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Monday, July 13, 2009

What are the costs?

I came across an interesting discussion about a 19-year-old intern who was fired from The Gazette in Colorado Springs for plagiarism. There appears to be some controversy over the fact that the editor publicly named the girl in a letter to readers (explaining and apologizing for the plagiarism), with some people saying that doing so was unduly harsh because this incident will now follow her for the rest of her career. I was intrigued by this discussion for two reasons - one, it seems pretty clear to me that this was not a case of ignorance (as I have often encountered with my own students who have no idea how to paraphrase or cite correctly) and two, putting aside the offense itself, I have often struggled with how to handle situations where there are long-term repercussions for a student, repercussions that lead the overall costs to be far higher than might seem warranted for the specific situation.

As an example of the latter issue, I have occasionally taught seniors who need to pass my class in order to fulfill their graduation requirements; if they don't pass, they don't graduate. As a general rule, I don't believe this should matter since students know perfectly well what they need to do to pass my classes. But this past spring, I had the added complication of teaching a writing-intensive course that satisfies a University writing requirement. One of my students received a D in the class, not because of his writing but because he turned in several assignments late (and missed a couple minor assignments completely). If his grade were based entirely on the quality of his writing, he would have earned a B but he lost so many points for other things that it dropped him to a D. The problem is that he needed a C to satisfy the University writing requirement. When he came to ask me what he could do to raise his grade (after semester grades were posted), my first response was, "Nothing - you earned a D and I can't change your grade just because you need a different grade." But I was torn, partly because I did feel like the student had satisfied the writing requirement the University wanted him to fulfill and it seemed a bit extreme for some late assignments to keep him from graduating.* I should also say that I felt a small bit of responsibility because I was not as transparent in my grading as I usually am (it was a new course and I fell way behind with posting grades in Blackboard) so the student was not aware that his grade was in such dangerous territory. The hard-ass in me wants to say that it was still his responsibility while the burnt-out part of me wants to just make the situation go away. I told the student to find out if there was some way to get the requirement waived, that I'd be willing to sign something that says he satisfied the writing requirement but without changing his grade, but the University wouldn't allow that. So I'm still trying to decide what to do...

* He could certainly take another writing class over the summer or in the fall to fulfill the requirement but since he had already applied to graduate in May, he's no longer officially a student so it would become quite expensive to take a class (and with California's budget situation, not clear that he could get a class even if he could pay for it).


  1. I will have to say that my university does the writing-intensive-course thing somewhat differently. Students have to take one or two writing intensive courses, but they get "graded" separately on the writing part of the couses. Effectively, the course shows up twice on their registration, once as the course and once as the writing-intensive part. The insutrucotr gives two grades, one for the course and one for the writing-intensive part. Only the course grade is included i the student's GPA. A C or better in the writing intensive part is required to fulfill the writing requirement. It's a bit of trouble for the nstructor, but it prevents things like the situation you are facing from occurring.

  2. I think we need to review also with regards to the subject matter.
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  3. @doc: that's exactly what I wish we had. Maybe it's something I should ask someone about, especially since the University is trying to encourage people to develop more discipline-specific writing classes.

  4. A couple thoughts:

    1. Ken Bain's book in his chapter on assessmenthas some thoughts about penalizing for late assignments that might be relevant.

    2. While I understand doc's school's position, I think it's missing an important point. I may be wrong, but I think there's a basic disconnect by those who think of the writing in a course as being distinct from the 'content learning' (for lack of a better phrase). I think a fundamental concept of the writing intensive movement is that you can't separate the two, that good writing is inherent in deep learning of the content, or rather that good writing is both a tool for learning, and a means of demonstrating that learning.

    I think the solution is to think deeply about what one is trying to accomplish in one's course in a way that embeds the writing centrally in that goal.

    I also think that a school that allows a D to count for content but requires a C for the WI component is setting itself up for problems such as yours.

    One approach to a setup like your course is to be very clear from the first day that good writing is necessary but not sufficient for a 'passing' grade on the WI component. I teach one course like this (Research Methodology)where 'effort' or 'process' is necessary to pass, but excellence is necessary for an A. Each year, I have a few students who write excellent final papers but fail the process requirement and thus fail the course. This approach makes sense in the context of this specific course but it doesn't makes sense in my other courses. The difference comes from thinking deeply about what I was trying to accomplish in each. None of this is easy, though.

  5. Thanks for your thoughts, Steve. This is a big part of what I struggle with - from one perspective, I believe that the 'process' IS important, which is why this student's grade was so hurt by his failure at the process part. And part of why I think the process is important is that this class is somewhat 'vocational', in the sense that I want them to get an idea of the kind of writing they are most likely to DO if they go get jobs as entry-level economic analysts, and that includes meeting deadlines, etc. On the other hand, the writing requirement for the University only addresses the technical aspects of developing writing skills. Of course, you are right that perhaps I just need to think harder about what I'm really trying to accomplish this course...


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