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Background

I am a Permanent Resident living in the USA (CO) and studying part-time at a Christian distance-learning institution which is accredited in the USA and based in Missouri. The course is a BA in Bible & Theology. I read widely in law, history, and theology. I have physical and cognitive disabilities which severely affect my ability to perform well in timed exams, but am bright academically and consistently top-grade at coursework.

The Textbooks

Each class/module has its own textbook written by the faculty member. I have signed up for two of these classes, got the two books, and both are consistently ignorant, partisan, and unprofessional. They do not cite any references within their text yet are happy to frequently contradict well-established scholarship - even other books set by the university! This question would be far too long if I gave detailed examples, so please just trust me when I say that these textbooks are bad.

The Exams

A huge chunk of the class's grade comes from a multiple-choice test at the end of each module. These are meant to be just like the practice tests in the textbooks - which are awful. Many answers are extremely subjective, often the correct answer is the author's opinion. Sometimes none of them are really correct. Many times I have got a practice question "wrong", even though I have good scholarship on my side (again, including other books set by the university). It's all extremely unprofessional. Fact-checking the textbook constantly is also exhausting.

In other words, to pass the course, I will have to memorize and regurgitate answers that I know are disputable or even demonstrably wrong. I will have to un-learn the good scholarship I have read in my spare time (a lot), and replace it with junk from the textbooks I can parrot. In the exams, I will be trying to remember, "wait, is that the right answer? Or is that what the textbook said?"

The bottom line is: I do not wish to take multiple-choice exams based on these awful textbooks.

So, what are my options?

I see the possibilities as follows:

  1. Ask the university to completely re-write their dozens of textbooks and exams according to proper scholarship. (Unlikely to happen, I think...)
  2. Ask the university to allow me to write additional coursework essays instead of taking a multiple-choice exam. (This would be appropriate for my medical needs anyway. Perhaps I could try this without mentioning their bad textbooks?)
  3. Attempt the exams, writing a note explaining whenever question/answer premise is wrong, (e.g. "None of the above are correct answers. Markan chronology is based on Mark's splitting the book in half between Galilee and Judea, whereas the other gospels explicitly describe a multitude of travels between these locations. See 'Jesus The Messiah' by Robert Stein"). However, I am sure this will be ignored; I think the marking is done by computers anyway; and that means I'll take too long and may not finish the paper. Not good.
  4. Attempt the exams, keeping a copy of my answer sheet (this is allowed). If I get a bad grade, ask to see the mark scheme (not sure if this is allowed), and dispute any answers which contradict good scholarship, demanding those questions are removed from my mark and the percentage recalculated, and that the mark scheme is rewritten to remove the bad questions for future students. I think this would only happen with a 100% demonstrable case where there is no dispute outside of the textbook's divergent opinion. (There are some of these, but mostly it's just 90% demonstrable)...
  5. Report the university to their relevant accreditation authority and hope they force (1) or (2).
  6. Leave the university demanding a refund due to the bad scholarship in the textbooks. (Partial refunds are available in the early parts of a course, but I'm past those dates now). If no refund, go to the accreditation and see if they'll force them to give refund. (It's only triple figures, but that's substantial in my financial situation).

I would like feedback on the feasibility of options 1-5. Has anyone had a similar experience? I think #2 is my best bet, probably - has anyone been granted this concession at degree level? (Is there even a legal precedent I can cite?) (I have, in lower education, in the UK). If it comes down to #6, what are my legal rights to a refund if the quality of the education is demonstrably bad?

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    Ah, well, the orientation essay allowed me to discuss my views on biblical infallibility and inspiration. (My view: Jesus is 'legit', so when he called OT sections inspired, they are. I'm open to that idea that inspired work could include some fictitious narrative devices, e.g. the flood. 5% of the NT letters claim Divine Command and 5% say "This is my opinion". Is the remaining 90% inspired or not? Debateable...) That's my view: some of it's debateable. However, the class textbooks now would not describe anything as "debateable", it's their way or the highway. That's what's unprofessional. – Rob Stening May 30 '18 at 1:11
  • From a pragmatic perspective, your option 2 seems like a sensible way forward. – Flyto May 30 '18 at 8:21
  • Moderator’s notice: Please refrain from ridiculing the field of study. Note that for whatever it’s worth, there is an entire discipline devoted to analysing the Bible that does not require religious motivation – whether this applies here or not. @RastGasser: Please edit any clarifications into your post. – Wrzlprmft May 30 '18 at 8:32
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    @immibis I suppose the opposite was implied. It's next to impossible for a textbook about the Bible to be considered 100% accurate by everyone. – Dmitry Grigoryev May 30 '18 at 8:36
  • @Flyto Option 2 does have the advantage of being the least confrontational, as I can attempt it firstly for medical reasons without bringing up textbooks. This may not seem very honest as I have an ulterior motive of sorts, however, it is an adjustment which (a) would negate much of the unfair disadvantage I have purely due to health, and (b) would make my results more realistic for the 'real world' of academia, as coursework far better represents how scholarship is done than multiple-choice tests. Indeed many schools advertise they have no standardised testing as a positive learning point. – Rob Stening May 30 '18 at 14:02
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I have an MA in religious studies, so maybe I can offer a bit of humanities insight here.

The main question you should be asking yourself is, what will I be doing with this degree? If you are hoping to be recognized as an expert within your Christian denomination, and if this Missouri institution is recognized in your faith community as a prestigious one, and you want to be associated with the institution, then your best option is to talk to them before the exams (your option 2) and try to complete the exams based on their advice. But if you want to gain in knowledge for your own purposes, you should also consider quitting the program entirely (your option 6). Let me explain my reasoning.

Regardless of your educational goals, for your degree to be valuable, it should show that you have mastered something more than just the ability to supply the "right" answer to multiple choice questions. Your instinct to respond to complex questions by giving supplementary explanations and showing your sources and your work is a good one. The top universities in America would welcome such a complex response.

A denominational seminary may be more interested in ensuring that the students know the answers that correspond with their specific teachings about the Bible. If that's the program you are in and that's the sort of degree you want, then you should go with your option 2: write the university a polite letter asking for further information about contradictions and unclear questions on the test.

However, if this degree is not one that would provide you with prestige or respect in Colorado, then the value of the program is more dubious. Ask yourself, what am I trying to get from this degree? Consider that they are preventing you from giving them correct answers on the tests they assign you, and that they do not provide detailed justifications of their own "correct" answers. Because of that, if the university does not give you assistance when you ask politely (option 2), it could be better to go with your option 6 and look for a more rigorous distance program that includes question-and-answer sessions and one-on-one counseling.

Usually you will not be able to get a refund, although it doesn't hurt to ask. If you have a student loan and you can demonstrate that the classes you took were worthless, you may be able to get the loan canceled by filing a false certification/ability to benefit form with the US Department of Education. But there is no guarantee they will cancel the loan.

Options 1, 3, 4, and 5 would probably not be helpful for you to achieve your educational goals. In my opinion a program such as this doesn't want to deal with disputes about exam questions after the fact.

I am not familiar with Christian distance education. I know enough to know that there are many good programs that I am unfamiliar with, and that finding the right program for you depends heavily on your view of the Bible and of Christian tradition and the Church Fathers.

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    Thank you for your great answer and for tackling both the 'big picture' and denominational aspects. The loan section does not apply to me but it is a good part of this answer which may help future SE searchers. – Rob Stening May 30 '18 at 1:06
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I doubt there's a wholly satisfying solution here.

Of the options you've listed, #4 is probably the one that is most likely to be viable, but the problem there is that everybody's grades would need to be adjusted if a question is eliminated because it's wrong. However, it will be very difficult to convince the instructor—who presumably set the exam in the first place—to recognize that their answer is objectively "wrong."

However, it should be mentioned that if you have diagnosed impairments that affect your ability to take timed exams, this is something that the school should make reasonable arrangements for you to work around the problem. (Note that if the school is operated by a religious institution, the formal protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act may not apply.) You should contact the appropriate office at the institution with the appropriate documentation outlining your needs and what arrangements are recommended (e.g., extended testing times). This might allow you to use option #2. (Although it would be a tougher argument to ask for essays instead—one could ask "Why can't Rast Gasser just take the same test with more time instead of doing something else?")

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    Great answer (+1) (as usual for your answers!) but allow me to raise a quibble: I don't agree that if a person has a diagnosed impairment then the university must make "reasonable" arrangements to work around this. They might well do this, but surely it is at least open to a university to decide that a particular diagnosed impairment does not justify any special arrangements; universities are not slaves to the medical establishment after all. – Ben May 30 '18 at 0:44
  • Firstly, Aeis, thank you for your answer. I thought #4 was actually a bad idea due to the con you mentioned. Can you think of any other pros to it or elaborate on 'most likely to be viable'? Thanks very much! I was just about to write "Ben reminds me to ask what law would apply", but I've just seen Aeis add that the ADA does not apply. That's interesting and unfortunate. Thank you both – Rob Stening May 30 '18 at 0:56
  • @Ben Actually, the bigger issue is that it’s a religious school, so ADA protections don’t necessarily apply. – aeismail May 30 '18 at 0:56
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    @RastGasser ADA may or may not apply. It depends on who runs the institution. As for option #4 it has the lowest barrier—you only have to get the instructor involved. Everything else requires multiple people and a lot of time to resolve. – aeismail May 30 '18 at 1:08
  • @Aeismail Thanks for elucidating, that is a good point. – Rob Stening May 30 '18 at 1:22
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Remember that the primary purpose of higher education is to learn, not merely maximise grades for the purposes of a credential. If you are able to get through your courses, and you have additional knowledge of broader scholarship, to the extent that you can reasonably dispute answers in exams, that sounds like an excellent learning outcome to me. This should stand you in good stead for the future of your field. If this particular institution is not meeting with your expectations then you should consider looking elsewhere. If you are at the level of knowledge that allows you to argue against textbooks in the field, you might also consider trying to write some scholarly papers on these topics and publish these. (That is unusual for an undergraduate and would be considered highly.)

Having said this, my spidey-senses tingle whenever I hear an undergraduate student say that the teachers in their university are all wrong and don't know that they're doing. Ninety-nine percent of the time when this occurs, it is the student that is misunderstanding the material. So bear in mind that people like me are going to be skeptical of your claims, and it is going to be a lot of work for you to provide compelling evidence.

Your suggestion #3 sounds quite reasonable, since it is certainly open to you to write additional information on your exam if you think it is relevant. If you are able to show a broader knowledge of the scholarship that renders the available answers subjective/dubious, then you might receive some additional marks, but that will be at the discretion of the examiner. Your other suggestions generally involve attempts to challenge the practices of the university; you are not well-placed to do this. (The notion that a report to an accreditation body from a single undergraduate would yield any immediate change is ---frankly--- a delusion of grandeur.)

Whatever you decide to do, remember that a good outcome is any outcome where you learn a lot about your field. If you get a lower grade than you deserve in the process, then que sera, sera.

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    Thank you for your answer, especially the consideration of the big picture. I absolutely understand your spidey-senses, mine would be going off too if the roles were reversed - thank you kindly for giving me the benefit of the doubt in the rest of your reply! Would it be appropriate under SE rules to provide a couple of examples in the comments section under my question? I felt them too long for the main question. – Rob Stening May 30 '18 at 0:59
  • Regarding the end of your first paragraph, I was under the impression that a lack of formal training would be a huge disadvantage when attempting to publish academia. Would the "freshness" of being unqualified really be impressive enough to be a substantial advantage? (Not sure how off-topic that is, but the idea excites me) – Rob Stening May 30 '18 at 1:02
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    It is reasonable for you to have omitted examples, since I understand you want to make your post succinct. Definitely save your explanations for dealing with the university itself - we are happy to give the benefit of the doubt on this site, but also just to flag the expectations that students may be facing. – Ben May 30 '18 at 1:14
  • As to the possibility of trying to publish something, yes, that will be very difficult for someone without the formal training (i.e., postgrad education). That is why it is extremely rare for undergraduates to publish. Part of the reason to suggest this is that even the attempt to do this will probably show you how hard it is to get your own views on a subject to a level of evidence that will make it into the scholarly conversation. – Ben May 30 '18 at 1:16
  • I strongly disagree with the penultimate paragraph. In every single multiple choice exam I have ever taken, anything you write other than selecting the answer of your choice from the list will at best be completely ignored and at worst will render your entire answer incorrect. Examiners typically do not have discretion on this and as the OP pointed out, the exam is probably marked by a computer anyway (and again, marking anything other than the answer could cause the computer to reject it as incorrect). – JBentley May 30 '18 at 3:15

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