Friday, October 28, 2011

What Would You Have Done?

Last week, I encountered a problem with one of my students. I wasn’t sure what I ought to do so I turned to my colleagues here at the Robins School of Business and emailed them a cry for guidance.

To: Fellow Faculty Members

For the first time in (at least) 25 years, I had a student sleep through a test. The test was at 10:30 on Friday and I got an email at 12:30 that he had stayed up late on Thursday studying and just slept through his alarm. He was hysterical, begging for mercy.

If you have ever had this happen, what do you do that makes sense?

Here are the factors:

1 – I absolutely do not want to set a precedent that I cannot live with in the future. I don’t want “I slept through the alarm” to become a common occurrence in my classes.
2 – I don’t want to ruin the young man’s life. He just overslept – he didn’t rob a bank. I’ve overslept.
3 – There were students who showed up for the test and failed (and will probably fail the course). I’m very concerned about being fair to them. I don’t want to penalize “showing up.”
4 – I think he is telling me the truth but I don’t know that for sure.
5 – I give three tests and a final exam. This test will be approximately 22 percent of his overall grade.
6 – Although I do not know that it is relevant information, he made a solid D on the first test.
7 – Although I do not know that it is relevant information, he has missed a few classes along the way this semester.

If you have ever faced this type of situation, what would you do? I’m really curious as to how people handle this kind of problem – other than a public beheading in the Atrium.

I sent out this plea on a Saturday morning and within a very few hours I had received 24 different responses. I was very interested in two things: (1) the thoughtful nature of the responses and (2) the wide variety of suggestions. Everyone understood the situation and had some strong feelings about what was appropriate. How do you treat a student who has messed up? Should the punishment be harsh or nonexistent?

A few days later, I shared the responses with the faculty (anonymously) as well as my own final decision. I am not going to list all 24 responses here (but contact me at if you have an interest in seeing the entire list) but I have picked out several that I thought were fairly representative of the group. And, at the end, I explain what I did and why.

It was not an unbelievable situation.

What would you have done?

Professor A - I have made the mistake of giving some students "a break" and I have regretted the decision. Here is my take. At the age of 20 - 21 some of our students are mature, responsible adults. Others are still in the process of growing up and learning to be responsible. The mature students never ask me to give them a break...they never seem to need one. The immature students ask and then ask again. In your situation I would give the student a zero. Given his performance thus far he will likely fail the class. However, I believe the University will let any student retake a course and the new grade appears on the transcript as well. It is better for this student to learn that actions have serious consequences while he is still in school. Better to fail a class than get fired. You can always tell him that he may not have learned Accounting, but he did learn Accountability.

Professor B - This is difficult. On one hand you don't want to reward the behavior, but it is also harsh to deal out such a stiff penalty. So here is what I normally do in something like this. I would have the student put the exam points toward the final. This is a penalty in that most students don't want to have so much riding on the final. But, if the student can perform on the final they have the opportunity to wipe out the mistake.

We live in an imperfect world and there is probably something wrong with whatever attempt we make to address a problem like this.

Professor C - I tell the students at the beginning of the semester that a missed test is a zero regardless of the situation. However, I did have one student have a family medical emergency and notify me before the exam. When exceptions absolutely must be made, I ask the student if they are willing to distribute the weight of the exam missed across all other assignments and exams. In every case, they have happily agreed. So for these students, I grade them in a way that essentially assumes they were not required to take the exam missed.

However, if this particular student were in my class I would not extend this option to him. If he is a D student that often misses classes and simply slept in, I would think that he needs a wakeup call to be more responsible. I would likely talk to him during my office hours and tell him this while giving him advice on how to improve his performance from here on out and probably require him to check in with me every week to make sure he's on top of his assignments. It is my opinion that allowing him to make up the exam in any way would just be enabling his bad habits to continue.

I would not view this as ruining his life. Rather, this is likely the wakeup call he needs. Better now by failing an exam/class than in the future by losing his job for similar behavior.

Professor D - I give a comprehensive final. If a student misses a test for any reason (this is not an opt out) that percentage goes to the final exam. That way they are tested on the material and I do not have to play judge or truth teller regarding the excuse. There are no "make up tests". In the past this has not proven to be a great option for the students grade wise and I let them know this up front. The policy is on the syllabus and seems to work well with regard to them making every effort to attend. This is especially true for MBA's.

Professor E - I usually offer the student two options: take the exam with a penalty applied to the grade (for example, 10 points off), or put the weight on the final or the other exams already taken.

Professor F - It sounds like he is having personal problems. I would talk with him and maybe make his being able to take the test contingent on him seeing someone in counseling or the Dean's office.

Or let him take the test and let him know you are concerned about him and are going to let the Dean's office know.

I am always dismayed by the number of kids who get transported to the hospital for alcohol overdoses, each week. I guess this is a nationwide problem, but it just reminds me of how vulnerable some of these kids are.

Professor G - If the public beheading really isn't an option, then I would say that points #6 & 7 absolutely are relevant. Were he a stellar student, I would feel more inclined to help. Failing a class will not ruin his life. In fact, it may enhance it. It is part of the educational experience to learn that most of life is about (1) being where you're supposed to be and (2) doing what you're supposed to do. But it's important to determine whether he's the kind of student that will benefit more in the long run from an act of grace or of justice.

With all that said, you could (privately) give him the option of dropping the course or count the final twice. I would never offer a make-up exam.

Okay, here is what I did and I don’t know that I like this resolution at all but it’s done and I’ll stick with it.

If I had gotten the student’s email in time, I would have had him take the test on Friday afternoon with a 15-20 point penalty. However, I didn’t get the message until fairly late on Friday and I’m always a bit concerned about cheating. Once the exam was over, the other students had no reason not to talk about what was on the exam. The student grapevine is amazingly efficient.

If the student had an excused absence (health reasons, athletics, school activity, or the like), I might have given a makeup. However, I hate makeup exams because I find it very difficult to look at one set of answers all by themselves and know what that means. An N of 1 is always a problem. So, I prefer to simply give more weight to the other tests. That increases the risk but there is no penalty.

This was not excused, though. For this student, I would never give a makeup exam because I would have to do more work which makes no sense to me and I’m back to the problem of an N of 1.

I could have increased the weight on the other tests but that might actually be a reward. “I’ll have more time to study for the next test so I’ll just conveniently oversleep for this exam.” I thought there should be a real penalty but how serious should the penalty be for oversleeping?

Here was the major factor for me: I could not see giving him any chance at all of having a higher grade on this material than a student who actually showed up. That just seemed wrong to me. So, I told him that I would give him a grade of one point below the lowest test grade. That turned out to be a relatively high F.

But, and here is the point that I argued with to myself, I told him that I would only count this as half of an exam grade. I thought that was still a severe enough penalty that no one would ever want it. But it wasn’t crushing. I very much agree with what Professor F above says: “it just reminds me of how vulnerable some of these kids are.”

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