Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Credibility Gap - A Weekend Thirsty

This is a story, ending with a thirsty. I know weekend thirsties are barely tolerated, but I'm willing to risk it.

It's the middle of the semester once again, and this week I gave mid-term exams to all of my classes. The mid-term date is listed on the syllabus, and I make very clear that the exam is not to be missed for any reason short of a dire emergency, one that falls within official university guidelines for excused absences, and that is also supported by appropriate documentation.

Last Sunday, the day before one of the exams, I received two emails from two different students. The first read:
From: Student A
To Defunct Adjunct
Subject: Mid-Term Problem; Need help


I'm freaking out a bit over a problem I have encountered. It's not because of the test itself, but I went out of town by bus this weekend, and now the returning bus is no longer in service and I don't know if I can make it back into town today. I'm working on a solution, but it is not going well. I absolutely hate to ask, but would it be possible to do the exam on Tuesday? I believe in the honor system and would never try to take advantage of something like this. [more details about the specific problems]

Anyway, please let me know anything you can do, so I can either scramble for an immediate solution (if there is one), or plan to get back tomorrow without the panic.

Thank you,
Student A

The second email went like this:
From: Student B
To Defunct Adjunct

Hi Professor,

I am in your Monday 3.00-4.30 class, and we have our mid-semester exam tomorrow. A last-minute issue has come up, and I have to go out of town tomorrow morning. Is it possible for me to take the exam a day late? I would appreciate any help.

Thank you,
Student B
On the surface of it, there doesn't seem to be too much difference between these situations, at least in terms of how I would normally deal with them. If someone misses an exam for any reason, my policy, as I said above, is to require full documentation.

Student B, as you can see, was completely unforthcoming about the actual reason for the anticipated absence. I emailed him back noting that "an issue has come up" is not sufficient explanation, and he replied asking whether a "note from a parent or guardian" would do the trick. I explained that this does not really qualify once you're an adult college student.

But the specific reasons, and even the somewhat deluded notion of what constitutes documentation, aren't even really the issue here. The issue is what I call the "credibility gap." The gap is one that exists between these two students, and that caused me to treat their situations very differently.

Student A is always on time, always does the reading, always contributes to class discussions, and his contributions are always of the highest quality. He not only answers questions about the material that leave other students in the class stumped, but draws connections and offers detailed comments that show a really thoughtful and analytical engagement with the materials.

Student B is late to almost every class, and for most of each class meeting sits near the back, either fooling around on his computer or whispering with a classmate. I've actually had to tell them to shut up in class a couple of times. Student B has never once made an intelligent contribution to class discussion, nor given any indication of having completed the assigned reading.

In short, by the time those two emails landed in my inbox last Sunday, Student A had built up a ton of credibility with me, and Student B had basically none. And that influenced how I responded to their requests. I held tightly to my policies with Student B, and I sent Student A an email that said, basically, "Do your best to get here, but if you can't, we'll work something out."

I've always believed that we should treat students equally, and I've told quite a few students in the past that I couldn't just let them do extra credit, or give them a chance to re-write the paper, because it would be unfair to the rest of the class. But I also believe that treating students equally, in situations like this, is not quite the same as treating them identically. While I never unfairly require more of my students than is laid out in my syllabus, I am willing to be more flexible with some students than others, based on the (admittedly rather nebulous) issue of credibility.

To be quite blunt, if you've been goofing off all semester in my class, and have shown no inclination to do the work, I'm likely to suspect that you're just trying to pull a fast one when you email me the day before the exam to tell me that you have "to go out of town." If you've been clearly the best student in the class, and one of the best students I've taught in the last five years, I'm more likely to take your claims seriously.

Nor is this simply about intelligence, or going easy on the "A" students. I've had some brilliant students who were clearly capable of A-level work, but who were still goof-offs, and who I would have treated like I treated Student B. I've also had some not-very-bright students who worked their asses off, and who I would have given the same sort of consideration that I gave to Student A. While effort and commitment will not, by themselves, get you a good grade in my class, they do buy you some credibility that you can cash in when the shit hits the fan.

I'm writing not just to tell my story, but to see if people here at College Misery do something similar. Would you have done the same thing as me, or would you have been as hard on Student A as on Student B? Do you think I'm being unethical here? I would be interested in everyone's feedback.


  1. If I'd gotten either of those in one semester, but not both, I think I would have reacted to those particular students exactly as you did, for exactly the reasons you did. But both happening in the same semester adds an additional level of conundrum to the question, that's for sure. I honestly don't know what I would have done.

  2. I actually think that equality of treatment isn't the most helpful standard for the circumstances you describe. What you have done, IMHO, is to treat the two students justly. And, again given the circumstances, I think that was the correct course of action and what I would have done myself.

  3. DA, I've experienced the same circumstances as you, and I've responded the same way as you. The thing about Student A's explanation is that it was specific enough such it could be looked into, and potentially exposed as a fraud if it was untrue. I prosecute a lot of cheating students, and I don't see them giving explanations that can be verified for their truthfulness - cheating students give vague, nebulous evasions so that they can never be put into a position where they're flat-out exposed as a liar.

  4. I agree with your treatment of the students. In the first semester of my freshman year, I did a take-home midterm for a class I loved. My college had an honor system, and we were given 2 hours to take this exam, no notes or books allowed. I got really absorbed in the exam, which was actually really interesting -- I knew the stuff but was engaged enough to push past the obvious answers. I looked up and 2 hours later, I was halfway through. So I drew a line where I stopped, finished the exam, and turned it in with a note explaining what I'd done, and saying that I finished the exam for the learning experience and to demonstrate that I did know the material even if I failed the exam. Much to my surprise, the professor gave me full credit for the exam. His explanation? I'd come to every class, contributed heavily to class discussion, was clearly invested in learning the material, and was honest about what I did. Well, OK then. It was the only special treatment I ever got and I did not ask for it. But it was touching.

    1. How exactly was the professor supposed to know when you started and when you finished the exam and that you did not use any notes or books?

    2. In an honor system, the student is given the parameters and is on hir honor to keep within them. Believe it or not, it *can* work (as F&T's example makes clear). It's also not too hard to tell if a student does cheat (proving it, on the other hand. . . .)

    3. Beauty in the system, the story, and the telling of the story.

    4. In that case, how is the exam any different from a paper to be written at home at the student's own leisure, as long as the deadline is respected? For all intents and purposes, as long as the student is not admitting that the 2-hour limit was exceeded, this amounts to the same thing. In fact, since the exam is supposed to measure learning, the student could simply "cheat" by doing some extra preparation beforehand that would make it possible to actually write a great exam within 2 hours. After all, once the student has the exam questions in hand, he or she is not required to start immediately. If notes or books are useful, the student can simply consult them before the actual exam and then swear convincingly that they were not used during the exam (not that the professor would be able to prove otherwise in any case).

  5. I have a slightly different take on this. Of course we treat students differently based on subjective criteria like "credibility"; as pointed out above this is "just". But to get away with making subjective calls we need to make sure the treatment looks uniform on paper .

    Student B is exactly the kind of person who, on getting wind of the fact you bent the rules for student A but not for him, would file a formal complaint and appeal all the way to the dean. And there's a paper trail (the different emails you sent to both students), so you'd most likely lose.

    So I would have responded with emails very different in tone, but in fact conveying the same message: if you need to take the exam on Tuesday, bring documented proof of an emergency, and you can have a makeup. What I think would happen is that student A would bring valid proof, and student B wouldn't (or would bring something flakey and easily challenged.)

    It's exactly to avoid this kind of problem that I have a "no makeup" policy: students may drop one of four grades (three midterms and the HW grade), and if they have to miss a test, this will be the grade they drop (no matter how dire the emergency).

    1. I'm there, too. No make-up exams at all, ever; one exam score is dropped. Students may take exams early if they have a documented reason for doing so, but never late.

  6. I think you handled it well. I have to admit, I'm very glad that I don't give in-class exams (the course I teach doesn't lend itself to them), precisely because they have the capacity to create just this sort of headache (and because students' willingness/tendency to miss and then make it your problem seems to be increasing). If I were teaching a class with several in-class exams (and I can see the reasons for that approach in various classes), I would probably do what others here have described doing, and, rather than offering make-ups or other workarounds, increase the weight of the final exam for students who missed earlier tests. That, too, would have worked out fairly for these two students, I suspect. (What you do when the student who has missed tests all semester then misses the final, too, I don't know).

  7. The make-up waters are always murky and rife with BS. I adopted a no-make-up-for-ANY-damn-reason policy, and it works well. If a student misses an exam, or does poorly on 1 exam, I'll replace the student's lowest test score by what they earned on the final.

    I still get the occasional "I have a good reason", but it is always countered by "All reasons are good here. None are excused." Do well on the final and it should not affect your grade.

  8. Cassandra and I_am_not_nice, I understand your idea about increasing the weight on the final exam to make up for the missed exam, but it seems to me that this policy actually has the effect of rewarding all students who miss an exam, including the ones with no credibility.

    I was damn good at exams as a student, even though I didn't actually like them very much. I far preferred writing research papers, and did everything I could to take classes where research papers and class participation made up the bulk of the grade. If I were in a class with a mid-term and a final exam, and I found out that I could ditch the mid-term and simply have my final exam grade replace that missed mid-term grade, I would do it in a heartbeat. I was confident of getting an "A" on exams, so why not make my life easier and sit one exam instead of two?

    Nor would one really need to be a good student to take advantage of this policy. If a student is a "C+" student, and recognizes that he or she is unlikely to do better than that in my class, then what's the downside to blowing off the mid-term? After all, getting a C+ while sitting one exam is easier than getting a C+ while sitting two.

    1. The final exam is likely to be comprehensive or based on the most recent, and usually more difficult, part of the course. Rather than reward students, having to rely heavily on the final exam grade may, in fact, end up penalizing them. I never missed an exam on purpose when I was a student but, if I had to choose, it is the midterm, not the final, I would have preferred to take. It is true that I tended to score more highly on midterms. On the other hand, someone who is doing rather poorly may, in fact, appreciate the chance to do better next time, if there are two exams. Counting on one last chance (the final) is a risky strategy.

  9. Several students missed the mid-term Friday (the last day before spring break) without any warning. It will be interesting to see what their excuses are.

  10. @Defunct Adjunct-

    Maybe so, but I no longer NEED to decide what is a "good" excuse, claims of "you aren't fair, HE/SHE got a makeup", etc.

    This policy is on the syllabus, so EVERYONE gets the opportunity to either (1) screw one exam up or (2) miss an exam. I really don't give a rat's ass WHY they miss anything - it is their choice. This policy simply makes my life easier by not having to deal with make up exams, which I detest.

    1. I understand your reasoning.

      For me, there are battling priorities here. On the one hand, I don't like dealing with make-up exams. On the other, however, I also don't like allowing the students to get away with not completing all of the course requirements. For me, the mid-term is an important part of the course, a time when they demonstrate their mastery of the material that we cover in the first seven or eight weeks. I'm not willing to simply let them skip out on it and substitute their final exam grade.

      I also design my exams in such a way as to hold the students accountable for the week-to-week reading that they are supposed to do outside of class. If you've done the reading and taken good notes during the semester, you'll probably do fine on the exam; if you haven't, you will find it very hard to answer some of the questions. By allowing students to ditch the mid-term, I would be giving them license to skip the readings, which constitute an important part of the class material.

      I could, of course, hold them accountable for the readings in other ways, like weekly quizzes, but to be honest, the hassle of grading weekly quizzes (even just with a pass or fail) is more inconvenient to me than the hassle of giving a make-up exam, especially given the size of the classes.

  11. I had two students miss the midterm. The first student let me know a few days in advance that he had to go to his father's wedding and that it involved a long plane ride that could not be changed. The problem with that is he had known about this problem since the start of term but had not said anything. He didn't as much ask for a request as tell me what I was going to do.

    Request denied

    The second student was hospitalized the weekend before the test and asked to write once she was off meds.

    Request approved.

    Attitude for requests does seem to matter. If the first student had talked to me as soon as he saw the class schedule, I would have let him write before he left. Instead I got the "change your life to suit me" attitude.

    1. Absolutely.

      Things like weddings and vacations really annoy me, because they are things that are generally planned well in advance. The students know the exam dates from the very beginning of the semester, and it's just incredibly annoying when they come to you a week before the exam and tell you about a wedding that they've known about for months.

      I'm also amazed at how many students plan vacations during the final exam week. My university's academic calendar is drawn up and made available at least two years in advance; I believe that most colleges and universities do something similar. Who in the world would, as a college student, book a vacation without looking first to see whether the semester and exams will be over?

      When I was in college, the first thing I did at the beginning of each academic year was to look for this stuff, so that I could ask for time off work, arrange visits to my parents' place, and organize other aspects of my personal life around the requirements of my degree.

    2. While I agree with the reasoning behind treating A and B differently, and that the differential treatment is JUST, we all know that student B, being a "player" could and would use this as an example of his or her being treated unfairly (since Defunct Adjunct's reasons for the differential treatment are subjective and hence difficult to justify in a complaint inquiry). I'd offer the seemingly equal treatment of putting the extra weight on the final exam suggested earlier, because in effect this will reward A, who is genuine, and not help B who is a player, while appearing to be equal treatment to any complaint inquiry. And yes, vacations etc annoy the hell out of me, but there are exceptions like a sibling's overseas wedding that is often totally out of the student's control. Its always a hard call, and I like having the "drop one test" option for such a situation.

    3. The student whose father got married did provide a few days' notice. It's not as if it was the day before. If he was a serious student, he may have thought that it was better to make a request once the professor knew that and would likely have been more flexible. He may have thought that a random student reporting potential problems from the very beginning is more likely to be refused outright, while a late request, but still a few days before the exam, would likely be approved for a student who earned a certain amount of credibility before making the request. He even ended up being penalized for honestly admitting that he knew about the wedding. While his father likely knew that he was getting married, the student could have pretended that he was simply not aware of that. It's not impossible, especially since, of course, the announcement wasn't made the day before either.

    4. Monica, I bet you take cookies to class.

    5. SB: I'm sorry, we don't allow swearing in the comments.

  12. I think you handled this reasonably well. As others have said, it is a just decision by you.

    However, Peter K brings up a good point that gets to an issue that is equal in importance to "fairness." That is, "the appearance of fairness" to students, which is always clouded by their own circumstances and limited experiences in life. I hope you avoid this coming back to bite you, but it could.

    I'm not convinced that credibility is a good criterion for the amount of mercy you dole out to students. A student's tardiness, lack of participation and other traits should result in a lower grade only if you judge those qualities as part of the overall grade, as explained in your syllabus. If you don't grade on participation, then the student's lack of participation shouldn't affect your view of him, at least not when enforcing class policies.

    Another issue is that some students share their woes with instructors easily and others are more reserved. I try to talk with the students face to face rather than by email. This allows me to get at the pertinent details quickly. If they provide the documentation for a reasonable excuse, then they get to take the exam later.

  13. I once had a conversation with student A in a public hallway (not my choice; that's where s/he opened the conversation).

    S/he asked for an extension on a required piece of work. "My policy is no late submissions," said I. It's an emergency, s/he said, and showed me a summons to court regarding the murder of hir roommate. (I had also seen the incident in the newspaper but had not known that my student was a roommate of the murdered person.)

    "This is much more important," said I** "How much time do you need?"

    **just as I started to say this, Student B came around the corner.

    I can get it to you the next class, said Student A. "Fine, no problems, will you be OK?" said I.

    Student B failed to turn in the assignment on time, and when I refused to take it the following class, said: You HAVE to take it - I heard you give an extension to Student A, and if you give it to hir you HAVE to give it to me.

    "Student A talked to me ahead of time AND has a good reason" said I. what is it, said Student B? "Not something I can share with you," said I. Well, I'm going to complain to the Dean, said Student B.

    Dean contacted me to ask about it; I explained. "Quite right" said the Dean. Case closed.

    Sometimes it DOES work out right.

  14. I make a point of telling students about past experiences: a student whose father murdered hir mother; a student whose father was dying of pancreatic cancer in the hospital a few steps from our lecture hall; the student who began chemotherapy the day of the final exam. In all these cases, the students refused proffered accommodations.

    HMF, your experience makes me wonder why they assume that their circumstances and their work are all of equal quality. Students who demand to know why they got a lower mark than their friends never address the obvious: their friends' work was better.