A Philosopher's Blog


Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on December 9, 2013
Fail Road

Fail Road (Photo credit: fireflythegreat)

As I write this, it is finals week. Obviously, one of my last duties in regards to a class is to record the grade for each student be it an A, B, C, D or F. Or the newer option, WF. For those not in the know, an F grade is what a student gets when she fails the course (I do not fail students-I merely record their failure). A WF is a sort-of-new thing in which a student fails by “walking away” from the course. To be specific, if a student earns an F but last attended only prior to the withdrawal deadline (November 8 this year) then the student gets a WF.

The distinction is rather important: if a students earns an F, she fails but gets to keep the financial aid for the course. If a students gets a WF, then she (or the university) has to pay the money back. In order for financial aid to be released, a student has to attend at least once. To keep it, a student needs to attend once more-after the withdrawal deadline (in theory, a student could just attend once as long as it is after that deadline). Every semester I get at least one student who never attends class. Ever. I also always get 3-6 WF students. Some only attend one class, then never again. Others attend within two days of the withdrawal deadline and thus just miss keeping the money. Presumably enduring one more class with me is too much. Or perhaps they get the date wrong.

In addition to the WF policy, my university also has a general attendance policy. A student gets three unexcused absences without any consequences or questions. After that, faculty are permitted to impose penalties, such as lowering the overall grade one letter grade for each extra unexcused absence. Some faculty are very strict about this and require students to be on time and remain the entire class, tracking each student as she enters and leaves the classroom. Woe to the student who misses too often, arrives too late or leaves too early: the F of doom looms.

I do keep track of attendance, mainly for two reasons. One is for my own curiosity: how often do students show up? The other is for the purpose of distinguishing between the F and WF grade. Since money is on the line, I have to be sure to get the attendance right-although students do tend to try to sign in for their fellows.

I have never, however, lowered (or raised) a grade simply because of attendance. My general view has been that if a student can do the work and earn a grade, then that grade should not be arbitrarily lowered simply because the student failed to bask in my radiant knowledge (or shiver in my shadowy ignorance). I also take the view that the students are (in theory) adults and hence they have the choice as to whether they wish to attend or not. If they elect to not attend and do not learn, then the grade they earn will reflect this. If they elect to not attend, yet still learn, then the grade they earn will reflect that. Some people like the customer metaphor: a student has bought a ticket to the show, but it is her choice to go or not. The seat is paid for, but the student is under no obligation to fill it. Naturally, if the student is attending on someone else’s dime, then this makes matters a bit more complex-especially if the student is expected to maintain a certain grade to keep the support.

Of course, there is something to be said for enforcing attendance with punishment. My experience, which matches the data from studies of human behavior, is that people weigh the negative more than the positive. In the case of a class, the (alleged) reward of education from attending has little impact on many students. However, the stick of failure for not attending is a strong motivator, especially for those who have little interest in education (as opposed to getting the paper to get the job to get the money…and then die). There is also the view that most people, even adults, must be ruled by pain rather than fine ideals or arguments (as per Aristotle). Less extreme, there is the view that college kids are just that, kids: many are incapable of using the freedom to attend or not attend wisely and hence the professor must use her wisdom to guide them to good behavior by punishing a failure to attend. It could even be argued that a professor, like a high school teacher or nanny, has a moral obligation to force students to attend for their own good.

I tend to go with God’s policy: people are free to do as they will, they get every chance, but they get what they earn.


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