A Philosopher's Blog

Examining Failure

Posted in Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on May 7, 2014

As a professor, I prefer that my students pass my classes. However, I also have a professional and moral obligation to ensure that each student receives the grade she has earned. As such, some students fail my classes. While students often prefer to say that the professor failed them, the truth is that I merely record their failure-the student does the failing.

Since I want my students to pass the class and Florida is taking a performance based approach to funding (our funding is partly linked to how well our students do–which is surely no recipe for grade inflation…) I have long examined the reasons why students fail. This past “study” has been rather informal-I would look through the grades and attendance records to get a general picture of what happened that semester. However, I decided to make a more formal examination of failure.

At Florida A&M University, a grade of F or D is considered a failing grade (although a D grade might be enough to pass a class in some cases). As such, the number of failing students is the number of F and D students, not just F students. Since students need a 2.0 or better to graduate and most programs require a minimum grade of C in required courses, treating D and F as failing grades is reasonable-although a D is still better than an F.

In the Spring 2014 Semester I had 21 students out of 140 fail with a D or F.  This is 15% failure rate and the “acceptable” failure rate is 25% (at least according to the administration). So, the results were good.

To sort out the causes of failure, I looked at attendance, grades on completed work, work that was not completed and plagiarism.

In regards to attendance, 1 failing student attended 91-99% of the classes. 30% of the students attended 61% or more of the classes while 70% attended 60% or less of the classes. 50% attended half or fewer of the classes. This is hardly surprising-there tends to be a strong correlation between class attendance and the student’s grade. I am also conducting a study on why student’s miss class-that was the subject of my previous post. One obvious reason students who have poor attendance also have poor grades is that they are missing the material. While some students can learn effectively from reading the book or notes, actually being in class seems to matter. Poor attendance also reflects the effort a student is willing to put into the class and this is also reflected on the grade. That is, the poor grades and poor attendance are both caused by the qualities of the student. I am very willing to work with students who have legitimate issues such as illness or financial problems and, as far as I know, no student has ever failed one of my classes due solely to a legitimate issue preventing them from passing. Interestingly, students generally do not seem to be aware of such problems until they are about to fail- I get emails during finals week telling me about such dire circumstances that were never even mentioned before in the previous 15 weeks.

In terms of the grade aspects of failing, 33% of the students had failing scores on completed work that contributed to the failing grade. This is hardly surprising. Interestingly, most of the failing grades are not due simply to having failing grades on the work that was done, the failure also involves (or is entirely the result of) not doing all the required work.

22% of the students who failed did not complete  the required 4 of the 5 exams in the class (I count the best 4 scores) and 14% did not complete the required 10 of the 21+ quizzes offered (the best 10 count).

In my Critical Thinking class, only 1 student out of 35 did not complete the 10 required assignments out of 27.

In my three classes with papers, 16% of the students who failed simply did not turn in a paper. There are three paper deadlines in my class: one that provides a +5 bonus to the grade for doing the paper on time, a full credit deadline a week later, and a 50% credit deadline on the last day of classes. So, students have many chances to turn the paper in.

The most easily avoided cause of failure is simply not doing the work. Since the coursework is done or turned in on Black Board and there are very generous deadlines, I cannot think of much more I can do on my end to get students to actually do the work. As noted above, the failing students who did not do the work did not contact me during the 15 weeks of the semester to inform me of issues or problems-although this is covered by the syllabus. I did have some people contact me during finals week mentioning previously unmentioned and unverified issues.

I had six cases of plagiarism this year (one student accounted for two of those cases in two classes), which was typical.  So plagiarism contributed to 13% of the failing grades. Plagiarism is a self-inflicted injury, especially since I give a speech on plagiarism, define it in the syllabus, include it in the paper video and warn people to do drafts that I can check. I think I’ve done all I can do in this regard.


Failing scores on completed work. 16 33%
Exams not completed. 11 22%
Quizzes not completed. 7 14%
Assignments not completed. 1 2%
Paper not completed. 8 16%
Plagiarism. 6 12%
Academic misconduct. 0 0%



100% 0 0%
91-99% 1 5%
81-90% 2 10%
71-80% 3 15%
61-70% 0 0%
51-60% 4 20%
41-50% 4 20%
31-40% 0 0%
21-30% 1 5%
11-20% 2 10%
1-10% 2 10%
0% 1 5%

Reason(s) for Failing Grade

Failing scores on completed work. 16 33%
Exams not completed. 11 22%
Quizzes not completed. 7 14%
Assignments not completed. 1 2%
Paper not completed. 8 16%
Plagiarism. 6 12%
Academic misconduct. 0 0%
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One Response

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  1. apollonian said, on May 7, 2014 at 1:56 pm

    Mike Reflects Upon His Enterprise

    Well Mike, u don’t give us much to discuss here for this essay on failure–seems u’re just reporting upon certain facts, merely commenting it wasn’t ur fault, u tried–which I’m sure u did. U seemed to be rather amazed about the one who attended 91-9% of the classes, yet still failed. But what can u do if students don’t reflect and regurgitate, or in some way indicate, what it is that’s necessary for the grade?

    Perhaps u’re puzzled people aren’t overjoyed and enthusiastic about ur subjectivist/Platonic, so-called philosophy/philosophizing (it’s really just elaborated mysticism in guise of pretended “philosophy”). Perhaps u’re appalled ur only adherents are neo-con traitor-types like “magus” who psychotically loves to pretend he’s “good” and “virtuous” as he does ZOG’s dirty-work.

    So what is it u want people to learn, Mike?–that inferiority complex is good thing as it makes one want to be “good” or “ethical”?

    “Ethics” is legitimate thing as it considers that basic question, “what should I do?”–necessary for human creatures of will. But the metaphysics (which must be considered, as metaphysics determine everything else) of things are necessarily deterministic, in accord w. absolute cause-effect and distinct natures and identities of the elements.

    U Mike, want to begin w. “ethics” of fallacious “good-evil” and then build and contrive everything else around it so as to excuse and rationalize ur Pharisaist delusions–u’re only followed and appreciated by such as “magus,” which is pretty disgusting, I understand and sympathize.

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