One college lecturer often does not care about failing his students, another does. Say we are talking about a Calculus I class.

A. One fails students because they simply do not achieve the minimum grade set by him and/or the university.

B. One fails students because they cheat or break rules or something.

However, for point A, there are reasons that can be talked about.

  1. He might not be a good teacher. For this, either he improves his teaching, which more often than not means he needs more experience as he has minimum capability of teaching (he is not a school teacher any way), or the faculty just need to find replacement as this lecturer cannot deliver.
  2. The materials are just too much for some students. How do we handle this?

a. Should the materials be reduced, which then it will not make this class a Calculus class, since some materials are omitted?

b. Should the faculty accept the fact that these students fail? What if for ALL students, this Calculus class is too hard?

c. These students passed the admission tests for the university entry, and they came to learn. Should they blame or change the admission process to get a better group of students? This can be done in the future, but what if this fail of students is happening now?

d. Should the lecturer raise the average grade of the class so that some, if not all, students pass the course? Or, just by lowering the minimum grade at the end of the semester? Won't this affect them in future subjects?

e. Should he just let them learn as much as they can without setting any expectation or minimum requirements and grade them based on how much they have improved?

f. In conclusion, in which part does he adjust? The materials (future), teaching method (future), grading system (future), the minimum grade, or just let them fail as there is nothing he can do without changing the grades, even after giving them second chance exam and still fail, even after also giving them more tutorial classes?

EDIT: To add more consideration, let's say the class attendance is really good. Practice quizzes are given more than once. In my department however, almost all lecturers agree that our students are just weak compared to other universities, since the good ones are usually going to those universities. I wish not to agree with this, since I believe there is something a lecturer can do to help improving his students. However, students rarely come to a given tutorial class. Also, based on the admission data, accepted students were based on ranked list, not passing grade. I have tried making more detailed syllabus. Some students (very few) succeed, but others pass courses with very low grades, and this happens to every lecturer including me. I'm relatively new to this department and it looks like other lecturers just raise grades eventually (it would be bad for the department otherwise) and mind their own business later, such as doing research etc, without even giving tutorial classes. I am refusing to follow it but it looks like it'll be easier for me to follow this culture..but nah!

  • 3
    In a class like Calc I, there should be well-established course aims (e.g., fluency with limits, derivatives, and basic integrals) and grades should reflect the students' mastery of those concepts. How this applies in practice is probably too opinion-based and/or broad for this forum. I don't think arbitrarily raising and lowering grades is fair, but (especially in less prestigious schools) there is a constant tension between ensuring rigor and giving a reasonable amount of high grades.
    – cag51
    Sep 29, 2018 at 3:47
  • @cag51 Agree with your first statement. If we narrow the scope of the question to an occurrence in a less prestigious school tho, which one is more convenient: Give high grades (either by raising the average or lowering the minimum) or just be strict to avoid false expectation of the students' mastery? I just don't think giving high grades is good since that would give much expectation, but hey I might be wrong, for no matter how high the grades they get, they won't be expected to be that good any way, hence relative grades are to be given and average is to be raised.. :/
    – bms
    Sep 29, 2018 at 4:39
  • 2
    The student’s attitude should be included - some don’t do any work, some have poor attendance. I have just done a quiz with 220 students and a practice quiz was available. One student did the pratice quiz 38 times - got a very good grade, others did not do the practice quiz at all and got some of the lowest grades.
    – Solar Mike
    Sep 29, 2018 at 5:41
  • I am the lecturer (and soon to be a student once more).
    – bms
    Sep 29, 2018 at 6:51
  • 2
    My thesis is: "A course that no one fails is, ultimately, a worthless course." As an example of what happens when standards are endlessly lowered, consider the trend of law schools closing because graduates cannot pass the bar. Sep 29, 2018 at 20:11

3 Answers 3


This is a very philosophical question involving the overall education system, the area you are living in, the selection process of your students, the culture in your university, and, and, and. Therefore I assume the question will be closed, soon, even though this is a common problem which needs to be discussed.

Sometimes I feel we are in a similar situation at our university since we are accepting candidates with lower grades as incoming students. Some of them are not really qualified for studying at all, and it is just helpful for them to reflect this as early as possible, e.g. by early tests etc. Last year I had two students which quit after three weeks "because they did not expect they have to invest so much time in studying".

The only thing you can do is to decide to work with the students you have. Changing the selection process is difficult, the application behaviour can not be influenced too much, and sometimes the students with bad grades in school can show a great performance in their studies! So don't invest too much time in improving the incoming student's quality.

The next important step is: You are having a curriculum (and later on job profile) whcih requires certain pre-requisites in later courses. As a faculty, you should discuss which is the minimum level the students should have after your course - and this should set the level for passing the exam. It could lead to a reduction of the material, or you can classify some material as "advanced" and other material as "must have". Do not go below this level - the students will like it in the beginning, but they will have trouble in their later studies and in their working place. It's better to force them to do the course again. Be clear about this from the beginning, and if possible tell everyone in advance your expectations and - more importantly - whatfor the material is needed afterwards.

Regarding material and teaching methods I would like to reference to the field of didactics - many universities are having courses for improving the teaching style - take as many of them as you need! It helps a lot, and you are meeting local peers which are in a similar situation.

  • 5
    There are two basic intake profiles for accepting students: 1) set very high entry limits and have few fails or 2) have low entry requirements and set continuation requirements high... I was at a Uni that had the second profile : everyone gets a chance, but this means there was a 25% failure rate at the end of the first year, and a 25% fail at the end of the second year, But if you got to the final year then you should pass (although not guaranteed...)....
    – Solar Mike
    Sep 29, 2018 at 10:13
  • @SolarMike Yes. For other universities tho, such as mine, we have set low entry requirements (since it was only based on ranking, no passing grade), and not set continuation requirements high enough, because for some reason the faculty "expect" the students not being able to compete with students from other leading universities. Those who don't create problems and responsive students are expected (and pushed/helped) to pass everything, even if their topic mastery is so low. I understand this when applied in high school, but this is a university. I think this is a quite reasonable answer.
    – bms
    Sep 29, 2018 at 11:02

I can only add a bit to the excellent answer of OBu. While the question is largely philosophical there are a few things that can be done.

First, it must be possible for a student to fail. Otherwise they have little incentive to engage with the material. They are busy and have a lot of requirements to balance, so it isn't good, even (especially) for them, to make it too easy.

Second, it must be possible for every accepted student to excel. If that isn't true at your university, you need to try to find a way to change the system. You can change it by adjusting admission requirements or by changing the educational system itself. As a professor, you probably have more influence over the latter and you have complete authority in your own courses. If you don't, then you have a deeper problem. For example, if your Dean requires you to fail a certain number of students then there are ethical issues around your participation.

However, not every student can be expected to succeed with the same amount of effort. Some things are hard and and they are harder for some than for others. You may need to find a way to support and require that harder effort from some who would otherwise fall behind. Mentoring helps, but so does something as simple as making additional work possible.

However, in the modern world, you may have to do more than teach your subject effectively. I learned that students come to university unprepared to learn. No one taught them how to learn and so they were very ineffective at it. So my job became, for a subset of students, not only to teach them CS, but to teach them how to learn CS.

For example, they were initially ineffective note takers, if they bothered at all. So I wound up teaching them how to take notes (by hand) and to summarize them. It doesn't need to take up a lot of time in class, but a couple of minutes at the end, asking individuals to tell me the most important lesson of the day can work wonders.

Also, it turns out that group/team work is a big win, both for the strugglers and for the superstars. But you need to organize it in a way that the superstars don't do all the work while the others watch, or even avoid participation. This may require using a flipped classroom in which you can participate in the interactions. If lecture isn't reaching every student, then you can de-emphasize lecture for more effective teaching (and learning) strategies.

If you are given an impossible situation, say 200 students, then your job becomes managing your (hopefully large) set of TAs, so that students can get the individual help that you can give. If your research load is so big that you can't do that, then don't take on such courses, as hard as that can be to arrange. But don't participate in a situation that you know guarantees failure. Every student should be able to succeed through their own efforts. But you can't ignore the realities of the students you have in front of you.

I once had a pair of students who, I think, had never had a positive educational experience. The faculty thought them pretty dull. The course was advanced and both had previously failed it. But they decided that they would pass this time and worked as a team to do so, studying a lot on their own and formulating a ridiculous number of questions for me. Most of my office hours that term were with these two. Neither of them was a quick learner so I got the same questions over and over. However, one incident toward the end of the course stands out. The three of us were in my office and one of them asked a question. I had just opened my mouth to start explaining, when one of them said, "No, let us try to explain it to you." They did and did so correctly. They wound up with the two highest grades in the course that term though the competition was pretty much loaded with superstars. I was accused by a couple of the superstars of bringing in a ringer to make them look bad. But hard work and desire on their part and patience on mine made the difference.

Let me give, also, a grading technique that can work effectively, though in some environments it would be forbidden, as it permits everyone to get the highest marks if they are willing to do the work. It is called Cumulative Grading. The idea is to have a total number of points for a course, say 1000. There are a lot of tasks required in the course and each is pre-assigned a point total for contribution to their personal goal. Each task is graded in the usual way and a point total is assigned to it. If the points available for a task is, say, 20, then they might get 17, for example. When their total reaches a certain level, they get a certain grade, say 900 points is an A level. The other feature of this is that exams counted for relatively little (around 300 total of 1000) and projects counted for more, including team projects. Finally, I let students resubmit work for regrading and the student could make up part, but not all, of the deficit they had on the first round, provided that the first round was submitted in a timely fashion. Sloppy first versions were discouraged from the fact that you could only earn back a certain percentage of the points lost in the first version. Each version submitted was returned with a point total as well as comments for improvement.

The scheme above gives the struggling student the opportunity to improve by doing additional work (on the original assignment), improving it at my direction. The superstars didn't participate in this as they did fine originally, but if they had a oopsie on an assignment, they could still fix it.

A caveat, of course, is that I taught small classes (30 or less), though I had a wide range of "abilities" among the students. Note also, that for a student who found the course fairly easy and who had other commitments, he or she could simply stop trying hard once they had achieved their desired number of points for the grade they wanted. Usually those students are going to learn no matter what you do, so I never thought of that as a problem. But for some students, simply passing is their goal, and it allowed them to know when they had done so in a fairly risk free manner.

You can balance this out. For what it is worth, even though using a "permissive" grading structure, my reputation among the students was that I was "very demanding".

  • And this is only adding “a bit” to Obu’s answer....
    – Solar Mike
    Sep 30, 2018 at 6:21

Grades are a teaching tool yes, but they are also a statement to the world, by the school, evaluating the student's performance. You certainly wouldn't want surgery from a "doctor" who's professor reduced the material as needed such that the worst students could pass.

As for the question of what level of effort/ability the class should target, this is also a practical matter. Cut every syllabus in half (or whatever) such that 90 percent of the students can retain 90 percent of the material, and you have to teach twice as many courses to cover the material, and will waste productive years of the lives of students well above this cutoff. Somewhere in between catering to the star pupils and slowing everything down for the stragglers, there is an optimal that most decent teachers and programs are shooting for already.

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