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I recently got "arm-twisted" [2] (by the department chair and the dean of faculty) into passing the whole (undergrad Math) class who appeared for the final (minus that one student who we all knew was not going to make it anyway) by the most lenient grading-on-a-curve I have ever done. Isn't it immoral to pass students ahead who aren't ready or those who are gaming the system? Or am I overthinking this? The final exam was set easy and "OK-ed" by a senior colleague (I am a new faculty member). I had to pass 6 students who were way below average...

Some additional remarks based on posed questions:

  1. This is not a rant, it's a serious concern if I should go to higher authorities.

  2. Arm-twisting ==> pressurised a lot over 4 days of meetings.

  3. I don't think the dean of faculty is unethical at all but it looks like she is strongly influenced by the department chair, who, in my opinion, could be borderline-toxic (but I am not sure).

  4. Grading wasn't tough - it was nominal, of course, to the best of my knowledge.

  5. How does passing students who are way below average make them a good educator? After having spent a semester with them and/or just looking at how they scored on exams and quizzes, they definitely could benefit from repeating it.

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    Have you considered that your grading might have been too harsh? – Yet Another Geek May 3 '18 at 20:14
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    What circumstances led to this intervention by the chair and dean? Did they receive complaints from students? This is a delicate situation for a new faculty member. I think there is more to this story that you are sharing. More detail would allow a more informed opinion on the part of responders. – Chris Leary May 3 '18 at 21:33
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    How did your grading go at your previous institution, or is this the first course you taught? – smci May 4 '18 at 0:07
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    Do you think everyone who is below average (50%of the class!) should fail? Isn't it about learning the material, not being above average? – Kat May 4 '18 at 0:55
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    It might help to create a clearer picture if you told us how many students were enrolled in the class, what level the class was (freshman calculus? upper-division math majors?), and what kind of school it is (community college? ivy? country-club for rich kids?). – Ben Crowell May 4 '18 at 3:24
61

I think the ethics depends on a few things. First and most importantly, what was the intention of the department chair and dean of faculty when they “arm-twisted you” into passing those students? One can imagine two different scenarios: in the first one, the chair and dean are greedy, amoral people who are driven by selfish, short-term considerations such as maximizing their institution’s profits and winning themselves a promotion, and are pursuing a strategy that they know for a fact is bad for the students. That would be pretty unethical. In the second scenario, the chair and dean are passionate educators who are looking out for the students’ best interests, and simply disagree with you about what is best for the students, and believe that the students you wanted to fail deserved to pass. In that case, you could argue that they’re wrong, but it would be quite unreasonable to accuse them of unethical behavior.

Of course, there are also situations between those two extremes that fall in a gray area where it would be hard to say much about the ethics of the actions. You simply haven’t given us enough information to say anything meaningful.

Another factor that I think matters is what you mean by “arm-twisting”. How exactly did they twist your arms? Did they literally command you to change your grading decisions and refuse to listen to any opposing arguments? Or did they leave you some room to argue the case? It’s clear that you think they behaved unreasonably, but it’s not clear to me if they also would agree to your description of your actions as “arm-twisting”. Could it be that their perception was that they had convinced you of the merit of their request and that you went along with it willingly? In that case, the responsibility for the actions might lie (at least partially) with you. It all depends on the details of what took place, so again I don’t think anyone can give a general answer based on the information you’ve provided.

Edit following clarifications by OP: I understand that you perceive that you were pressured to change students' grades, and that the department chair specifically is an unpleasant person to deal with. All of those things may well be true. However, ultimately I think that it is a mistake, both logically and from a strategic/practical point of view, to use the words "unethical" or “immoral” to describe the behavior of any of the actors in this story. These are very strong terms (stronger than you may realize, I suspect) that suggest the worst possible intentions behind the actions you have observed. It would only be reasonable to use these words if you had very concrete evidence that something truly nefarious is going on (e.g., the department chair taking a bribe from one of the students, or telling you to pass all the students because his own nephew was one of the below-average students who were about to fail).

A much more likely interpretation is that the department chair simply has a broader set of concerns than you and a broader perspective on the situation. Perhaps he feels that it is important to have consistency across all instructors, to avoid students feeling that they were treated unfairly just because they had the misfortune of taking a class from an especialy harsh instructor. Or there could be any number of other legitimate concerns or causes for disagreement between you and the chair. None of this involves anything remotely unethical - it is simply a professional disagreement between colleagues.

Finally, I will add that the mere fact that the department chair "put pressure" on you is also not evidence of anything unethical, or even bad. I was a department chair for several years and had occasions where I had to go to an instructor and have a frank discussion about their grading methods, and even suggest that they retroactively change a few grades. I never had to resort to any sort of direct pressure (I suspect because of a combination of my being fairly good at articulating my side of the argument on its merits, and dealing with people who were ultimately pretty reasonable), but it was very clear to me that by my mere presence as a party to the discussion I was exercising a kind of "soft authority" that may well have been perceived as pressure by the other party. This is unavoidable and sometimes necessary, and in fact I dare say that a department chair who hesitates to exercise his/her authority in this way is unlikely to be doing a very good job.

That being said, if the chair's behavior is indeed "borderline-toxic" as you say, then that's a problem, but it sounds in any case like a very different issue than them being "unethical".

15

Setting aside the intentions of the senior staff members who put pressure on you, it is certainly bad educational practice to "move the goalposts" for successful completion of a course in order to pass students who would fail substantially under the standard that was approved during the course. This leads to problem for later lecturers, and for the students themselves, since these students go on to take later courses that they are poorly prepared for. It also undermines the accreditation standards of the university, and can contribute to reputational risk in the long-term.

It is unusual for such a high proportion of an undergraduate class to pass a course (usually even a modest-sized undergraduate class would have many more failures than one) and I also note that the final exam was reviewed and approved as reasonable by another staff member prior to being administered. Essentially then, it seems that these senior staff have pressured you to depart from the previously approved standard in order to "lower the bar" to pass an unusually large number of students in the course, many of whom should have failed.

Your concerns about this are reasonable, and it is worth raising them formally if you are willing to go through this process. The question of whether this is "ethical" is a complex one, which requires consideration of the accreditation role of the university, but I tend to agree with your view that this is unethical. Nevertheless, I would recommend re-framing your concerns so that the issue is couched in the language of what is good or bad educational practice, rather than what is ethical/unethical. This keeps the focus on the propriety and results of the process, with respect to the educational and accreditation role of the university, rather than waylaying you with issues of personal intention, morality, etc. Any higher-up staff who consider the matter will implicitly formulate their own view on the ethics, and they might make adverse findings in this regard even if you don't explicitly raise the matter in those terms.

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    I completely agree with your first 2 paragraphs... in certain contexts. But (1) moving your goalposts lower isn't necessarily terrible if you had high expectations to begin with (I often find myself in this position), and (2) in many classes it's reasonable that almost everyone will pass---it really depends on the class (both type of course and student population). We don't know the OP's situation. – Kimball May 4 '18 at 12:39
  • Yes, I agree. It's more a matter of moving the goalposts after having already designed an assessment that was checked and approved as appropriate. In those cases you might scale up if you come to believe (in hindsight) that things were too hard, but the evidence for that is usually a high failure rate by the students. – Reinstate Monica May 4 '18 at 23:59
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Grading is really based on the philosophy of the people involved. Therefore, it is difficult to say what is right or wrong. Many teachers hold to some form of absolute grading. Absolute grading is a hard standard that students must reach in order to move forward. Almost no accommodations are made in terms of marking assignments. In other words, either the student did well or they did not.

Many teachers also ascribed to some form of relative grading in which grades are based on how the students are doing. The most common form of relative grading is "grading to the curve." Other forms include some sort of capping system in which a certain percentage of the students receive A's, B's, C's etc. For example, my department generally limits A's to the top 10-15% of the students. If more students are in the A range at the end of the semester the lower A's are reduced to B+.

There are pros and cons to these positions. Absolute grading really determines if students know their stuff but assumes that the teacher knows how to assess appropriately which is not always the case. In addition, absolute grading motivates a great deal of academic dishonesty as students try to find ways to survive when they are weaker or a perfectionist.

Relative grading tends to reduce academic dishonesty because the highest grades are limited. However, it can often contribute to mediocrity because in many ways the grades are predetermined. In addition, high performing students can face pressure to relax because they are messing up the curve. If everyone relaxes we get the same spread of grades as if we really pushed ourselves is common thinking.

The most important thing, in my opinion, is that the grading position of the department is clearly documented and explain to both teachers and students. This way nobody thinks that there was any injustice in terms of the assessment.

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    Perhaps also worth pointing out that relative grading feels awful when there's a class that's well above the average for some reason (I was in an anatomy class reserved for people in something like an honors minor, and the professor had to argue with the dean every year to avoid curving a bunch of 95%s down to B's...) – mbrig May 3 '18 at 22:08
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    Relative grading tends to reduce academic dishonesty - Is this true? If I were a dishonest student, I might feel slightly sorry if my cheating would lower the grade of a fellow student, but I don't see (from a rational actor point of view) why it would discourage me from cheating, unless I was convinced of the incompetence (and honesty) of my fellow classmates. – Kimball May 3 '18 at 23:51
  • @Kimball please notice the word "tends" in this sentence. I am in no way trying to make a sweeping generalization. I would never make an absolute statement about relative grading. – Darrin Thomas May 4 '18 at 1:01
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    What I'm asking is if there is some evidence (as opposed to just opinion) that the percentage of people cheating is lower in relative grading systems as opposed to absolute ones. – Kimball May 4 '18 at 1:15
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    You forgot to include a very important relative grading con. Very few employers care about the relativity of grades. A C- doesn't look good to an employer, and you aren't going to get the chance to explain a C at my university is an A+ at most universities, unless it's a super-well-known ivy league. – Clay07g May 5 '18 at 17:27
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Only time I've seen something like this happen has been when gross insanity with grading policies ("staple not in upper left 1/2" at 35-50 degree angle, -25 points"), teaching methods (getting people to pay attention in class by throwing things at them), etc. come in to play. And it is usually followed up with people saying things like "Hey, did you hear about Fred suddenly retiring?". Or a simple "Lock account" notice from HR in the case of adjuncts...

I've also seen other unfair grading targeting individuals happen that cause failing grades, overridden to a C or B by the department chair when another instructor has graded the work or given their version of the final for the same course and the student has passed/done well. "Instructor doesn't like that I speak my mind and question things, so he takes off more than other students for similar mistakes". Like my wife - she is a native Spanish speaker, so her high school Spanish teacher took off double points for wrong answers/mistakes.

If nothing like this applies to your situation then I'd do what I could to cover my rear - ask for written requests to do this, or flat out refuse - the Dept Chair/Dean/etc. can always go to the Registrar/Records office and override the final grade themselves - and it will be documented as such.

4

I think it depends on the goal of the class and how follow up classes are designed. Some classes are actually design to encourage student so that they can pay more attention to whats coming later. Some classes are designed intentionally very tough and goal is just to find students who are trying very hard without giving up. If the reason for changing the bar is to meet the real goal of the class, yes it could be done. However, if they want to change the bar for non-goal related reason or excuse, or to change the goal without really good reason or cause without adequate discussion with the faculty member, it is almost like a violation.

4

This is not an answer for this year but, for future terms, I would recommend learning the historic grade distribution for any course before you teach it. Ideally, your departmental staff has this information collected and can provide it for you; if not, you may need to ask previous instructors.

Responding to comment below asking what this has to do with whether students met the goals of the course: The chair and dean seem to have an expectation that almost no one will fail this class. If the OP had seen ahead of time that this is a class that no one fails, he or she could adjust her grading scheme accordingly. It is not so unusual that, in some classes, anyone who shows up and makes a basic effort passes. We could have an argument about when that it is appropriate, but my point was simply that the OP had expectations about what grades meant which didn't match those of the administration and previous instructors, and looking at historic grades would have clarified this.

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    But David, what does this have to do with whether the students have actually met the goals of the course? – Andrés E. Caicedo May 6 '18 at 16:03
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It would seem unethical to base one’s grade on factors outside of objective assessment. Presumably you outlined grading criteria in your syllabus which students agreed to by staying enrolled and I assume was submitted to your department for review/archiving/etc.

As the instructor, you are responsible for assessing student work and grading along your chosen guidelines. Altering your regime due to departmental ‘strong arming’ doesn’t serve your students well or reward those who worked extra hard. Equally, it doesn’t serve your institution - reputable schools have high standards. Maintaining those standards in a climate of grade inflation takes steadfastness.

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    As important as it is to have high standards, it is important to have reasonable standards (if all students fail your class, what's the benefit of the high standard?), and consistent standards. Even if faculty should be afforded freedom in how they teach, it's the institution that offers the class, within a program, so you cannot afford to have a class twice as hard some semester because a faculty member has different standards. – Martin Argerami May 5 '18 at 20:21
  • @MartinArgerami while I agree with you that one should strive for reasonable rather than arbitrary standards, this question is about the ethics of altering ones standards upon outside force. Whether an instructors standards are objectively lenient or harsh, my point was that once these are outlined per (contractual) syllabus, they should not be altered based on pressure from another party, whether it be an angry parent or department chair. As instructor, one assumes personal responsibility for student assessment in the manner they see fit. – HEITZ May 11 '18 at 4:05

protected by Alexandros May 6 '18 at 20:41

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