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In my syllabus there is series of writing assignments that are worth 10% of the final grade. Over the course of the semester there were supposed to be 4 assignments, however as a result of snow days and other extrinsic issues, the students have only turned in one of these assignments and I am not likely to be able to get any more in by the end of the semester.

Additionally, when I designed the assignment, I did not fully appreciate how difficult it would be for the students and how difficult it was going to be to grade. At this point it is only going to be reasonable for me to assign grades based on whether the student put some effort into the assignment (i.e., check+, check, check-, 0).

So I am left with the situation where 10% of a student's final grade could be the result of one assignment that was graded only on completion.

As I see it, this poses 2 problems:

  1. The final grade of the students that did the assignment will be artificially inflated, and

  2. the final grade of a student that missed the assignment for whatever reason will be reduced to a degree disproportional to the offence.

Is there a way to deal with this situation fairly?

(I have considered moving the assignment to another assignment group (e.g., counting it as a classwork assignment) but then I am not sure how to redistribute the orphaned points in a fair way.)

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We could propose a dozen different ways to redistribute the points, but the only way to find out what your students consider fair is to have a conversation with your students. – ff524 Mar 27 '14 at 2:50
@ff524 I agree with you but I didn't ask how to come up with a way to assess whether my students think it is fair, I asked for advice on how to make an adjustment to the syllabus that would be fair by an externally defensible argument. You could argue that the only truly fair approach is to do what the students think is fair but I certainly don't think this is the only answer. – KennyPeanuts Mar 27 '14 at 10:36
You asked Is there a way to deal with this situation fairly? As a student, I would think any syllabus change (even one that is unavoidable and "externally defensible") is unfair if made unilaterally. (Still perfectly valid to collect suggestions here; I just wouldn't say that any of them is "fair" unless your students agree) – ff524 Mar 27 '14 at 12:49
@ff524 it is inappropriate to get into a in-depth discussion of this in these comments but that seems like an impractical standard to apply and raises the additional question of how to fairly assess student agreement with a change in a class of 100+ students. – KennyPeanuts Mar 27 '14 at 13:11
VERY hard to believe the institution's assessment policy lacks some guidance on remedies. Also, would not expect an instructor to take such a decision without reference to an Academic Policy post holder (Exams Office; Academic Dean, etc.). – Davïd Aug 23 at 23:21

5 Answers 5

Since the assignments did not go as intended, and it is obviously not the students' fault. I would just turn this part of the grade into extra credit. For example, students who did the assignment get +2.5 points added to their final grade, and those who didn't, don't get anything.

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Is there a way to deal with this situation fairly?

There have been several proposed solutions for redistributing points: use the single assignment as extra credit, offer an alternative assignment that is feasible, just redistribute orphaned points equally, etc. Any combination of these could be "fair."

But I think it is unfair to unilaterally change the syllabus (even if change is unavoidable) once students can no longer drop the class without penalty.

For example, some students may be thrilled at the option to equally redistribute the orphaned points and use the written assignment as extra credit. But a student who is great at written assignments, and was really counting on the ten points of assignment credit described in the syllabus to boost his/her grade, may think the only fair solution is to offer an optional alternative written assignment (one that is feasible to do and grade).

This doesn't mean that you have to poll every student individually, just include them in the conversation.

Even with a large class, you can present your preferred solution (or two proposed solutions) in class and solicit feedback. If there is no public disagreement, say "Anyone who has a real problem with this change should send me the details of their objection and proposed alternative by email, and I will seriously consider the objections."

(If the students are split between two proposed solutions, you can offer something like, "Your grade will be the higher of Option A and Option B.")

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Same thing happened to my prof last year. Many assignments were planned, however due to things out of our control we were not going to be able to do every assignment. The prof held an open forum during class to collect ideas from us (only about 20 in the class, so it was easily manageable). The final concencus was to have smaller assignments replace the larger ones and any spare % went to the exam. Students who had already started the assignment (started early) had the opportunity to present it to the prof and it was up to the prof to reward extra credit . All the students found this fair and so myself and one other student got extra credit because we started an assignment that was replaced/cancelled.

TLDR: Have an open forum with the students, present a few options and let them decide what is fair. Let them "argue" between each other in a mediated way to present the pros/cons of every option. Just remember it's not their fault, so every student needs to come out satisfied with the outcome.

In my school (University in Canada) you are not permitted to deviate from the syllabus unless every single student agrees. If even one student says no, you are not permitted to deviate. Often times profs will talk to these individuals and give them "incentive" to agree.


Another thing you should do is talk to professors in your department to see what they do in situations like yours. By no means is your situation unique, and seeing what your fellow professors do and maybe even the school policy may be a good idea.

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You could just distribute the orphaned points equally among all other components of the course grade. Just take whatever percentage they would have gotten over all the other components of the grade, and divide it by 90 (which will be the maximum without this assignment included). Then their final grade will still be the percentage of the points they earned out of the total available.

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I've seen plenty of courses where >= 10% of the final grade is attributed to participation, with an aim to increase student engagement. So, given that both you and the students agree that the syllabus must change part-way through, there is nothing wrong per se about awarding points for participation instead.

I would suggest replacing the three subsequent assignments with more realistic, pass-fail assignments. Preferably, they maintain the pedagogical objectives meant for the four writings assignments. You could perhaps allow people to re-submit the first assignment under the shortened format, if you believe the design of it was unfair.

For example, if the writing assignments were long research essays that were meant to demonstrate the ability to find and understand relevant literature, the students could submit 500 word summaries of self-chosen articles, in which they argue why the article was chosen, and what the main methodology and findings are.

This approach is fair, because:

  • For all students, the 10% is achievable (if allowing resubmission).
  • The students who already obtained 2.5% of the grade are still rewarded for their earlier performance and need only submit 3 shortened assignments.
  • The students who had not obtained the earlier 2.5% of the grade, will be penalized lightly, having only to submit a fourth shortened assignment.
  • For you, the original pedagogical aims of the assignments are still met
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