A Philosopher's Blog

The 3/4 Class

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on November 28, 2010

As a professor I face various challenges in designing my classes. While some of these challenges are obvious (like selecting just enough material to cover), others are less so. One of the less obvious challenges I face is designing a class that maximizes education while minimizing my problems.

While I have fewer problems to deal with than K-12 teachers, I still face various problems. At this time of year (1 week before finals), the problems revolve around students who are doing poorly but have only come to realize (or accept) this. In some cases, students are just now picking up tests and papers from weeks or months ago. As I write this, I still have papers and tests that still have not been picked up. While most of them are passing or better, I do have some that are not-and some students who probably are unaware that they are not passing. While I do make the grades available online (securely), some students do not learn of that until the end of the semester, when they hear other students talking about it.

As far as the specific problems, the main ones are students who ask about extra credit (= points for nothing), students who ask about doing more work, students who want an incomplete, and students who want to be passed simply because they need to graduate/keep a scholarship or avoid parental wrath.

Naturally, requests for points for nothing or for passing grades because of a need to graduate or whatever, are easy to handle. I just offer a “no” and my sympathy, plus some advice about how to pass (if it is possible) or how to retake the class.

Incomplete requests are handled on a case by case basis. In most cases, students ask for them because they are failing. However, incompletes are intended for students who were passing but could not finish the semester due to some dire event (like major illness or military service).

As far as more work goes, my usual reply is that I would need to offer the same deal to all the students. I go on to note that is just what I do: my classes have a lot of work-4 tests, 15+ quizzes and 25+ assignments in Critical Thinking (as an example).  Also, if someone has been consistently doing poorly on the work, getting more work would probably not change that.

But, getting back to the design of my classes, I have also tried to counter/solve some of these problems with my 3/4 approach (picked mainly for the name rather than mathematical accuracy). The gist of this that I count roughly the best 3/4 of a student’s work. For example, in my Critical Thinking class, the best 3 of 4 tests count, the best 10 of 15+ quizzes count and the best 10 of 25+ assignments count. Each student also gets a small bonus as well to his/her quiz and assignment grades. In classes that have a paper, the paper does count-but it is done in drafts and students have a long time to complete it. Plus, each student gets +5 added to his/her grade on the paper.

When taking this approach, my hope was that it would reduce the problems I (and my students faced). While the students do have to do well consistently to get a good grade (as opposed to classes that have just a midterm and  final), the idea was to provide a “damage buffer” for cases in which students had problems that were serious enough to impact their performance. This way the “buffer” would handle such problems without a need for special problem handling at the end of the semester. Problems of a more dire nature would, of course, not be handled by the buffer-but these would almost certainly either qualify a student for a legitimate incomplete or allow a retroactive withdrawal.

When I was young and naive, I had hoped that this approach would eliminate such problems. After all, it seemed so generous that anyone should be able to get through a class with a modest amount of effort-even if they faced challenges and problems in the semester. Anything worse, I reasoned, would be easily handled by an incomplete or retroactive withdrawal.

Experience revealed what you, the reader, probably already guessed: I was somewhat surprised to find that the impact was far less than I expected. Every semester I still have students with the same problems and the reduction in problems seems rather modest. Of course, it must be noted that most of my students do well-they pass and have no problems. However, I had hoped for more success and wondered  why it had not worked as well as I had hoped.

One hypothesis is that the “damage buffer” is not big enough. That is, even more work must be offered so that the students will be able to do and pass the minimum needed. So, for example, perhaps offering 25 assignments and counting the best 10 is not enough. Perhaps 50 is needed. Of course, I do offer 15+ quizzes and that seems to get the same result as offering 25+ assignments. This suggests that it might be the required number that determines what people do. So, students look at the fact that there are 10 required quizzes and assignments and some just do less than 10, even though 15+ and 25+ are offered. Of course, if I increased the required work to 12 or 15, this would just mean that certain students would do less than 12 or 15. This leads to the next hypothesis.

Another hypothesis is one put forth by a friend of mine. His view is that problem students (his Peters’ Principle is that 20% of the students cause 90% of the problems) will be a problem no matter what a professor does. For example, if a class offers 10 assignments and requires 10, this sort of student will do just 5. If the professor offers 15 and requires 10, the student will still do just 5.  The same sort of hypothesis can be applied to society at large: no matter what you do, problem people will still be problems. You can, at best, reduce the numbers a bit.

While I do suspect that expanding the buffer would marginally reduce the number of such problems, this would create other problems. One problem would be that I would have to do more work-every extra quiz, assignment or test is one I have to create and grade. Another problem is that if the buffer is too large, a student could pass without learning enough of the material, which would undercut the educational value of the course. At this point, I think the buffer is large enough to offer reasonable protection for the students while at the same time being small enough so that the proper academic standards are still met.

As a final point, another reason I designed my classes with a buffer is for my own peace of mind. By offering such a buffer, I can honestly believe that I have given the students a very fair chance at doing well in the class and that a student who fails actually fails himself/herself. True, I could probably have a smaller buffer (or none at all) and still be justified in believing that the students have been given a just and fair chance to pass. However, I like to have a bit of a buffer for  myself.

One of the most dramatic vindications I had of my approach occurred after a final. One student was complaining loudly about his grade and how unfair I was for “failing him.” Another student, who had already earned a solid A,  looked at him and said “You’d have to be a total f@ck up to fail this class. He gives you every chance in the world. If you fail, it’s your own damn fault.”  While I would not word it that way, that is how I design my classes-so that people get what they deserve.

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10 Responses

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  1. philosophyfactory said, on November 28, 2010 at 9:12 am

    My students would read that as, turn in 3/4 of the work — because the rest “doesn’t count”..

    • WTP said, on November 28, 2010 at 12:10 pm

      p-f, Unless your students are extremely confident that their level of success will remain constant throughout the semester, that would be a mistake, in so far as getting a good grade is concerned. If, however, your students are all performing at such a high level relative to the expectations of your grading standards, it doesn’t matter all that much. What would be interesting is what that delta is between a student’s perception of their future performance and their actual performance.

      Mike, it is interesting, is it not, that you developed what seemed like a good idea that seemed like it would maximize your students’ potential, and yet the impact has fallen far short of your expectations. You tried to soften the blow of the reality that hard work combined with an interest in the subject matter is what really maximizes success by devising a system that you thought would somehow get better results by making things easier. Not to mention that it seems to have been harder on you. Have you ever pointed out to those who ask for “extra credit” the effort that they are requesting of you to put in more hours devising and grading this extra work?

      It is my guess that such an approach is becoming more the standard in education these days. Perhaps if you dramatically reduced or, better yet, eliminated the number/volume of second chances that you provide and then stated at the beginning of the semester exactly what your expectations were you might see better results in student achievement? This being a philosophy class, perhaps including a discussion on the ethics of not performing to one’s abilities and requiring extra (free) work from you?

      Do you suppose that system 2 would be worth a try?

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 28, 2010 at 12:57 pm

        The classes are not really easier-the tests, papers and such are still challenging. However, it is more forgiving-students can screw up more and still do okay.

        I did worry about the points you raise, namely that a less forgiving approach would yield better results. When I first started teaching, all the work counted. Comparing then to now, I have about the same % of A grades and slightly more Bs. I do, however, have an increase in C grades and a decrease in D and F grades. So, I think the class works fairly well in terms of balancing academic rigor against such factors as the fact that most of the students are non-majors who come into the classes with no background at all in philosophy.

        I should add the ethics of extra credit as a topic-good idea.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 28, 2010 at 12:52 pm

      That is how my student’s see it, too. However, it works out well; the A students do 3/4 of the work at the A level and most other students do most of the work in the hopes of improving their grades. Of course, some clever “slackers” just hit the C and stop.

  2. Greg Camp said, on November 28, 2010 at 11:46 pm

    I face the same concern, although in the places where I have taught, I’ve had the additional bother of administrators who want to see high numbers of passing students. They don’t care about what the students have learned, unfortunately. This means that cheaters and slackers often get the same passing grade as those who do their work.

    Part of me wants a strict standard: all work counted, only honest work accepted, and excellence expected of all work. Another part of me wishes that we had no grades at all. I would enjoy the latter system. It would allow me to work with each student as an individual, seeking to improve that person’s ability. Of course, in that kind of education, it wouldn’t be easy to see how we were creating value for the economy.

    The real problem is that as a society, we don’t understand what education is for. Training is to provide specific skills; education is for making good human beings.

    • Asur said, on November 29, 2010 at 10:02 am

      I agree, though I would say that proper education develops general skills that permit specific application.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 29, 2010 at 8:32 pm

      I’m currently facing the challenge of ever-expanding classes. Thanks to the ironic combination of budget cuts and record enrollments, my Intro class (for example) went from a cap of 30 to 63. Florida has the Gordon Rule that requires (by law) students to write a certain number of words in Gordon Rule classes. Naturally, most of my classes fall under that rule. No, I don’t get paid anymore when my enrollment increases, nor do I get any help. My solution has been to develop more effective grading techniques and detailed paper guides (to minimize the time needed to work with each student).

  3. WTP said, on November 29, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    “The real problem is that as a society, we don’t understand what education is for. Training is to provide specific skills; education is for making good human beings.” Define “good”. One man’s good is another man’s evil. Much of the evil done in this world has been done by people believing they were working for the greater good. I thought education’s purpose was to fight ignorance by spreading knowledge. Though by googling “Purpose of education is” you get a surprising number of things like:

    “purpose of education is to bring about physical, mental and social development of an individual” – well, OK, so long as that “social” is doesn’t get broadened into what follows…
    “The purpose of education is mental, moral, and aesthetic development” — hmmm
    “the purpose of education is to provide for the economic prosperity of a country” – Really? According to whose economic plan?
    “The purpose of education is to make the world a better place” – A better place for whom?

    Much creeping moralism.
    Yet if you look up the definition of the word “education” you get (via dictionary.com, Webster was surprisingly circular in its definition(s)):
    1. the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.
    2. the act or process of imparting or acquiring particular knowledge or skills, as for a profession.
    3. a degree, level, or kind of schooling: a university education.
    4. the result produced by instruction, training, or study: to show one’s education.
    5. the science or art of teaching; pedagogics

    Not much in there about morality. Don’t misconstrue that I view morality and education as completely separate. Obviously there is much, much overlap. But certainly there is something here to be concerned about if education is beginning to see its purpose partly as a replacement for the traditional sources of morality and is losing its focus on what it should be doing.

  4. Greg Camp said, on November 29, 2010 at 1:49 pm

    Actually, I didn’t mean good in the moral sense. I meant in the sense that Michael Jordan is a good basketball player, Neil Peart is a good drummer, and William Shakespeare is a good writer. In other words, education is meant to allow persons to reach their full human potential. It’s what the ancient Greeks called “arete.”

    There is an amount of training involved, of course. We have to be taught reasoning skills and language usage–what in the classical liberal arts was called the Trivium. Beyond that, education ought to expose us to the best in humanity, the Quadrivium and a few other subjects.

    I do understand that in practical terms, schools need to provide training in a field. That ought to be done in post graduate trade schools, in which I’m including medicine, engineering, law, teaching, and auto mechanics, to name a few. Unfortunately, what we have allowed the training part of education to swamp its core function. That’s because it’s the easier part to quantify. It takes a lifetime to measure the worth of a human being, but we can determine the knowledge of, say, a medical doctor with a simple test (note that I didn’t say the excellence of that doctor!).

    • WTP said, on November 29, 2010 at 2:40 pm

      I agree. Sorry for misconstruing, but based on the googling…

      And also agree on the rest of your comment. What is sadly missing is generic understanding of philosophy followed by a philosophical understanding of trades. How are engineering and law similar? What makes a good design? What motivates people to work together? I think many professional trade-oriented people who are turned off by Philosophy as in “is that chair really there” would see much more value in discussions such as “what is a customer” or “what constitutes a cure”. Not to dismiss the chair question, but depending on the class, it can easily degenerate into a waste of time (for the professional trade types).


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