Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Class Where Everyone Failed

I just finished a class a couple weeks ago. It was one of those small, tacked-on, online classes with very small enrollment. Because it was so very small, I taught it at reduced pay. So you can imagine I've been a tad annoyed by it since the beginning. After all, I still have to prepare everything regardless of class size, and check in every day, and do all that BS. Just for half price.

There were five students. In Week Two, two of the students submitted identical papers. The first escaped me, since it was poorly written anyway and didn't seem unusual, but the second read 5 minutes later made me realized I had almost missed plagiarism. So I reported them both.

Student A apologized for using, gave me the business about family deaths and sadness, and redid the assignment to show me how serious he was. Student B ignored my emails about the subject, sent emails to my superiors about my "foundless" accusations. Fine, I thought. I've told him that two events means an F for the course, so whether he talks to me or not WHO CARES. Although from this point on, he refused to talk to me in class, via email, or by phone. Which made teaching even more difficult and pissed me off to no end.

Surprise!!!  Student B plagiarized again. Of course. And refused to talk to me about it. Of course. So I failed him. (I would later find out that he defined "plagiarism" as "papers bought for money" rather than "intellectual property presented without credit as the student's own work." The latter definition appears in my course policies on the syllabus) The Dean ultimately ended up offering him either an automatic expulsion for plagiarism or an obligatory tutoring program for every class until graduation, checking him for plagiarism. (Students as Customers model, gross)

Meanwhile, Student C was struggling. She couldn't get a handle on coursework. It was her first class in 20 years. She talked a lot, but never seemed to read the assignments or the questions. Her work was mostly off topic. She got a lot of Cs and Ds. She also skipped a few assignments. So her overall average was a 58% F.

Then there is Student D, who was chugging along okay. He wasn't the shiniest coin in the basket, but he was getting middling Bs. Until he fell off the planet in the last 3 weeks of class. Including missing the Final, which is 30% of the grade. That zero dropped his middling B to a 53% F.

Student F also had some middling Bs with 2 bright and engaging A papers. Student F would have been fine, but submitted all plagiarized answers for the final exam. Again, a zero for 30% of the grade... a 58.8% F.

How did I know Student F had plagiarized? Because lo and behold, my rebound student, Student A, who had crawled back to a B, ultimately plagiarized his final exam. From a document online titled "AcademicMonkeyGerbilFinalIII" -- each answer was pretty much crap. Inconsistent sentences, some well-written work interspersed with generic nonsense. And Student A's crap answers were identical to Student F's answers, both of which were identical to this one document.

The strangest thing about that document is that I change my exam every term. So it must have been one of the five above students. Perhaps Student F continued to do his work and then posted it online, where Student A found it. Who knows what really happened. Who cares?

And this has been the story of the Class Where Everyone Failed.


Ps, do not give me grief about the second chance plagiarism policy. It isn't mine, it's just my Dept of Defense BS university that pretends to be a real college experience.


  1. I have no tolerance for plagiarizers, especially those who try to defend themselves.

    Any fall out from the department on this 100% rate?

  2. I don't think I'm likely to have this happen anytime soon, mostly because my underenrolled classes get canceled and I get transferred to something else (I'm on salary, so this is in my institution's best interest), but if a couple of trends -- especially the one where students enroll but don't do any work -- continue in their current directions, I could see arriving at this point before I retire.

    I, too, would be curious to hear what your department has to say about this. Retention is rearing its ugly head at my institution -- with, of course, the assumption that if we'd just design the courses to be less intimidating, more welcoming, more engaging, etc., etc. (but of course still properly challenging), the problem would/could be solved. Personally, I think we need to do something to allow/require students to spend more time on their work (e.g. reform the financial aid system). And I don't think there's anything to do about those who take a look at the syllabus and assignments, say "wow! that's a lot of work!" and walk away (as I strongly suspect some of the prospective students in my current online class did -- some wisely, because it's a very compressed class and they had other, less-breakable commitments, some because, well, they don't want to work. I have faith that when they do take the class, my colleagues will make them just as hard as I would, but I can't keep them from hoping to find someone easier).

  3. I had another class in the same term with 25 passing students, so I think that will end up balancing the 5 Fs for me. It was definitely not me. Plus, I've been with this institution since I was in grad school and they trust me pretty well.

  4. Your school fails students for plagiarizing? Mine gives them a pat on the fanny and a stern look.

    This is why I started failing every single student for the first incident of plagiarism, no matter how small.

  5. @Monkey: Thanks for giving me my first laugh of the day.

    1. That's funny -- when I began entering the grades and realized everyone had failed, I felt despair at first. But within a few minutes, I couldn't stop laughing. They did it to themselves, you see. Not much I could do.

    2. They made their own bed, Academic Monkey; you did right to make them sleep in it.

  6. That would make me want to punch a hole through my drywall. What a shitty group of students. I hope it isn't indicative of what's to come. However, it sounds about right: I usually have about 3-4 students in a class of 25 who have some plagiarism problem...

  7. That makes me laugh. Also makes me wonder if we "teach" at the same "university".

  8. I'm no statistician, but I think that one is more likely to have a 100 percent fail rate in such a small class than in a larger one. So it's an oddity or outlier.

    Still, it's disturbing. At least your school isn't going to penalize you for it.

    The highest fail rate I ever had was 45 percent (9 out of 20) in a freshman comp class. Fortunately, my chair at the time supported it: She would rather see students fail and re-take the course than to enter subsequent courses without the skills they needed for them. But I've had other chairs reprimand me for lower failure rates, which they nonetheless believed to be too high.

    1. Statistically speaking, you're right: smaller number of data points means higher likelihood of abnormal distributions (which is why we do surveys and medical research with the highest possible number of test subjects).

      I'm not really sure how to calculate my fail rate: about half of the F grades I give are what we call "walk-away" failures, where the student just stops attending, etc. without formally dropping. Student D would fall into that category here.

      I'm known as a bit of a stickler on grades, sure, but in many cases the students are doing OK when then stop, so it's not that they can't handle the work. They just stop, wasting my time, their money, and leaving me with half-empty classrooms (walk-aways plus normal absenteeism....)

    2. So the reason you pay your thousands and take those writing classes is to be told what you want to hear about yourself? That's interesting, because I tend to think of "learning" and "ego-stroking" as somewhat divergent activities.

      There are lots of subjects and skills I have no aptitude for, and so I don't study those things, because I don't like failing any more than anyone else. But I don't take those courses anyway and insist that the standards be lowered to validate my personal opinion of where I rank in the field.

  9. 40% to pass? In all my courses 59% is the cut of point. Sink or swim kiddies, your boss isn't going to cut you any slack.

    1. @FML

      My analytical chemistry prof used to run exams where 40% was a C -- that was where he liked his bell curve to peak.

      If you can't make your exams challenging enough that 40% is the cutoff for an F, you aren't trying hard enough.


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