command* of the knowledge, not whether or not they have memorized a particular reaction or pKa value. Sure, I could write an exam with 100-90 being a "hard" A but why? Is that really meaningful that they have memorized everything? I've found that the excellent students get in the 90's on both types of exams so why not separate out the rest of the pack for your (and their) benefit? Additionally, there are no +'s or -'s at my university so this coarse-grained measurement is particularly useful. I have NO problem issuing C's, D's or F's if they are warranted and when you use this system there is little doubt in anybody's mind. The F student will get 20-ish % (usually all in the first section where the basic concepts are tested) and not be in any doubt about their standing. The A's will blaze through the whole thing, including the final "challenge" problem.

    The side effect writing more challenging exams is that there is more error in the measurement due to partial credit (e.g. on a mechanism, synthetic route, or explanation of some observables), even though partial credit is assigned consistently in a single exam. Becca's comment about "3%" off is particularly germane in this context and I agree with it for the 2-3% amount. The comments about 'arbitrary X% are in my opinion using hyperbole to make an obvious and ridiculous point outside of useful discussion.

    Incidentally, I came through an UG system where in many classes 100-80 or the median was the C/B cutoff, etc. etc. so I've seen it from both sides. I'm very clear about how my system works and my students seem to be fine with it though I'm still assembling data points.

  • MidwestProf says:

    I provide extra-credit questions on each exam. I give a handful of extra-credit points to those who complete the online teaching evaluations at the end of the semester (only way I can get a response rate >5% on those things). I figure that by the end of the semester, either (1) the student did take advantage of those opportunities and thus his D+ is actually already raised up from a D or (2) he didn't take advantage of those opportunities and so why should I care more about his grade than he obviously does?

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