Monday, September 01, 2008

Classroom mulligans

The art of the do-over

Sometimes I think my classrooms have been taken over by the reincarnated souls of golf course duffers. They're an increasing presence among my students. I suspect something is going on in elementary, middle, and high schools that is percolating into college. A conversation will illustrate the point:

“Gee, Dr. Z, I didn't do very well on the exam.”

“Yes. As the person who graded it, I am aware of that.”

“I really need a better grade. Can I take it again?”

“I'm sorry, but for obvious reasons I can't just let students repeat exams. For one thing, I don't have the time to rewrite the exam so you can retake it.”

“Oh, that's okay. You don't have to rewrite it. I could just take the same one over again.”

“Don't you see a problem with that? We just went over the exam in detail in class and put all the solutions up on the board. I can't use that exam again.”

“No, you can! I would do really well this time. I know I would!”

Gee, you think? (I know: Even in this case it's no guarantee.)

This never used to happen. Now it occurs a few times each semester, as disappointed students seek redemption by asking for do-overs. Most of them seem sincerely perplexed when I tell them it makes no sense to give them the same exam a second time. It's a math class. Not a memorization and transcription course. We solve problems. We don't memorize solutions and regurgitate them.

The spam ate my homework

Technology has opened up new vistas for the scholastic mulligan. These days I begin each semester with a simple assignment:
Write your instructor an e-mail by Friday. Include four items in your message:
  • the name of the course in the subject line;
  • your reason for taking the course;
  • the topic of the latest post on the course website;
  • your full name.

That last item is important. Students who don't use their campus e-mail accounts to e-mail me typically have handles that don't match up in any obvious way to the names on my roster. I mean, how am I supposed to know that is Jane Doe?

This assignment on Day One is a good way to collect e-mail addresses and to see whether your students know how to follow instructions. By the end of the first week I have replied to each student individually, welcoming him or her to the class and announcing the number of points earned for the exercise (depending on the degree of compliance with the four items):
Welcome to the class, Debbie. To get full credit for this assignment, you needed to include the course name on your subject line, explain why you are taking the course, report that the latest website posting is about peer tutoring opportunities at the Learning Center, and include your full name.

You forgot to report on the content of the course website. Your score is 9 points out of a possible 12.

Professor Z
Whereupon I get this:
Hi Dr Z! I'm sorry I forgot to check the website. It says "Student Tutors Needed at LC Now". Can I have the 3 points now? Debbie Deluded
I'm afraid that Debbie was disappointed. At least she didn't cut-and-paste my message and send it back to me with a request for full credit. She did her own typing!

Debbie and the handful of others who promptly resubmitted their initial assignments after I gave them the answers do not, however, win the prize for my favorite student message of the past year. I have to bestow the palm on someone else, someone whom I've never met:
Hi, it's Sandy No-Show. I'm enrolled in your calculus class. But i didn't come the first week of class, i was wondering if i can still continue taking this class?
“Still continue taking”? In what universe does missing the first week of class position a student to ask about continuing to take it? I wrote back to gently inform her that I had dropped her ass from the class. But not in those precise words.


Sili said...

A "weird students" tag? Isn't that a pleonasm?

(I almost typed "an" because of the [a href] tag ...)

Zeno said...

A pleonasm? I have it on good authority that the pleonasms went extinct during the Cretaceous period.

Not sure about the solecisms and shibboleths, however.

unapologetic said...

pleonasms went extinct during the Cretaceous period

That's what the religious right would like you to believe. Except there was no Cretaceous period.

Kaleberg said...

When I took Introduction to Probability and Statistics back in the Cretaceous Period I remember doing horribly on one of the tests. Everyone else in the class was smoked as well. Our professor was appalled. He promised us a makeup test. We went over the material in the next several courses. Then, we took the makeup test. It was the exact same test we had taken the first time! Needless to say, we all did a lot better. Mind you, it was still a pretty hard test even when we knew what we were doing and now that we had seen it before.

Then again, our professor's policy was that you were either going to get an A, or he recommended that you drop the course. (You can file this one under Giancarlo Rota stories. He wasn't quite as weird as Norbert Weiner, but he cultivated his quirks.)

Karen said...

I had a mineralogy class a couple of years back that had a do-over exam. It was an unusual choice for that particular instructor, but she was quite distressed over the class performance on one of the midterms. She was convinced that since all 16 of us had done so badly, she must have done something wrong. She could have curved the grades, but she really wanted us to learn the material. So she gave a remedial session and wrote up another exam.

I think most of us were as determined not to let her down as we were to improve our grades, because we mostly did well on the second exam. But then a) this was an upper-division major class and b) this woman is such a dedicated teacher and genuinely good person that most of her students would put themselves in great danger to rescue her, should she need it. And no, she's not a particularly easy grader or one to let students off the hook easily. She WOULD be terribly embarrassed if she were to read this comment and somehow realize it was about her; but even if she did read it, it's unlikely she could read such praise and connect it with her own self.

plam said...

Clearly something is wrong on the instructor's side if the whole class bombs the exam. I've been concerned about inadvertently setting killer exams (or too-easy exams), but haven't been bitten too badly yet.

On the other hand, if one student bombs the exam, it's probably the student.

Taking a class after missing the first week? I can remember two classes where I attended fewer than 3 lectures each (out of 39 lectures per class). Neither of them was worth going to. One of them was Numerical Analysis.

Anonymous said...

I see this attitude too... I blame it on the fact that we have a huge population of weak students who end up in our lab class, since it offers the possibility of starting late in the semester. They give make-ups... up to four times. Some of these students escape to our lecture courses. The fact that I can not do this in class does honestly surprise them. In my case I would happily write a make-up but I refuse to spend class time giving it!