The 3/4 Class
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.