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Thursday, December 20, 2012

I should not have to worry that a disgruntled student will kill me, but sometimes I do...

Caution: School Crossing
I submitted final grades on Monday. About four hours later (my current record is ten minutes), the emails began. Some of the requests are legitimate; e.g., I hit the wrong key when entering grades in the online system so someone got a D+ who should have had a C+ (I'm sure that over the years, I've made similar errors in the other direction but funny how I never hear from those students!). Some of the requests are benign; e.g., students miscalculate what their final weighted average is so they think they have a higher grade than they received. Those are just time-consuming because I have to look up their actual score, and also use the spreadsheet I posted online for them to use to verify that they just made a mistake somewhere, but once I respond, I typically don't hear from them again.

And then there are the real whiners who do not understand why they received the grade they did and have a sob story about why they 'need' a higher grade. These are the emails that stress me out, that prevent me from being able to relax and enjoy being done with the semester. A part of me wants to just ignore them but these are still my students, and my sense of responsibility as their teacher requires me to respond. But I know that my response, explaining how I arrived at their final grade, is not going to be the end of it. As soon as I hit 'send', I'm already dreading the inevitable reply. With the data class, the problem is almost always with students who do not complete the team evaluations. Because the evaluations are so critical for determining the team part of final grades, I tell the students that there are serious consequences if they do not complete the evaluations: they will not receive credit for the team assignments in their own grade. That means that instead of their individual quizzes being worth 10% of their grade, they are worth 28% (and the individual scores are always significantly worse than the team quizzes). This usually is enough to drop a student's final grade by at least a plus/minus, sometimes more. I know this is harsh but I also give the students plenty of time to get them done (they are submitted online) and many, many reminders, so there really is no excuse for not doing them. And yet, of course, there are always a few students who miss the deadline. I'm lenient up to a point - if a student emails me after the deadline, I still let them email their evaluations to me and as long as I get them before I'm done compiling grades, they still get credit for them. But there's always one or two who don't even think about it until they see their final grade, and those are the emails I dread.

My fiance pointed out that I go through this every semester, that there's always about a week after grades are submitted where I am all stressed out dealing with these emails. But this time seems worse - I just can't seem to shake the stress - and I've been trying to figure out why. Some of it is guilt and second-guessing myself: maybe I AM being too harsh or maybe I did not do enough to make sure the students understood what the consequences would be. I can usually convince myself that I am not the problem but it nags at me. Some of the stress is fatigue and burnout - the students are different but the problems are not and it's frustrating to deal with the exact same issues over and over again, every semester. This is one reason academics need sabbaticals and I'm very much looking forward to mine next year. But this year, there is something else mixed in with my stress: fear. I don't want to sound paranoid or extreme but there is a part of me that honestly worries that one of these students will show up at the department with a gun. The common thread among the emails that stress me out the most is students who are not taking full responsibility for their own actions - THEY did not complete the assignment but it is MY fault they have a bad grade because I am too harsh, unfair, don't understand their situation, etc. Rationally, I know that these students are simply young and immature, not mentally unhinged, but people in my department (and others on campus) have experienced threats from students who similarly believe others are to blame for whatever is happening to them. And of course, Sandy Hook and all of the discussion about guns is a contributor to my state of mind these days.

I'm still dealing with a couple of these students but they are tapering off. Being surrounded by family, and not checking my email too often, is also helping, so I'm hoping the stress will soon completely recede. But I'm curious how others handle this time of year. Do you respond to student emails about grades? Am I the only one who has these extreme worries?


  1. Steven Slezak, Cal Poly SLODecember 22, 2012 at 10:10 AM

    First of all, you are stressing too much. You are not the problem, and you are giving your students plenty of opportunity to do things right. The flip side of that is they have plenty of opportunity to screw things up, but that is their doing, not yours.

    If they pulled this stunt in the private sector, I tell my students, there generally is someone from HR ready to come visit and advise them of their separation procedures. Especially with unemployment around 10% in California.

    Second, it is a mistake to respond to their inquiries so quickly. As you have noticed, they will take advantage of that and bombard you with more messages once you take the bait. I had a student calling me at home a couple days before Christmas to argue about a grade.

    I have a policy of telling students in an e-mail that their grades are ready but I will not be able to respond to any e-mail inquiries until after the start of the next quarter. That gives them a cooling off period. Of course, someone always writes in, but I simply ignore it. After the quarter starts, I respond in an e-mail that if they wish to discuss their grades with me in person they should visit my office. Don't make it easy for them to appeal.

    As a result, there are far fewer complaints right after grades come out. And only the serious students bother to come by my office a couple weeks later to talk.

    You aren't alone with this dilemma. Students know how to game faculty and what works and what doesn't. So you can't play their games. I have heard students in the halls discussing who are the soft faculty they can argue with and which tactics works best.

    So ditch the guilt, enjoy your holidays, and take a break and let them come to you next semester, once classes have started.

    1. Thank you Steven - I may have to try this next semester, though I can imagine I may have a hard time resisting the urge to respond immediately!

    2. For at least the last decade, I have posted "tentative" semester grades on our course management system and asked students to contact me if they think there is an error in the calculation of their grade. I use a total point system, and they all (should) know what the grade ranges are (it's on the syllabus and I mention it after every test). I usually get 2-3 students asking me to look at something they think is wrong, but it's been at least 5 years since I got a request simply to change a grade. (I suspect, though, that I have a reputation for being somewhat unsympathetic to such requests.)

      I would second Steven's suggestion that you are being too sympathetic and responsive. I like his system.

      Don Coffin


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