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During one of my undergraduate semesters I was pretty depressed (for various personal reasons) and was struggling with completing my coursework. One class in particular didn't have a final exam, there was a just a final essay to turn in worth 25% of the grade. I was really out of it, and in the end I couldn't meet the deadline and didn't even turn it in, I was so unable to concentrate that I was willing to just accept my fate.

For whatever reason, my professor gave me a B- in the class, which is just impossible. Though I did do reasonably well on the rest of the coursework, the highest I could've gotten was 75%, not to mention if there was some bigger penalty that my university had for not attending/doing a final assignment (like getting an incomplete or something, I have no idea). It's unlikely the class was curved that much either...I don't know whether it was a grading entry error, whether the prof accidentally swapped my grade with another person's, or if she just took pity on me (I had mentioned that I was going through some personal issues when I turned in an assignment late during the semester), but for whatever reason I got a B-.

At the time, I was surprised and just accepted it. But as I started to feel better I felt extremely guilty about not turning in the essay, and months later (I've since graduated) I sent my professor an email with the paper attached basically saying "Really sorry I didn't turn it in, I was feeling depressed at the time, I should've turned it in back then, here it is", to which she just hasn't responded. I'm fairly certain she doesn't care at all, but it's been bothering me for a while now.

I'm not sure what to do - should I turn myself in to the school? I feel guilty about the whole thing, but what's worrying me as well is that I also don't want this to bite me in the ass down the line later in life. Can I be punished for not turning the essay, or not telling my professor the grade might have been too high? Was it a mistake to email my professor at all afterwards, maybe I'm causing a problem for her? All in all, I'm really not sure what to think or do.

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Some people are just easy graders. B- could be her personal minimum. – user37208 Jan 12 at 16:56
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You don't know what the grading scale was. (This past semester, for example, students who got an overall score of 55-65 in my class got a B-.) – ff524 Jan 12 at 17:01
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"Merry Christmas" (My typical response to students that get a higher grade than they think they deserved). In all seriousness, either (A) you really did deserve it, or (B) the professor, upon not finding your paper, presumed they lost it and made a best-guess as to your performance. Both are quite likely. – guifa Jan 12 at 17:31
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Also, unfair grading happens both ways. You may find in some later class that you do what you feel is your best work and are given a D for it. The grace with which you respond to such things is more important than worrying about what you feel you deserve. Getting credit and blame you don't deserve is going to happen from time to time for the rest of your life, if my experience is any guide. Sometimes accepting credit you feel you haven't earned is actually more emotionally difficult than accepting blame you don't deserve. – Todd Wilcox Jan 12 at 18:20
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I think it could be useful to you to read about imposter syndrome. – ErikE Jan 14 at 6:40

15 Answers 15

Don't worry about it. No one's going to come after you for failing to turn in an essay in some random course. No one's ever going to check and, if they did, they probably won't care too much.

Should you turn yourself in? No. There's absolutely no reason to turn yourself in. You've done nothing wrong. The professor is the one responsible for assigning your grade correctly. For all you (or we) know, they felt you deserved a B-.

Should you have emailed your professor the essay? Probably not, but mostly because they probably don't care. I doubt they read it and I very much doubt that you caused any problems for them.

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What you've said certainly makes sense Ric...but I still feel a little guilty - perhaps with time, it'll sink in. I particularly wanted to send my professor the essay, I felt I had to do it to move on (as I, around the deadline emailed her to say I was working on it - but then didn't end up turning it in). But you might be right, it just might not matter. – Apollofresh Jan 13 at 1:32
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There's no real harm in having sent it. My advice would be to try and not worry about it. Though that's easier said than done. – Ric Jan 13 at 1:41
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I think this 'feeling guilty about things' is causing all the stress and depression. I would hope you try to change your thoughts and not over think about everything. If we all think it's not worth worrying about than it's just you who is putting pressure on yourself. I feel concerned about it. Hope you feel better. – Shrilekha Jan 13 at 23:18
    
-1 "mostly because they probably don't care. " I would guess as someone who was himself an educator and knew a number of professors that most would care. A LOT? Maybe not. But that's distinct from "don't care". – Chan-Ho Suh Jan 14 at 4:56
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The best cure for guilt is penance. Work off your guilt by doing some extra-good essays this year, and turning them in early. Then you will feel like you don't need to feel guilty any more. (This is a psychological phenomenon that the Catholic church has cleverly adopted - it really works). – Max Williams Jan 14 at 9:51

As others have said, professors have a lot of flexibility in assigning grades.

It's not unusual for professors to have a policy of dropping a worst assignment and averaging the rest. I've even seen this on final exams ("Happy with your grade going into the final? Don't take it." or the variant "If you have an 'A' going into the final, you don't have to take it.").

If your professor had any clue that your outside-class troubles were preventing you from doing the final project, it's quite possible that she elected to use such a calculation for your scores, even if she wasn't doing so class-wide. While at first glance this may seem unfair to other students, remember that the goal is to accurately evaluate your mastery of the material, not to make you do busy-work, and there's much more information about your performance in the assignments you did turn in than the ones after you got distracted. The principle of "measure mastery, not busywork" appears in other ways too, such as credit-by-examination.

Your late submission of the assignment isn't likely to result in any sort of regrade, assuming the professor is comfortable with the calculation she used. She might read it if she's interested, and your diligence in following up could lead to benefits beyond the course grade (recommendation letter, for example), but she's already decided she didn't need it to determine your grade.

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Thank you for the reassuring words, Ben. – Apollofresh Jan 13 at 1:28

I see other people are saying don't worry about it, and I completely agree. At the same time, I think it's worth acknowledging that your feelings are legitimate and that you have some valid reasons to feel discomfort about getting a grade you don't feel you've earned. Like many of us, you probably want to be judged and achieve success based on your real hard work and achievements and not due to some random error or act of charity. There is also an issue of fairness. For example, this grade might improve your GPA in a way that gives you a small but real advantage over another student who also didn't hand in their final project but was not so lucky to have such a compassionate (or absent-minded) professor. None of us who has any sense of fairness wants to benefit from this kind of injustice, so I completely understand why you find this troubling.

With that said, if this concerns only one grade in an undergrad class, the whole thing is really too trivial to spend any time worrying about, for the following reasons:

  1. It is the professor's responsibility, not yours, to determine the grade you deserve. It's quite possible she saw your potential and sincerely believed you deserved a B+ even knowing that you hadn't completed the final essay.

  2. Grades only contain statistical information anyway. It's quite possible and even likely that in other courses you got grades that were lower than you deserved (either in the sense that a concrete, measurable error or misjudgment of on the part of the professor occurred, or in a more abstract philosophical sense that the grade did not reflect your true knowledge of the material), or that in the course of your life you will suffer some other minor injustices. In the end those small injustices will more or less cancel each other out. In fact, suffering from depression is certainly its own much more major form of injustice.

  3. You mentioned that later when you emailed the professor you actually sent her the essay you had completed. If in fact you did end up completing the assignment, then you got the educational benefit of the class and the assignment and demonstrated your knowledge, even if belatedly. So in the end you probably completely fulfilled the professor's expectations that caused her to give you the grade in the first place. So really, what do you have to feel guilty about, other than some technicality?

  4. Lots and lots of students get grades that are higher than what they deserve, whether it's due to outright cheating, grade grubbing, or being intellectually lazy and just studying for the test without knowing or caring about the material. The injustice that you are describing (to the extent that it is one) seems to me like a pretty microscopic one that -- I'm sad to say -- drowns in an ocean of much worse injustice.

To summarize, I've often thought that guilt, while certainly a useful emotion, can at times be quite a counterproductive thing, and it is important not to obsess about it or let ourselves be paralyzed by it. The best thing you could do both for yourself and for the world is to focus on leading a good life and finding ways to help yourself and others, rather than worrying about a grade in some long-forgotten college class. I'm sure that is precisely what your professor would want you to be doing.

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I appreciate the very detailed post Dan (in your first paragraph, you've precisely described my concerns, by the way), your thoughts have been very helpful. Perhaps what's also adding to my discomfort is that, had I failed the class, I might've been put on academic probation or even a more severe penalty, as I didn't do stellar in my other classes that same semester. So if my professor wasn't so kind, I could've been in a worse situation. All of the reasons you've listed make sense...but I can't help but feel I got very (perhaps undeservedly) lucky in how my professor decided to grade. – Apollofresh Jan 13 at 1:27
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Glad I could help. Yes, clearly you got a bit lucky. I'm not a psychologist, but from a quick google search it seems that people feeling guilt as a result of being lucky or fortunate in some way is quite a common phenomenon. See for example here and here. Anyway, I really hope you'll manage to forget all the what-ifs and come to peace with what happened, enjoy your good fortune and pay it forward. – Dan Romik Jan 13 at 9:43
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@Apollofresh: As you realize, your late submission of the paper after already getting the grade is more for yourself than for your professor. After all, it is legitimate for you to want to complete what you felt you ought to have done, as Dan said, and since you have done it, that's good enough. If you really feel the need to, you can always find the professor to talk to her about it, but in my opinion you shouldn't ever say or suggest you think your grade should be changed, since you have essentially already made up for what you felt guilty about by completing the paper. Nobody's perfect. =) – user21820 Jan 14 at 6:40
    
+1 for #1. Often, the hardest part of grading is figuring out who gets the last B, and who gets the first C. Some professors choose to stick with a predetermined scale, but others give themselves some leeway. Many factors can play into this – overall effort, improvement over time, attitude and engagement in class, etc. Sometimes I'll cut a student some slack when most of their grades were very solid save for one outlier in the gradebook – like a paper that somehow didn't get turned in. In this case, I bet the prof felt a B- was the most accurate indicator of the student's overall performance. – J.R. Jan 16 at 12:28

Not sure if there are any strict grading standards in the academic institution in questions, but in my experience, teachers usually have some liberty in deciding the grade the feel is appropriate for a student, in addition to the raw numbers behind it. Beyond plain sympathy, a teacher can bump a student's grade just to give them a better chance to keep going with their studies, when they see potential.

It is also possible the teacher based the final grades on the highest grade in the class. This basically means the highest grade (doesn't matter what it actually was) turns into A+ and mathematically recalculate all the other grades on a sliding scale based on it.

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Keep things in perspective here - you weren't accidentally awarded the Nobel Prize. You got (possibly, it's not certain) an extra letter grade in an undergraduate course. And you made a reasonable and honorable attempt to bring the matter to the attention of the instructor.

You have absolutely nothing to feel guilty or be worried about. Don't waste any more time or thought on it and put it behind you.

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Enrico Fermi, though undoubtedly brilliant and deserving, got the Nobel Prize for a misinterpretation of experimental results. Though he must have undoubtedly been deeply embarrassed, it did not tarnish his reputation, and his regard in the scientific community is nothing but glowing. In short: it happens to the best of us. Instead of feeling guilty, it's better karma if we work at becoming worthy of the good things that occur to us rather than feeling guilty of them. – Captain Emacs Jan 15 at 10:08

Each individual must take responsibility for his or her own actions. From your description, you have done that. You did nothing to deceive anyone or to cheat in any way. You never asked for a grade you didn't deserve. While your guilt can't be ignored, you must realize and eventually accept that your grade was determined by your professor, who had all of the necessary information at the time to make a proper decision. Without seeing the grades of the other students and comparing their work to yours, it would impossible to say whether your grade is fair or not, so you'll never be able to definitively say what your grade should have been. But you should recognize that if the grade is not appropriate for the work you did, it is because of choices the professor made and not you. It's time to let this one go.

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A database that I touched a few decades ago tracked labwork for students and helped the professors assign grades (such things as having a photo and the name). It had a number of statistics that were available about the labwork.

Some of the information presented to the professor did some common hypotheticals that were asked of the data. Things like:

  • what percent was turned in late?
  • what would have been the average grade if everything was handed in on time?
  • how many points from the grade boundary above? below?
  • what would have been the average grade if the lowest scoring labwork didn't exist?

In more than a few cases, this gave the professor the ability to see "this one lab took an otherwise AB student to a BC grade because of the lateness and something going wrong," and make the corresponding discretionary choice to assign a grade other than what the pure numbers would suggest.

The linking of the face to the name and the grade also helped the professor recognize the student more easily and note the "the student was having issues that were outside of the immediate control, but otherwise showed a mastery of the subject matter from my experiences in other interactions." Again, helping the professor have a more complete view of the student than just numbers provide.

There are certainly professors who grade by just the numbers. I also had a class as an undergraduate where the entire grade was one oral exam at the end of the semester (talk about nerve-wracking - turned out I did very well in that exam, still... nerve-wracking). I had another professor who had me come in the day before grades were due (and two days before I was to leave for California) to review my answers to the final exam (which I did poorly on) with the book open which allowed my grade to be changed from an F to a D (and thereby having the necessary class to graduate).

The point I am trying to make is that professors do have the discretion to be able to assign a grade that may or may not be entirely based on numbers and that such situations are more common than you may otherwise expect (the stories of such are not widely circulated)... not necessarily common, but certainly not never nor rarely.

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Grades are often believed to be objective. They are almost never, except for some multiple choice tests, and yet, teachers can still weight answers.

I can only talk for myself as a teacher: I praise work, attention and effort. Some of my students have had grades they probably did not deserve, but I bet (experience?) that they have absorbed sufficiently from the lectures. I even have boosted grades when I thought they needed some self-confidence.

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If it would make you feel better, you should talk to the professor (if you still can). You could tell them about your situation before the essay was due and apologize for not being able to turn it in on time. Also say that you had sent them an email some time ago, with the incomplete essay, and ask if they had a chance to look at it. You could offer to complete the essay, not for extra credit or anything, but so that you feel better about the whole thing. Professors are also people, and they like a student who is honest. You could save yourself some guilt as well :)

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Sounds like it's less a question of grading, but more a question of closure. That undeserved grade is nagging you. Some thoughts:

  1. As others have written, what the institution does is not your problem. Things are done and you create more problems trying to change it than by leaving it as it is (for yourself, the prof, the university).
  2. It won't bite you later because you were open about it and did turn it in. Usually, the cover-up kills careers, not the mistake itself, and you did not try to cover it up. Furthermore, there are legitimate ground for turning in papers later. It's easy to see when a person gets hit by a car, not so easy with mental disorders or the like. It probably wasn't formally correct, but that can happen when unforeseen things happen.
  3. If this isn't the only instance when an undeserved benefit bugs you (in itself a socially advantageous trait, although undoubtedly career-negative), find out what helped in these other circumstances. People can tell you that you did nothing wrong (because you did not, e.g., you did not try to game the system), but you have to accept it for yourself (i.e., gain closure). Personally, I would see the turning in as end point, try to extract a few lessons how to act in the future (e.g., talk to the prof after getting the grade, although difficult in that situation), and move on.
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As with Dan and LaurenT, I suspect there's a good chance the Professor saw something in you when you could not yourself see it. I think it's good that you're reflecting on this so deeply. Take it as a gracious, priceless gift. Don't squander it. And pass it on.

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LOL! Good to see your concern about your unfortunate semester. Professors often take quite a bit into account to raise grades, seldom to lower them. Most likely, the Professor looked very hard at the grades before the grades were ever turned in and asked if any of the grades might be higher. Perhaps yours was raised, perhaps the overall curve was lowered. It was all very carefully considered and you got what you got! Congratulations and please accept the good with the bad.

Over the years, I've seen a number of interesting situations. The older trucker, wanting to be an Engineer, struggling through Calculus. He had no Algebraic Discipline! The Professor helped him through problems, one line at a time for a while, citing Algebraic Discipline. The trucker struggled through tests with grades of D, then C, then B, with a near A on the final! Did the trucker learn Calculus? Yes! Did he learn Algebra? Oh, absolutely! He finally had motivation to observe Algebraic Discipline! The trucker argued that the Professor gave him too high a grade. The Professor pointed out that the grade was simply the mathematical average. After the trucker argued more for a lower grade, the Professor said, no, the only regret is that the class syllabus had no provision for raising the grade a letter! (At that point, the trucker seemed satisfied!)

Perhaps depression is not the same as not knowing algebra, but each student is very important and you did not accidentally receive a higher grade. On the other hand, the Professor may not be able to fully account for all the factors that go into the grading, so may not have a satisfying account for you!

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...The trucker, by the way, worked very hard. For example, he took three or four days of vacation, right before the final and worked on reworking all his homework problems, carefully observing algebraic discipline, ten and twelve hours a day! – Larry Paden Jan 14 at 19:28
    
What is Algebraic Discipline? – jakebeal Jan 14 at 19:41

With all due respect to people's philosophical and ethical musings about your situation, you asked "what to do". And you don't seem like the kind of person who appreciates the "you got away with it, just let it go" approach. Well:

  • You are facing a dilemma regarding your studies which is not about the subject matter itself.
  • You are unsure what's the correct way to act.
  • Action may involve the professor or the faculty/university administration.

The answer seems to be: consult them. Specifically, do one of the following (in order of my preference):

  • Talk to one of the course's teaching assistants, if it has any, to learn about the grading policy and its exceptions, and to ask them whether you think you should approach the Professor about this.
  • Talk to the Professor him/herself, as suggested in Arvind Mani's answer.
  • Faculties/schools within universities typically have an academic staff member in charge of overseeing undergraduate student affairs, academically. Visit that person's office hours to ask him about this. I would suggest you begin by not mentioning the exact course and the exact numeric details, to make it a semi-hypothetical question first.

They might tell you it's alright and just to let it go, or they might say something else, but you would have certainly done the most fair and transparent thing you can and your conscience should be clear.

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@StephanBranczyk: See edit. – einpoklum Jan 15 at 10:30
    
You're right in that it's been difficult for me to quickly let things though. With time, I may come to accept it...but I'm still struggling with things at the moment. – Apollofresh Jan 15 at 14:42
    
Sent prematurely^. I've certainly considered calling (I've graduated) my professor or the school...What's holding me back is: 1. I've already emailed my professor that I didn't turn in the paper...and she could've taken action at that point if she wanted to (e.g., if she assigned the grade in error). and 2. I don't want my professor to get in trouble if I go to the school - repaying her kindness by getting the administration mad at her (on off chance that the grade she gave was actually frowned upon) would just create more, perhaps deeper guilt for me. Any further thoughts? A conundrum. – Apollofresh Jan 15 at 14:55
    
@Apollofresh: Note you can delete your earlier comments. Anyway, option 1 then. And she has no TA, maybe a TA you know from another course - someone who's "part of the system" but who cannot directly act on anything you tell him. That's the best idea I've got, sorry. :-) – einpoklum Jan 15 at 15:30

You may need to rephrase your concerns, in your own mind, to avoid this worry, and go forward.

Perhaps a better question for you, is "Do I understand the subject reasonably well, and will it allow me to do the work I want to do?".

Within a few years of working, the the particular grade of qualification will never be asked about, just like high school scores. Within a few years of that no one will even ask what course/degree it was.

Be wary of the idea that it's only hard work that counts, when you can work smart.

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I think that learning and education encompasses also a human interaction between the teacher and a student - it is much more than learning tasks or execute tasks.

Apart the fact that it is up to the teacher to evaluate and give a grade, it is so also in the society : let the other judge your work. And people build opinions also taking into account the effort, the struggle, the process a person undergoes to achieve something.

So, if you where pretty depressed, as you wrote, most problably others noticed it. I do not say that they give votes for charity to encourage people, but probably take into account also the difficulties that a person has in producing a result - which is a formation process.

Otherwise, we could ask to write essays to machines, and evaluate the essay on quality. But how would you evaluate the people who come to build the machines? Do you think a scale of marks would be appropriate and would reflect evenly all the different background and paths in their education? So enjoy that you are no more depressed, and kick-ass in your next essay, and proof yourself you deserve a good mark, or either you don't care that much about that subject.

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