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The dean of our school/program teaches a class and has put in the syllabus that if a student gets below a 75% in her class it is an F and the student will be eliminated from the program. She doesn't round up either so a 74.99% is a 74%, and a D is not a grade she offers; it's an A, B, C or F.

I don't think this is legal and was wondering if anyone else has had this issues or any advice on how to fight her on this.

closed as off-topic by David Ketcheson, Fábio Dias, Buzz, scaaahu, Bryan Krause Dec 11 '18 at 4:34

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    We cannot answer this question. The only way to know would be to look at your university rules. Is there an ombusman? – Emilie Dec 10 '18 at 16:47
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    "get below 75%" - what is 100%? I assume it's points, not students. If it is points, then it's up to the teacher to define thresholds. – OBu Dec 10 '18 at 16:53
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    "75%" on its own doesn't mean much. A 75% on this instructor's assessments may indicate a similar level of mastery as a 50% on a different set of assessments - it all depends on how students' work is evaluated. – ff524 Dec 10 '18 at 17:01
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    So your argument is simply that the number 75% feels like a lot for a pass threshold? It doesn't really work like that; it depends on the content of the exercises. If you spell correctly 75% of the words, you shouldn't pass an English test. If 75% of your patients survive, you won't be a good medical doctor. – Federico Poloni Dec 10 '18 at 17:02
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    Consider this honest and forthright communication by the Dean. If one can't master at least 75% of a critical course's content, then a student doesn't really have the skills to succeed at the next step. A lot of students score D's in my courses and think that's fine, even if I verbally warn them that's a sign they're not positioned to pass the next course. – Daniel R. Collins Dec 10 '18 at 22:58
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I don't think this is legal

While laws vary from country to country and even within countries, I highly doubt any country has a law that makes this illegal. As for how much leeway professors have for setting the grading criteria, this depends on factors from the department level all the way up to the university, and possibly accrediting agency, level.

was wondering if anyone else has had this issues

I am not sure I have ever seen this exact grading scheme, but professors do all sorts of stuff. The department I did my undergraduate studies in had limited lab space and therefore made sure the prerequisite classes had the appropriate failure rate.

any advice on how to fight her on this.

I am not sure what there is to fight. If too many students fail (or not enough get As), you might be able to file a complaint. The university will hopefully have a formal procedure in place. Filing a complaint as an individual student will likely have no affect. You will need to demonstrate that the system is unfair.

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I don't think this is legal...

There seems to be a general misapprehension among students that there are strict legal or procedural rules on academics in regard to how they assess their courses. Such beliefs are generally not rooted in any actual training or study of the law, and are far from the legal realities of higher education. In reality, academics have wide discretion to form the assessment structure and pass-requirements for their courses, within allowable university policies. The only constraint that is commonly operative on a university lecturer is if the university has chosen to adopt an assessment policy that constrains its own academics. Such policies are sometimes formulated in order to give consistent assessment structures across the university, or to satisfy the accreditation requirements of an outside body (e.g., for medical students or engineering students). The university might decide to impose a fixed numerical pass-level at a centralised policy level, but there is no legal requirement for this.

I have practiced as a solicitor in Australia, and I am unaware of any legal rules in any country that would prevent a university lecturer from choosing the assessments and pass-level for a course they are teaching. The only exception to this would be general laws of contract, if there is some university policy or other representation to the student that disallows a higher pass-level for a course. Some universities do indeed set policies for their courses that specify constraints on the assessment structure, and in some cases this may preclude a higher pass-level. It is possible that unreasonable failure rate (too high or too low) might threaten accreditation requirements of outside bodies in the long-term, but that does not make it illegal for university lecturers to set course requirements within the scope of university policy.

...any advice on how to fight her on this.

Unless there is some university policy that prevents her from setting the pass-requirement at 75%, or has some other expectation with respect to the overall pass rate, you will not have much of a basis on which to raise an objection. But for the sake of argument, let's suppose you fight her on this and you win. One problem I foresee with this is that the grade-point is an arbitrary scale to begin with, and so your lecturer could simply adjust the difficulty level of her assessments to correspond to any particular pass-requirement that is imposed on her course. Even if you get your way, and your lecturer is required to drop the pass-requirement to the standard level at 50%, all she has to do to render this change redundant is to now make the assessment items correspondingly more difficult, so that achieving 50% on the new items requires the same level of understanding as achieving 75% on the old items.

Setting this aside, it is generally the case that university lecturers are required to explain any significant aberrations in the outcomes of their courses compared to other courses at the same level. Universities usually have processes in place to review grade-levels in their courses, and they usually flag any courses that have either an excessive failure rate, or an excessive rate of high-grades. In such processes it is usual for lecturers and their heads of department to give explanations to the central administration in cases where the grades in their courses are a significant aberration from the norm. If there is consistent aberration over multiple semesters, with no good reason for this (e.g., if the lecturer is just being much too harsh), then this can sometimes lead to intervention by a head of department. This would tend to operate in the event of persistent aberrations in course grades from university norms, rather than from an individual student complaint (though student complaints might augment it).

Rather than putting your energy into an administrative battle with a person who is given wide discretion to assess her own class, I would recommend that you put that effort into mastery of the course content, and try your best to get up to the pass requirement. If this causes you to knuckle down and learn the material to a high standard then you might find that you look back on this as a valuable challenge.

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    Any requirements would likely come from the accreditation process. Fields that require licensure (engineering, medicine, law) have concrete curriculum and assessment requirements. An example would be this medical school's 28 page long policy. Ultimately, I know cases where too many people failed the bar exam, the law school's accreditation was put on probation, leading to a drop in admission and eventual closure. – user71659 Dec 11 '18 at 4:29
  • @user71659: Good point - I have updated my answer (para 1) to note that university assessment policies are sometimes constructed with a view to meeting outside accreditation requirements. – Ben Dec 11 '18 at 4:39
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The dean of our school/program teaches a class that...

Sorry, but I think your time/energy is better spend getting a tutor and working harder, than spending it trying to figure out how to get a D in the class that the dean says s/he won't give.

The only work you should do before getting your final grade is to maybe collect contact information of the other students. At that point, explore your options - until then, study.

There was a prof at my school that always said at the beginning of the semester that he had never had a class that got all A's and wanted that to happen before he retired. The last class he taught he gave everyone an A - regardless of their deserved grade. Professors can do, and do do, a lot of crazy stuff. Deans are maybe worse.

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The professor might be doing the students a favor.

When I was going to school, a D was worse than an F. If you got an F, you could retake the class and have the grade replaced.

If you got a D, it's still not considered a passing grade, and you would still have to retake the class. Then you would get the average of the previous and new grade AND the transcript would show you getting a D in the class.

It seems a bit harsh that failing would result in dropping out of the program though. Are you sure that's what the consequence of failing is? No chance to retry?

  • +1 This is the same at my institution. – Daniel R. Collins Dec 10 '18 at 22:56
  • What is the point behind these rules? Is there any advantage of a D over an F? – Haque Dec 17 '18 at 23:34
  • The point is to let students pass without screwing themselves, while making the school some money at the same time. If it's a core class, then you can survive a failing grade, and simply take the class again (pay for the class again). If it's not a core class that's not required for you to move forward, then you can take the D and get the credit for the class. For example, I can get a D in Physical Education 101 and still feel fine about it. – stacks Dec 17 '18 at 23:45
  • I do want to point out that in my school, a D in a CORE CLASS does not count as passing. A D in a non-core class is still counted as a pass. And even then, there is a Pass/Fail mechanic you can use in non-core classes, which either just gives you a pass or fail grade. The credits weigh equally with the average of your gpa. – stacks Dec 17 '18 at 23:53
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Your options depend on the university you attend. My recommendation is to talk to your academic advisor and see what they say. They might tell you that it's fair and to do your best or they might raise their eyebrows and help you go over her head. If your school has an ombudsperson, that is another great resource. Their job is to resolve conflict and they are typically very familiar with college policies.

Best of luck!

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Seems to me that the issue with the 75% threshold is not that it is too high, but that is implies the assessment is easy. What that means seems the interesting question.

[ When I was student, 70% was graded a "First".]

There are definitely a number of ways of thinking about the purpose of assessments.

For example, having a "hard assessment" is good way of identifying and separating the top students. Setting it with a low pass mark still gives all students a chance of credit, with the effect of them seeing their low performance relative to the top students.

Having an "easy assessment" with a high pass mark makes it hard to tell apart the good students. It might be good at determining those that have understood the course basics. Where this course is a prerequisite for more advanced courses, that might be much more useful.

So, maybe just ask the Dean what the reasoning is, what objectives of the course are, what is the consequence of a pass/ fail for entering subsequent courses etc.

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