Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Well, Shoot.

Well, Shoot

Christmas was a mixed bag -- mostly good, and I felt very loved, having been taken in by a friend and her family. A little bad -- announcements of a divorce in the family and an expected death which was mostly a blessing. But really, mostly good.

The return home? Not so good. I have in my e-mail two student requests for re-evaluation of grades. These are the kind of requests that kill me. I believe in the mission of community colleges to provide a truly college-level education to those for whom it might otherwise be impossible. I also really believe in federal and state financial aid packages. I am happy for every bit of tax money that goes to them. So here's the problem, oh internets -- an ethical one for which I'd appreciate your opinion. So you know, I cannot really see doing anything for these students.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that, if I don't raise these students' grades -- and by a tenth of a percentage point in each case, I think, they will lose their financial aid for the next term -- I'm not sure how this works -- it seems to me that the one grade I give must fit into an average? I should ask Financial aid and counseling, I suppose.

But -- Student One was almost always late. S/he almost never took notes in class and never (or not that I could tell) prepared for discussion. Never turned in discussion notes when I checked them. All the written assignments were pretty much a C- average. Class participation was 30% of the grade -- s/he was there almost every day, but as I said, no discussion, always late. But the student really does want to do well, and has signed up for another of my classes next term. Other faculty know this student, and there is a general feeling s/he just needs more help in how to do college.

Student Two was really good, all through class. Incredibly bright, prepared (or faked well) all of class discussion, had a grade in the low 90s. Except. The paper was plagiarised. Student asked about the zero on the paper, and I pointed out that it had something to do with uncited passages taken verbatim from a couple of web sites. Student Two did not protest my assessment or claim innocence. What s/he did do was send a note saying that we both knew the grade was not indicative of the work the student was capable of, whatever the reason for that final grade. Could I please raise the grade by that tenth of a point?

Well, shoot. It seems to me that these two students must not have done all that well in their other classes if the grades they earned from me are enough to tip the balance. And one was dishonest. I don't want to see these people lose their aid, but you know, it's never really bothered me before. And if I understand correctly the GPA thing (and since I used to worry about my own, I pretty much think I get the whole GPA thing), Student Two really must have done badly in another class (perhaps also dishonesty??) to be teetering on the edge of losing his/her funding.

Part of me wants to help -- especially Student One. But part of me also says that I didn't give them these grades; they really did earn them. And one of the lessons of college is that you have to do the work. I wonder if I'd feel better about this kind of thing if I had tenure. It seems to me that, in this case, figuring grades mathematically and sticking to those figures means that I cannot allow myself to make decisions based on my own sentiments or wonder about whether either of these students is deserving. Oh internets, shall I take refuge in the rules??

Update: Student One is safe, if s/he brings his/her grades up this term. I will be working with him/her on "how to do college." Student Two's GPA disaster has little to do with what s/he earned in my course. I'm sticking to my guns and feeling stupid for almost having fallen for the sob story. Thanks to everyone who helped out with an opinion. It's nice to have a reality check sometimes.


Miriam Jones said...

I would discuss the students with any other of their instructors you may know, particularly anyone whose opinion you trust.

Also, seeing transcripts can be incredibly helpful in these sorts of circumstances. If you don't have access, could you request it in these two cases?

I myself tend to be somewhat flexible, because I am always aware that in my discipline, at least, there is an element of subjectivity involved with grading. With most disciplines, I imagine, but certainly any discipline that requires essays in any form.

Re. the cheating student: did you turn them in? At our institution we are expected to inform the Registrar's Office, so that even though the repercussions can be minimal for a presumed first offence (0% on the plagiarized assignment, usually, so the impact on the course grade varies widely), there is a record somewhere so if the student is caught again, and reported, s/he will not get away with another "first offence."

My gut reaction is to be harder on the flashy yet dishonest student and give the quiet struggling student the benefit of the doubt, but take that with a pound of salt as you know them and their work and I obviously don't.

And be aware that some regard me as "soft."

Carrie K said...

Student #1 "really wants to do well" but somehow doesn't do well? Why not? It seems to me that that is almost fully in her control, particularly during classes. You can't grade vague good intentions. Well, you can, but I don't see why you should.

Student #2 is lucky all he got was a bad grade for plagarizing his paper. Not the easy way out after all.

Not that I am a teacher, currently or student, or for that matter attended college recently. I just enjoy your blog and am throwing in my two cents, FWIW.

Rebecca said...

Yikes, ADM, quite a moral dilemma.

I have to ask: in the case of the first student, would she lose her financial aid forever, or would she have to take a semester off and reapply later? If she wants to do well in college and is having trouble prioritizing her academic work, maybe a semester without aid (and therefore a semester away) would give her time to think about what she really wants. After all, she did *earn* the grade she got.

IMHO, student 2 deserves no consideration. Doesn't matter what he's capable of, he cheated, and that's that. I'm not a big believer in second chances under those circumstances.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I think student One is just lazy. I'm going to check with my chair. I ran into a colleague and he told me that students usually don't lose their aid unless they were already on probabtion, so I'm going to check on that. I'm thinking that there must be something else there to threaten aid ...

Professor Bastard said...

I want to advocate for possibly giving the cheater another chance. Have you talked with him/her? Do you think that a tongue-lashing from hell would have a positive effect? I.e., make the student realize just how lucky he/she would be to be given a second chance by you?

I can find any specific reason for such an act of mercy in what you've written here, ADM, but I do want to remind all of us that mercy *does* have a place in the decision-making process.

Professor Bastard said...

*Can't find", I meant to type.

Anonymous said...

I would also advocate for checking with your chair/financial aid office to see specifically what the rules are. In addition, if you do decide you will bend for one or both, require that they provide you with documentation before you change the grade (e.g, a copy of a probation letter plus a transcript). Sometimes the financial aid problem is real. Sometimes it is an attempt to get a better/passing grade.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Prof B -- I have to say I would feel better about making an exception for student two if there were some kind of apology, but there hasn't been. I assume that the charge of plagiarism is understood, as there was no further protest of the big fat zero, but the letter asking for the bump also very astutely avoided mention of that fact -- there was clearly no apology.

Jane Dark said...

Boy, a quarter ago, I might have advocated some leniency for Student #2, but not so much after my own experience with plagiarism. Does the community college have a plagiarism czar you can document this with, though? That seems to me to be the safest action.

I second the suggestion for making them document the fact that .1 will make a huge diff with their financial aid.

But unless you really feel that you might have been too hard on them (and you don't seem to feel that way), then if you adjust, then you'll also be teaching them that grades are negotiable. And that's not something that I want to teach any student, but especially not these two, based on your descriptions.

Professor Bastard said...

That lack of an apology is something I overlooked, ADM. If I were in your position, for what it's worth, I would bring the student, ask why he/she didn't acknowledge the plagiarism in the request for a grade change, and see if I could be persuaded by to change the grade in light of the reply to my query. I strongly doubt I could be, but my intuition is that I would want to know what the student would say in those circumstances.

I would like know how you ultimately resolve these situations.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Student one was easy -- turned out not to be an issue and I'll help the student as much as I can to make sure his/her GPA doesn't fall further.

Student Two got a nice note from me explaining that I'd spoken with the proper offices, and there was an appeals process, but that my policies on plagiarism were clear and given the students other grades, it was pretty clear that mine was not responsible. Wished the student well and said I hoped to see her/him again, as s/he has a lot of talent. Got a nice, "thanks for thinking about it, but I kinda figured" note back.

Professor Bastard said...

Good for you, ADM. Nice to know that's off your back now.