I am a teacher assistant for a big course and I am expected to conduct weekly quizzes. Last week, my bag containing a week's worth of quizzes got stolen. My question is what should I tell my students and is there a fair way to make it up to them?

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    One piece of information that may help the users here who try to answer you is that are you the only TA of this course? Or is it a huge class that there are multiple TA sessions and you're only grading a fraction of the class's quizzes? I can see that some answers won't work well if you work in a multiple TAs system. – Penguin_Knight Oct 17 at 17:26
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    just to encourage you: this is not at all unprecedented issue. Talk to your professor, they have been through similar things before, and know what to do next. Do not do anything before that (call the police of course) – aaaaaa Oct 17 at 18:32
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    Do you have any reason to believe one of your students was the thief? The department should have a policy in place for missing coursework and you should confer with 'em before you release any information elsewhere. – ti7 Oct 17 at 20:28
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    Which country are you in? If GDPR applies to you - you may be in a much more serious mess than it looks on the surface (and have to take specific steps to ensure the correct process is followed). – Bilkokuya Oct 18 at 10:36
  • I think offering students to optionally retake a very similar version of the quiz would be great. – pmf Oct 19 at 8:17

15 Answers 15

Report it to the police. Report it to the department.

You don't have anything that requires making up to the students. Of course you should be fair to them and not let this hurt them (e.g., no grade for this quiz, but allow students to take an optional alternative assignment to take its place).

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    I just studied for a quiz and aced it... ooops do this 2 hour assignment because TA left her bag unwatched. Let me ask this question. What if a student lost a paper worth half their semester grade due to thievery? – blankip Oct 18 at 16:42
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    @blankip I'd report it to the police (as I would with anything of mine that was stolen), get a crime report number, and apply for an extension under those extenuating circumstances. – TEK Oct 18 at 18:02
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    @blankip I don't see Austin suggesting a 2-hour assignment – Azor Ahai Oct 18 at 21:04
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    @blankip You're being awfully presumptuous about the circumstances in which OP's bag was stolen. Also, there's a difference between a student saying they lost a paper and a TA saying they lost all the papers - the former would only hurt the student, while the latter would affect all the students because of the actions of one person. – Abion47 Oct 18 at 22:25
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    @blankip I assume you would also give a student an F if they were trapped in an elevator and unable to hand in the paper on time? Extenuating circumstances are a part of life. Things happen sometimes. They need to be dealt with fairly given the circumstances instead of treating every rule as utterly immobile. – Zach Lipton Oct 19 at 2:25

As an undergraduate I had a professor who kept a rather messy office, with papers piled everywhere. One day he came into lecture looking quite embarrassed. It was a day to turn back the graded homework from the previous week.

Well, it turns out that his desk was so messy that the only 'open' place to put the pile of graded homework to give back to us was to stack it on the edge of his office trash can. You can guess what happened - yup, the helpful janitor folk came by and took out the trash, including the stack of homework.

He took the blame (and a little ribbing), and gave us all an A for the assignment. He also cleaned up his office a bit...

In your case, it isn't your fault, but I would just punt on the quiz and give everyone either an A, or don't count it.

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    "it isn't your fault": it isn't entirely your fault, but maybe a fraction, well, yes. When I have exam papers in my bag, I double the precautions to avoid any theft (e.g. I never leave the bag in the car, I don't leave the bag unattended etc.). – Massimo Ortolano Oct 17 at 17:19
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    Agree with @MassimoOrtolano, if there is any marks or grades on them it could be considered as FERPA violation in the US. I wouldn't say the OP should take heavy blame, but I wouldn't approach it with a light-hearted tone neither. – Penguin_Knight Oct 17 at 18:01
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    It isn’t your fault, but it is still your responsibility. – JeffE Oct 17 at 21:02
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    @MassimoOrtolano I've had departments make it quite clear that it is the instructor or TA's fault, as they are never supposed to take exams etc. to a non-secure space except as required for administering the exam (ie, taking them from the classroom back to a locked office). Not very many people ever actually take such precautions, and TAs in particular routinely take material home with them in nothing more secure than a generic backpack, but the policy still puts the burden on the TA and instructor to ensure the security of (to-be-)graded work. – zibadawa timmy Oct 17 at 22:13
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    Why exactly would you give them an A for a stolen quiz? Genuinely interested in the rationale. – hiergiltdiestfu Oct 18 at 7:17

Oops - that doesn't sound good. You should definitely report it to your administration and maybe there are established procedures for such cases.

Furthermore, you should not re-use any of the questions in this test in this or later courses.

One could assume, that one of the students stole the bag to avoid a bad grade, but I would recommend to assume some random person stole it - it helps in keeping a good relationship to your students.

To come to your relevant question: Is there a fair way to make it up to them? - Maybe not. If you just don't count the test, a good result of student A would not count towards the final grade. On the other hand, if you force them to repeat the test, student A might perform worse then before, and student B might perform better - which would be unfair as well.

I would do the following: Tell the students about the situation. Tell them, if the bag returns (maybe the thief throws the exams away since they are worthless), wou will return the results as soon as possible. Otherwise, don't include the test in the final grade.

If you want to give a bonus: Offer them that they may repeat the test if they want, but if they don't, it just does not count.

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    I think it's far more likely that someone stole the bag for the laptop that they hoped was inside, than to hide a bad grade. Stealing the bag is theft, and depending on the state, judge, and jury you could easily go to jail for a long time for that -- it's not a risk worth taking for a single bad grade. – Nic Hartley Oct 17 at 17:10
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    @NicHartley I agree that stealing is not worth the risk just for a bad quiz grade, but cheating is almost never worth the risk, and yet people do it anyway. People who cheat almost categorically fall under the "Not good at cost/benefit analysis" heading. – GreySage Oct 17 at 18:12
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    @GreySage the people that go to great lengths, perhaps. But in my experience most academic cheating is of the low level (peek at neighbor's quiz, copy some parts of code, etc) kind, and its rampant precisely because everyone (even the non-cheaters) knows the risk is extremely low. – mbrig Oct 17 at 20:15
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    Do you mean 'oops'? At first I thought you were trying to start with the positive aspects of the situation, except that didn't make sense. – Jessica B Oct 17 at 22:04
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    Corrected... "Ups" is German for "oops" 😊. – OBu Oct 18 at 14:06

Not had a bag stolen, but lost a quiz (online system), best thing is tell the students directly that it happened and you will deal with the grades appropriately.

What is "appropriate" may need to be checked with the dept. head etc but once the students know you are on the case and are fair to all, it works out fine...

First and foremost, seek departmental advice. There is likely a procedure for this situation, either within the department or the institution as a whole.

Think about what you would want as a student, then balance that with what is fair to the people that studied hard for the quiz. A possible compromise could be to strike this test from the grading scheme, but offer students the option to complete an alternative examination on the topics covered, then mark them on the existing scheme. This would allow the students that feel that they have a strong grasp on this topic to prove it and earn a higher grade, and those that don't would be unaffected.

E.g. (Assumes 10 quizzes worth 10% each. All students have 80% on first 9 quizzes)

Student A declines optional test. 80% * 9/9 = 80% final grade

Student B accepts optional test. Aces it (100%). 80% * 9/10 + 100% * 1/10 = 82% final grade

Student C accepts optional test. Only gets 50%. 80% * 9/10 + 50% * 1/10 = 77% final grade

I would let them know the truth of what happened, give everyone an A on that assignment/quiz, but try to push your Professor/Teacher to put a question or two from that missing quiz on the midterm/final.

This provides another opportunity for the students who actually studied the material a chance to showcase their knowledge, and they won't feel like they wasted their time learning that week's material.

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    Why give them an A? If I'm about to judge someone's track record from their grades I wouldn't want to see random A's just because someone was feeling generous! – pipe Oct 18 at 9:19
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    @pipe You make it out to seem like stolen/missing quizzes occurs often throughout the year? Why would you assume that this is a reoccurring theme and not simply a one time event? If this happened all the time I'd say the person losing these quizzes should no longer be responsible for the quizzes. It was a one time thing, don't punish the students and move on. – RAZ_Muh_Taz Oct 18 at 15:25
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    I don't know what gave you the impression that I think it's common. I don't even care about the reason. I do care that someone who had his quiz lost shouldn't be getting a higher grade than the guy in the other class who wasn't lucky enough to have his quiz stolen. If you start giving the highest grade out just for participating they won't mean anything. – pipe Oct 18 at 17:54
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    @pipe A teachers gives a free A to the students every time he or she loses the quizzes, which rarely ever happens (maybe once a year at the most). Knowing this as a student and knowing I'd be taking 10+ quizzes a semester, I wouldn't be expecting a free A every time I take the quiz, i'd assume that the quizzes won't get lost/stolen and i'll be given my actual grade for the quiz. If I'm in the other class I would be bummed but I wouldn't stop studying for the next quiz. – RAZ_Muh_Taz Oct 18 at 18:14
  • I am unsure regarding the legality of just giving out A:s in a scenario like this. I think there might be problems with handing out a grade for work you haven't corrected. I would advice against it, at least without first consulting the higher-ups in your department. – Phil Oct 23 at 14:03
  1. Report it to the department.
  2. Show regret for what happened to the students.
  3. Use e-learning platforms to deliver and store the quizzes in the future.

You don’t do much harm to collect one less data point on their score - unless there is a very small number of quizzes - all it does is to reduce the variability of the scores. In other words, a bad student can make one or two very good quizzes, not ten. (Say you have ten quizzes. If you loose one the precision of your algorithm is reduced by sqrt(10/9) that is almost nothing).

Be empathetic with the students. The students pur their own time in the quiz, and will feel cheated because their effort vanished in the wind. All you can do now is to explain what happened and apologise to them.

For the future, you should consider delivering quizzes using e-learning platform so that you can always retrieve a digital copy. Many platforms offer the ability to deliver quizzes that involve computations as well. Also, you can automate the grading, thus saving you lots of time and reducing subjective bias.

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    their 2-hour effort --- Since these are WEEKLY quizzes, I would imagine the effort is more along the lines of 10 minutes, unless you're counting preparation time, in which case your assessment of how long students spend preparing for a short weekly quiz is longer by a factor of 3 or 4 than has been my experience. – Dave L Renfro Oct 17 at 16:35
  • The size of apologies should be proportional to the time they put into it (and that does not include preparation). Mine were between one and two hours – famargar Oct 17 at 16:52
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    @famargar Something that lasts an hour or more is not a quiz, it is an exam. – Jessica B Oct 17 at 22:06
  • @JessicaB in my country teaching methods are pretty discretionary. I used to give long weekly quizzes that proved assimilation of the weekly teaching content. Subject was a hardcore STEM one. Sure teachers can deliver quizzes that can be done in 5’. It would probably not be effective in core STEM subject. – famargar Oct 18 at 7:31
  • Btw, removed the 2hour phrasing, as the students will be unhappy regardless. – famargar Oct 18 at 7:52

This isn’t the students’ fault so they shouldn’t be penalized. There are many obvious non optimal options like disregard it completely or give 100% to all (not fair to those who prepared). A different option is to include 1 or 2 extra questions to your next exam or final exam, weighted slightly differently, the content of which comes from the quiz material.

As others have commented, report it to the department/relevant authorities and seek guidance from them before making a decision or telling the students that the quizzes got stolen.

This is not your fault. Someone stole your bag. Even with extra extra precautions, there is always a chance that exams or important documents are stolen/lost.

Remember that quizzes/exams are methods to 1) Certify they have learned a given subject and (more importantly) 2) Give them feedback about their current knowledge of the subject. The first objective serves the contract between you and the university/society (you certify that students that pass know the material). The second objective serves the contract between you and your students (you help them learn). By giving them all full grades/not retesting them you are not complying with either.

If it were up to me, and the schedule allows for it, I'd definitely make the students retake the quiz or at least as @HEITZ suggested include the material in another test/quiz.

I'd explain to them that quizzes/exams are samples of their knowledge. We usually don't retest students on material they have passed for efficiency's sake, but to do so is not unfair by any means.

If a student knew the material the first time you took the quiz, he should know it the second time and have no issues retaking the quiz. If a student didn't know it and now has extra time to study he may have an advantage wrt the first quiz, but you can't know that since you lost those samples. So the only fair way to deal with this is to make them retake the test.

For your current problem, report it and omit it from the final grade. Rearrange weights if necessary.

For the future: My office copier had a "scan to email" function. I used to sometimes backup quizzes/exams to my email account. It took very little time, and prevented this issue and other potential cheating issues.

Back in school, I had a teacher who was somehow… beyond all things.

On year, at the end of the school year, he suddenly noticed he hadn't written any quizzes or whatsoever and he had no ground to take grades on.

So he quizzed the pupils one after the other and made some (AFAIR quite fair) grades in their answers.

I would do it like this (beyond obviously reporting etc):

Give students an extra test that repeats the quiz (with new questions obviously). Tell them this test will not hurt their grade in any case, so they may safely skip it if they don't want to do it. Then score the test accordingly:

  1. If the missing tests don't get found: the missing test gets considered as receiving average of all other tests. So, if the student had 80% average of all other tests, the missing test is scored 80%.

  2. Now, give them better mark of the missing and extra test (actual score on the missing test if found, said average of pt1 if not found). For example, one student might have received 80% on the old test and 90% on the new one - he gets 90%. Another got 90% on the old and 80% on the new - he also gets 90%.

I believe this is the fairest way you can do it, because:
You aren't giving 100% score for no reason, which wouldn't be fair to good students.
You aren't requiring people to retake the test - if they felt they are doing well enough, their score won't get worse if they don't.
Yet, if students want to, they can retake the test, where you are again making sure this extra effort isn't able to hurt their grade, even if they do really poor on the test.

There is a lot of information missing, therefore there is no Perfect Answer. There are way too many options what, how and why has happened to you. The level of how much did you screw this up is also very sensitive to your actual background.

Anyway, report it honestly to the professor in charge of this lecture. Report it to the department. Report it to the police.

If you act on your own and...

  • give all of them A you "punnish" ones that prepared for the exam and deserved the A by putting them on the very same level with a slacker that just showed up. Maybe the theft was motivated by this equalisation and get "all As" from you was the purpose.
  • give another test you allow them extra time to prepare compared to the ones whose test were not stolen. The extra time might be another purpose of the theft. The ones who learnt for that particullar day and forgot it a day after are also affected, because they have to re-learn it one more time. Personally I have no sentiment for such students.
  • write the test off you change the rules on the fly.

Without the full knowledge of the professor, who is the one reponsible for the course, you commit a misconduct no matter what action you take.

On the other hand, in cooperation with the professor you can finish the courses with limitted harm to the students. I'd vote for assigning new test, if it is the only test in the course. If it is one part, I'd change the criterion from say 70 pts of 100 to 56 pts of 80 when the lost test had 20 pts total.

The OP is "a teacher assistant for a big course". I don't know the policies for the OP's department, but it would be very unusual for a TA to be in charge of deciding how to handle grades in an exceptional situation.

The first thing to do, if not already done, is to report the theft to the police.

The second thing to do is to report it to the primary instructor for the course. They should decide what to do about grades, taking into account departmental policies.

Most of the advice in other answers would be good advice for the grading decision maker.

If you want to "make it up" to the students, that's simple: Repeat the quiz with the exact same questions.

The reason: A good student would go through the questions after the quiz was taken in order to know all the answers, since all the quiz questions are questions that they should new. A less good student won't bother. So all your dedicated students who spent extra time on learning without expecting any advantage in grading will receive a nice bonus.

  • I disagree with this advice. Learning old exams by heart should not be the basis of getting a good grade. I think that the only options here are to either remove the exam in question from the total grade of the course (if it was an optional exam) or to have the students retake the exam with new questions. The latter won't be popular, of course. – Phil Oct 23 at 14:07

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