Thursday, April 7, 2011

Wacky Student Time: On The Nature of Fairness

I recently received an email from a student who earned a really solid D on an exam. The student was sort of asking if there was anything I could do about this grade. I am accustomed, of course, to receiving requests for special extra-credit assignments and the like. But this one was different. This student just wanted me to change his grade. He seemed to sort of acknowledge that there was nothing in principle wrong with the grade--there was no grading error; no extenuating circumstance. He just wanted me to give him a better one. Then he says, "im just asking you to be fair and just."

Again, I get this kind of request a lot--though usually the student wants me to let him do a special extra-credit assignment. A lot of times they will preface the request by saying that they don't want to be unfair to their classmates, which I take to be an implicit or backhanded acknowledgement that granting the request would indeed be unfair to their classmates. A lot of times they don't say anything about fairness--the question of fairness either doesn't occur to them, or else it doesn't interest them, or else they realize that it's not to their advantage to bring it up. A lot of times they stress their willingness to do extra work: "I'll do whatever it takes," they say. "I'll work really hard the rest of the term," they say. I have a standard reply that I send to all such requests, which stresses the degree to which they and their classmates have a right to expect that the policies of they syllabus will be honored blah blah blah.

But I have never, ever had a student ask me to just scratch out the 65 at the top of the exam and write in an 87 instead, for nothing, no extra work, and no legitimate reason. And I have never, ever, ever had a student tell me that I should do this because of justice; because it would be the fair thing to do. My head is spinning.

--Mr. Zero


Anonymous said...

That's crazy! I'd be tempted to have a short class discussion on the nature of fairness, just from sheer curiosity about what conception of fairness some people are working from.

The best I've gotten is a grade appeal from a student who wanted a better grade because, as I noted in comments, the essay was written well. (Unfortunately she was also very, very wrong in her interpretation of an article she was discussing.) Of course, I just replied that the great writing was a central reason why the essay grade wasn't lower.

WV: expesmsh. The sound my brain made when reading this blog entry.

Anonymous said...

Did he hand you an envelope with some cash in it? Justice for Aristotle did mean equality in exchange.

Anonymous said...

Oh man. I've gotten that. The assumed premise, of course, is that you did not grade the exam fairly.

When I got that before, I responded by noting that I'd be more than happy to meet and explain my grading system if they have any confusion about why they received that particular grade. For some reason, that didn't interest them.

Anonymous said...

I had something like that last week. On the take home mid-term I had assigned, the student basically cribbed her answers from the readings from the class. Not copy and paste, but copy-paste-and-strategically-replace words here and there. A pretty open and shut case of plagiarism, so I failed the student.

The student then came to me, complaining that I had been unfair. In particular, I had been unfair because I had somehow not understood that there are conditions under which plagiarism is justified. "What kind of professor does that!" she yelled in response to me explaining why she had failed. "How else did you expect me to pass the mid-term!?" She went on for about 20 minutes, yelling and complaining about how she couldn't figure out how to get through to me. Her basic point seemed to be that it was OK to allow students to plagiarize their work if, in the student's opinion, that was the best way for the student could do well in the course.

The mid-term was a cakewalk for everyone else in the class. The average was a solid B+.

Xenophon said...

I think it's simpler than this. A lot of students just push all their professors to see what they can get them to do. It's sport. Andy why not? It's not like you're going to LOWER the grade you've already given them. (Actually, sometimes I've offered to regrade exams, provided the student recognizes the grade might go down. Never had any takers on that one.)

My guess is that enough faculty simply don't care, or they want to buy good student evaluations, or whatever, so a student might have a success rate of 20% for complaints. Even if it's much lower, it's rational to complain in every class. It almost doesn't matter what the complaint is: if the cost of complaining (in a lazy or thoughtless way) is near zero, the expected return is high if the gambit even works occasionally.

Mostly Anonymous said...

My first thought was to suggest that the student could have his/her grade raised if some other student agreed to have his/her grade lowered by the same amount. You know, a sort of grade welfare system.

But then, that would probably lead to the student paying for such generosity.

Anonymous said...

With such requests, I generally refer students to the Academic Integrity Code, which explicitly prohibits "Attempts to influence or change one's academic evaluation or record for reasons other than achievement or merit."

Then I ask the student what, specifically, about the grade do they object to, as an evaluation of their academic work.

The implicit threat is helpful with the students who are inclined to screaming and/or threatening.

Anonymous said...

I've gotten the 'please pass me in this course. I recognize I do not deserve to pass and that passing me would mean treating me differently from everyone else in the class, but please give me a grade I do not deserve.'

When asked to provide some rationale for why I ought to do this, the student told me that it'd be in keeping with my personality of being nice.

It's not good when we haven't even taught them how to most effectively beg for something.

Anonymous said...

I'd suggest giving this student the option of an extra credit assignment. You can ask them to write a short essay 2-3 pages or something. The topic?


Anonymous said...

This is mind-boggling. Here's my wildly implausible hypothesis: Your student believes that justice requires society to provide benefits to those who are in need. Your student is in need of good grades. Therefore, justice requires that society provide him with good grades. Since you are society's agent when it comes to the provision of his grade, he has asked you to provide him with the good grade that he is owed. See? It all makes sense.

Re: Anon 11:17's plagiarizing student: Maybe I should revise my syllabus to say, "Plagiarism will result in a failing grade for the assignment and/or the course, even if there was no way that you could have done well on the assignment without plagiarizing." You know, just to be clear.

Anonymous said...

Would anyone be willing to share their non-cynical reply to such requests? I've been trying to make my own responses less harsh.

Elizabeth said...

I hope it's an ethics class!

Anonymous said...

I don't have anything very interesting to say, but my WV is "derdia" and it's just too damn good to pass on.

Oh yeah, I do have one thing. I've had, not exactly the experience of 11:17, but similar enough. It is amazing, isn't it?, when a student tries to frame his utter inability to make any kind of case as a failure of communication, as if it were an instance of the tragedy of the human condition, the postmodern condition, or some other grand hoohah that has nothing to do with the fact that the student has no case.

zombie said...

I think that calls for a 10 page essay on the meaning of fairness and justice, with a well-reasoned argument for why the student's grade was neither fair nor just. Probably should make them use Rawls.

Anonymous said...

When a student wants to contest a grade on a paper or exam, I say sure let's meet and I'll look over it again with the caveat that sometimes upon a second look I decide that the grade should be lower. Hardly goes anywhere after that.

Small Fish said...

@ 11:17

Though I have little doubt that what your student cheated at my university (and a few others I'm explicitly aware of) your decision to punish your student DOES constitute injustice.

This is because cases of plagiarism, at least where I'm at now, must ALL go through our academic integrity office in order to ensure that students are able to impartially respond to allegations of plagiarism. Admission to you during office hours or whatnot would of course be powerful evidence but it shouldn't be up to you to make that decision.

About the OP...well...I can't imagine what your student must have had in mind but there's a pretty common line of thought I see students run that makes game theoretic sense given certain false assumptions I think students make:

They could say nothing in which case they keep the grade they don't like.

They could ask you to change the grade (normally with the usual pleadings). If you change the grade they win. If you don't then they haven't lost anything (except your respect which I think they undervalue).

Anonymous said...


Student: "Listen, I know I bombed the second and third test. I was fine until [student name] helped me study, then I was all confused, so can I retake the exam?"

Me: "No"

Student proceeds to check facebook

Anonymous said...

Although the student's grasp of basic principles of justice is poor, their grasp of chutzpah and bullshit is strong enough to have them consider a career in academic philosophy.

Or politics.

Or university administration.

WV: deetore. As in, my commenting here is a fantastic deetore on my way to getting actual work done.

Anonymous said...

A policy that has worked for me is that I tell students that I will only meet to discuss a change in grade if they send me IN WRITING an argument/explanation of why they feel the original grade was too low. They need to read my feedback and find a specific place where they think I was too harsh and then attempt to convince me of this (occasionally they are right: the same paper might seem awesome if read after a string of garbage and poor if read after a string of gold).

This has two major benefits: it eliminates the knee-jerk complaints and it makes it so that if I'm so burnt that I can't listen to their convoluted reasoning and so just bump their grade up a third of a letter so that I can end the conversation I at least feel like I made them work for it.

This policy seemed obviously awesome when a colleague told me about it and I still can't believe I didn't think of it on my own years ago.

Anonymous said...

Tell the student you think "justice" warrants a lower grade. Then ask him if he really want you to do what's just. Ten bucks says he'll back-off.

Anonymous said...

I echo 7:20: this has only happened to me once or twice... but I say that if s/he really wants me to reconsider the grade I've given, that I'll do so, but that they must be prepared for me to give them a lower grade if it turns out that I see that I was actually generous in giving her/him what I did - and that whatever I decide after that is final. I explain that when grading a huge batch of papers/exams I sometimes will have been a bit too harsh or a bit too lenient in assigning a grade or two... Usually it gets dropped after that.

Laura said...

I just echoed 7:20 - let me clarify what I began with: I've *never* had a student do what Zero's has done. What I meant by "this has happened only once or twice" was simply the request for raising/looking at the grade again.

Anonymous said...

Small fish, really? It's an injustice not to send a case of plagiarism through an additional mechanism that might or might not be in place 11:17 teaches at?

This seems like a strange view of justice you must hold.

Anonymous said...

There's something about having to deal with students who are stressed about their grades when I'm stressed about not having a job in philosophy next year that just makes me want to scream. I try to be patient and sympathetic. I was just like some of them when I was an undergrad, but I really resent that their stress is adding to my stress right now. I want to tell them all that grades aren't as important as they think they are, but I know it won't register. It does make me lose a bit of respect for them though. I cared about grades a lot, but I would have never whined to my profs about them and I wouldn't have asked for a grade change unless I thought there was a genuine 'injustice'.

ruben said...

lulz, be like hell nah!

Eric said...

I once had a student ask to have her grade increased because she "needed to have a better GPA by the end of the semester" so she could transfer to a "school that had better quality classes and better teachers".

No joke. She said that to my face, and this was after getting a solid D on an in-class exam.

She was wanting to transfer from a respectable large state school in the city to another large college just outside of the city in a college town(60 miles away) with a rep for being a big party school.

She did not get a grade increase, and earned a low C in my class. I don't know if she ever transferred to the 'better' school or if they would even have her.

Anonymous said...

ruben FTW!

CTS said...

Depending on how much time you have, I would recommend asking the student to explain the 'unfairness,' much as 10:58 suggests, in writing.

Then go through it as a good philosopher would and reply. (Think of it as a teaching exercise.)

Keep it up until the student realizes this is not going to work and s/he is being an idiot.

Anonymous said...

Whenever the "unfairness" complaint comes up in class (teaching moment!), I typically do one of two things depending on how much time I have:

1) Ask who I've treated differently and how specifically.

2) Tell the story about Sydney Morgenbesser being clobbered by the police during the '60s riots at Columbia. He was asked later whether he was treated unfairly or unjustly. He's supposed to have replied (though some popular accounts get this obviously wrong) along the lines of: "Unjustly, yes. Unfairly, no: they were clobbering everybody!"

For some reason, the second response has not resulted in a mass movement toward justice criticisms of my grading practices. . . . Not sure why, exactly.

I'm totally adopting the tip abut instituting a policy about written requests for grade changes.

WV: 'bable'

Anonymous said...

I'd be tempted to have a short class discussion on the nature of fairness, just from sheer curiosity about what conception of fairness some people are working from.

This is what I do, at the top of my lungs. I can handle *in class* criticism of my class and my teaching, but once I hear "unfair" or "isn't fair" my inner Gunnery Sgt. Hartmann bursts forward.

Anonymous said...

Yep. It's happened a thousand times. Last semester, one student went as far as to meet with my department chair, explain that my course was poorly instructed. When the chair pulled out an email I handed over (it's my policy that, when a student says "I sent an email..." that I do a search and give my chair all emails that were sent to me, and their responses) where the student gushed and praised my class, he changed his strategy and accused me of violating laws that prohibit discrimination. Fun.

Bobcat said...

I just had an awesome experience, but it requires some explanation.

So, before each exam, I pass out a study guide. This study guide is extremely generous: it tells them every question I'm asking them on each of the tests I give them. Keep in mind that half of the questions are short answer and half are multiple choice. Anyway, on the latest study guide, I accidentally included the answers with the questions. So, to not make things too much of a cakewalk, I sent the students an email telling them my mistake, and then telling them that I would be rephrasing the correct answers in different words, so as to encourage them to understand the answers, rather than just memorize them.

Well, a couple of days ago, I got an email from a student telling me that it was unfair of me to have sent a study guide with all the answers on it because it made her think the test would be too easy and caused her not to study. She also added that the questions weren't clear anyway. Finally, she concluded by saying that she hoped I wasn't offended.

Anonymous said...

I often wonder what accounts for the seemingly exponential rise in students complaining about their grades over the last decade. Perhaps I'm naive to think that this sort of thing wasn't going on all the time when I was an undergraduate (less than 10 years ago), but I can recall only one time when I complained to a professor about a grade. The professor had made a mathematical error in calculating my final score (which was quickly remedied), and even my general assurance of both the fairness and justness of my cause weren't enough to prevent me from being nervous about asking.I had far too much respect for my professors (even the graduate students) to treat them the way students now treat me on a fairly regular basis. Can anyone who has been at this longer comment on whether students have in fact gotten more whinny and demanding?

Anonymous said...

Bobcat, that story is fucking GOLD! Thanks.

Bobcat said...

Anonymous 9:16 are you a prof or grad student now? I think this kind of demanding behavior is very rare among undergrads who try to become profs. Assuming I'm right about that, I don't know why that would be.