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A student has failed a course I just taught. Grades were announced yesterday. This student sent me a very long heartbreaking email about how this means she will be kicked out of her program, how she tried very hard, and how she wants me to reconsider her final grade.

I'm relatively new at being a university instructor; this isn't the first course I've taught at a university, nor is it the first time I've had a student fail a course. But this is the first time I've had a student beg and plead with me, and I'm not sure how to respond.

I genuinely feel bad for her, as she tried hard and came frequently to my office hours, but I ultimately believe that she did not demonstrate on the final exam that she had a good enough handle on the course material to pass.

What should I say to politely tell her that she will still fail, without sounding insensitive?

Edit: Some more relevant information, since some have asked. The course in question is a calculus course for an Engineering program. The student has previously failed and retaken courses, but she is not permitted to have any more failing grades if she wants to remain in the Engineering program. Failing this course is essentially her last `strike'. She will still be allowed to study at the university, but in a different program.

Edit 2: Thanks for all the responses. I wasn't looking for moral justification for failing her or looking for alternative solutions to the situation. I was simply looking for advice on how to respond in a professional manner. And I certainly got that advice from some of the responses.

In the end, I essentially responded with a concise email stating essentially that, while I sympathize with her situation, there was nothing I could do in good conscience to modify her grade at this time, and that I did not believe she demonstrated sufficient mastery of the material to warrant a grade of 50% on the exam. Then I closed with "I wish you the best of luck in your future studies. Sincerely, [me]"

It still doesn't make me feel any better about failing her. :(

(I also will add that this my first time teaching this particular course, and I have certainly learned my own lessons for next time. In particular regarding common misconceptions in the material and what to focus on in the lectures. This will hopefully mitigate the chance of a future student failing in a similar way.)

Edit 3: A few comments have suggested that I might reconsider the student's exam grade. To be clear, this student had about a 50% average in the course going into the final and would have therefore needed at least a 50% on the final exam to pass the course. However, the student only received about 35% on the final (while the average for the class on the final was 73%). I could not, in good conscience, bump the score so significantly to warrant giving out a passing grade in this case.

It was clear to me that the student had failed. I was only asking for advice on how to respond to her request that I pass her!

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    Is there a referral, retake or repeat possible? This is standard procedure in many institutions. Is there a slightly different programme available that she could switch to? – Captain Emacs Aug 21 at 16:51
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    Is this a course directly related to what she is doing? Does she want to be a doctor and failed anatomy? Or is she a computer sci major that failed an English comp course? I might show consideration to the 2nd scenario, as she did work hard and really tried. Hard work and dedication are good characteristics this world also needs. – Issel Aug 22 at 2:59
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    What she probably wants is to successfully finish her education, but what she asked for is to have her grade changed. Though you may not be able to help her with what she asked, you can help her with what she probably wants. – sudo rm -rf slash Aug 22 at 8:26
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    If you want some reassurance for this, consider the effects of letting someone who isn't cut out for calculus through an engineering course. It's not too hyperbolic to say that something like that could cost people's lives – llama Aug 22 at 17:05
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    She failed multiple courses before, this isn't an outlier. She probably shouldn't be an engineer, so don't feel bad about failing her. Engineering isn't for everyone and while she really tried, it clearly demonstrates that she lacks the appropriate mindset and skills. – Catsunami Aug 22 at 17:34

11 Answers 11

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I think that you explained the situation very clearly and sensitively in your third paragraph, and that you should send a message to the student along the same lines. All you'd really have to say is that while you of course sympathize with the student, her performance on the final exam makes clear that she did not gain sufficient mastery of the course material to pass the class.

I'll add that I think your message to the student should be clear and concise. The longer your response to the student the more likely it is that you'll wind up in a long, drawn out exchange that stresses both of you out while benefiting no one.

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    +1 for "clear and concise." Remember, you are under no obligation to participate in a lengthy exchange of messages. After you've explained the student's position, you may, sadly, have to say, "I've already explained your position; it will not help for me to do so again." – Bob Brown Aug 21 at 19:24
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    One thing I should add is that he could perhaps explore wether she failed for the right reasons. She may have done poorly on the exam because she was having panic attacks all night due to anxiety or because she has ADHD and perhaps needs accommodations. It is not his job to explore this, but many students are not aware about accessibility issues. – Behacad Aug 22 at 1:42
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    You could advise the student to speak to whatever equivalent of a student support center you might have for advice. You might also want to speak to them yourselves as senior staff may be able to give you advice on how to respond to students in that situation. – David Aug 22 at 3:35
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    "Clear and concise" are indeed concepts to live by when dealing with failing students. You can show empathy, but the more you start arguing your case, the more you instil false hope in the student and the more lengthy the process becomes. Always remember that you and the student don't have to agree on your grading or how you weight certain aspects of the exam or course. – xLeitix Aug 22 at 8:39
  • "All you'd really have to say..." It seems to me everyone is making a big assumption that there's any obligation to respond at all. I wouldn't suggest just not responding, but framing it as an entirely voluntary act might at least help set an accurate context: This person is begging, through unofficial channels, to be essentially allowed into a profession she has repeatedly proven she's fundamentally unqualified for. "Unfortunately, in this situation, that will not be possible" would be generous. – kungphu Aug 24 at 4:44
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Forget the "tea and sympathy chat," which doesn't do anything to change the situation. What she needs now is some straighforward practical advice about what to do next.

Set out the options she has to move forward from where she now is, and then stop writing. That might be a retake, or a change of course, or even facing up to the fact that not everybody is capable of getting a degree-level qualification - there is no sense creating false hopes by advising her to continue to attempting the impossible, if that really is the case.

If she is insistent about re-grading, you could point out that if you change the criteria for everyone on the course, the end result might not make much difference.

It seems like she had sensible study habits, put in a sensible amount of effort, but still lagged a long way behind the average. You can't (and shouldn't) fix that by tinkering with the assessment criteria. It can be a hard lesson that in real life, you don't get prizes for attempting something and failing, but everybody has to learn it eventually, one way or another.

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    Could you elaborate why one should forget the "tea and sympathy chat" and what exactly this is? – user111955 Aug 22 at 2:58
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    @user111955 I would say the tea and sympathy chat is “I’m sorry, my hands are tied. Have a tissue, and do you want a biscuit with your tea?” while alephzero’s answer suggests looking at the student’s options with the student. (I’m concluding this from the first paragraph: “what she needs now...”.) – 11684 Aug 22 at 6:50
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    @11684: In this case, I disagree wjth the answer. Of course, one should not write an essay about sympathy, but one or two honest sentences that show empathy with the student should be written. – user111955 Aug 22 at 7:50
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    Biscuits and tea aside, I upvoted this answer because it focuses on the actual, practical problem. The student wants to achieve something, and they're asking for a better grade because they see that as the way to get what they want. There may be other good next steps besides amending the grade. Ensuring the student knows about those options can give them something to actually go do to get what they want. – dwizum Aug 22 at 13:51
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    I don't think the professor, particularly at this time, should be the one to offer practical advice (or, worse, explaining how "not everybody is capable of getting a degree-level qualification "). Referring the student to academic advising would be more appropriate. That's their job and they may have school-wide policies on how to handle just these situations. – Chelonian Aug 22 at 14:55
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Actually you can state it pretty much as you have here. You are sorry but her failure here doesn't indicate success in the future in this program.

Alternatively you could re-analyze your own grading procedures, possibly just for the future. Perhaps you are putting too much emphasis on the final exam and making it harder/impossible for students to recover from some common errors.

But that would be for future cases.

In this specific case you could, fairly, see if she can demonstrate the knowledge that you feel the exam indicates is lacking. There are a lot of ways to do that. If she has the knowledge but your exam indicates a false negative you can correct it with a bit of work.

And note that this is not being unfair to the other students. But her begging alone is not sufficient reason to change the grade.

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    This didn't necessarily have anything to do with the weighting of the final, as the student had about a 50% average on the previous material going into the final. She would have needed at least a 50% on the final to pass the course, but did not. (I might also mention that the class average (both median and mean) for the final was about 73%, while she scored about 35% on the final). – luftbahnfahrer Aug 21 at 16:24
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    Everything you say in your question and the comment above implies that the student just wasn't good enough to pass the class. All of your statements are things you can mention in your reply to the student: Make clear that you sympathize with her position, and at a personal level feel quite sorry about it, but that ultimately you need to be professional about your grading and about upholding the standards of the school -- and that consequently, however much you sympathize, there is nothing you can do. – Wolfgang Bangerth Aug 21 at 17:31
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    You wrote "In this specific case you could, fairly, see if she can demonstrate the knowledge that you feel the exam indicates is lacking.". Yes, but if you go this route you must make such an option known and available to all the students, not just that one student, otherwise it would still be unfair to the other students. And you must hence be willing to put in the significant extra work to fairly handle all students who exercise this option (essentially asking for a re-evaluation of the final grade). – user21820 Aug 22 at 8:07
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    Can you clarify what you mean by “If she has the knowledge but your exam indicates a false negative you can correct it with a bit of work. And note that this is not being unfair to the other students”? How is it not unfair to the other students to set up a special process that allows a single student to have her grade reconsidered? And if the process applies to all students, will it really only take “a bit of work”? What kind of retroactive correction process did you have in mind really? I have a feeling that if it were that easy, all universities would have it as a standard process already. – Dan Romik Aug 22 at 18:49
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    Well, every student is an individual and deserves to have their individual situations considered to the same extent (even if not uniformly) - see the comment by @user21820. So if you offer a process to correct a false negative for one student, fairness requires that you offer the same process to other students, even if the process itself involves some subjective judgements. So your approach is interesting (and honorable and well-intentioned), and I partially agree with it, but I feel like you haven’t addressed the fairness issue raised by my earlier comment and that of user21820. – Dan Romik Aug 22 at 19:20
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I‘ve had to write similar emails in the past. Here is a possible way I might approach writing an email in the situation you described:

Dear [name of student],

I sympathize with your situation, but please understand that I gave you the grade you earned in the class, nothing more or less - ultimately you did not demonstrate the level of mastery of the material that merits a passing grade. You should also know that I am not allowed to change your grade because of irrelevant factors related to your standing in your program or similar things. Even if it were allowed, I could not make such a decision in good conscience, as it would be a betrayal of the trust my university puts in me to impartially evaluate students’ performance in the class, and would be extremely unfair to other students who also worked hard and may each feel just as deserving as you to have their own special circumstances taken into account in assigning their grades.

I wish you the best of luck in your future studies.

Sincerely,

[your name]

As for “sounding insensitive”, keep in mind that there’s no language you could use that would make the student happy with your decision. It’s also possible that anything you can say will sound insensitive and cruel to her - that’s just human nature. Even telling her that you know she worked hard could have a similar effect and cause the student to just continue arguing and pleading with you. So I agree with the other answers saying the email should be concise: keep it short and professional, don’t try to offer personal or psychological advice, and offer your sympathy but in a way that doesn’t imply even a remote chance that you can be persuaded to change your mind.

Edit: thanks to everyone for their feedback. The comments, and seeing which ones got upvoted, are very helpful, and suggest my email may benefit from a bit of tweaking.

As a final thought, one takeaway I have from this whole discussion is that being told you failed a class for unsatisfactory performance and that the decision is final must surely be a very painful thing to hear (particularly in high-stakes circumstances such as those OP’s student is in), no matter how the message is delivered. One can try to be empathetic and sugarcoat or soften the truth, but the truth will still hurt.

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    While I never failed an exam, hypothetically receiving your email somehow feels like rubbing salt into the wound/adding insult to injury. – lalala Aug 22 at 15:56
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    @lalala yes, I can see that and I think that’s both an expected effect and a necessary one. The email states a truth that is unpleasant to hear but needs to be stated, namely that the student failed because she did not achieve the minimal necessary level of mastery of the material required for a passing grade. Skirting around the issue may temporarily spare her feelings but will not help her face her situation with clarity so she can move on from it, nor help to bring the email conversation to a close. – Dan Romik Aug 22 at 16:01
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    I am not suggesting to skirt around the truth, but suggesting the student is asking you to 'betray' the department, and to be 'unfair to the other students' feels unnecessary to me. Your email implies that it was despicable for the student to even ask. – lalala Aug 22 at 16:08
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    I appreciate that in these answers, we are recognizing an important point: that giving grades for effort (as some places do) instead of for meeting the requirements of a profession, is unfair not only to the profession but to the student who will be fired for incompetence not long after graduation. – WGroleau Aug 22 at 19:09
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    The phrase "irrelevant factors" seems harsh and unnecessarily insensitive here. These factors are relevant to her. You could just write "... change your grade because of your standing in your program ...". – Dawood says reinstate Monica Aug 22 at 19:58
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The answers by @BenLinowitz and others are excellent. Again, having had a one-on-one discussion, any email answers now need to be short and somewhat curt.

To expand on that: Anything you say can and will be used against you. In these cases, I'm actually a bit more verbose than my department office recommends (they suggest "All grades are final", end-of-message). But I do keep in mind that whatever I write is prone to be taken to an advisor or a dean and used as fodder to get them to overturn the grade somehow.

So I actually write those types of emails considering a possibly hostile administrator as part of the intended audience. To be maximally clear and transparent, I usually document the quantified ways in which the student was failing in the email (exact test scores, final exam, weighted total, etc.). For example, the fact you said this student was earning a 50% average pre-final, and then 35% on the final exam, should obviously end almost any question about whether the student should be retained in the program or not, and so I would include it in writing. This may be a bit sharp for the student -- but at this point your goal needs to be terminating the conversation.

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    (+1) There are enough risks to job satisfaction, and indeed in the worst case job security, that my general philosophy was cover your backside with cast-iron. But some issues are more likely to trigger student complaints, senior management intervention and even legal disputes. Assessment is a high risk area as it's high-stakes and high-stress for students, and it jars with the "consumer" or "customer" model of education - they may feel they've paid good money for this qualification yet you might not give them the piece of paper they wanted. On assessment issues, double-plate the cast-iron. – Silverfish Aug 22 at 21:38
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    Fail grades form an even higher risk subgroup. They've run out of road with conventional responses. If still unhappy with their fail - they will be! - only more extreme "solutions" remain available, with nothing to lose by trying them. Begging their assessor to bend the rules is one of them. As that didn't work, their next step is to appeal above your head: their circumstances were exceptional, your assessment unfair, your grading biased, your teaching incompetent, whatever line seems their best shot at a second chance. Triple-plate yourself with failed students or those who seem likely to! – Silverfish Aug 22 at 21:39
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A couple arguments in opposition to reconsidering the grade:


  • Allowing students to pass who did not demonstrate the knowledge required is not only not ethical (or at least begs for accusations of favoritism - or worse accusations, in a disconcertingly large number of instances I've heard about), it could be argued that it is a reflection of your own failure as a professor to let students pass without preparing them well enough to pass legitimately. Let me explain what I mean by that:

I'm not saying that failing a student means that you're a failure. However, as a professor, it's part of the job that students who do not perform to the passing standard cannot be given a pass in the class. As professor of the class, you are a gatekeeper. It is an inherent quality of your job to turn away those who cannot satisfy the requirements to pass, no matter what. (In college/university, this is true. In lower education, say, high school or more likely younger, perhaps leniency might be better, but collegiate instruction does not lend itself to this type of rule-bending.)

  • On principle, I would think that the answer should absolutely be a polite refusal to reconsider. Plus, if you allow it once, will you be able to refuse other requests from other students? Reconsidering the grade would, in my opinion, set a very dangerous precedent.

I hope that this post doesn't come across as accusatory or rude. I simply mean to provide an argument that you could use, if nothing else to appease your conscience.

Also, and this is just what I would do, I would not talk to that student about the refusal unless I was approached. It sounds cowardly, and it sure feels cowardly, but I'd rather not provoke any extreme emotional reactions if I can help it. Maybe I'm just too introverted, but that's how I'd do it.

Of course, I'd continue to make myself as available to talk about it as I was before, but imagine: if you were the letter-writing student, and had just been given the heartbreaking news by your professor, and out of the blue, that professor brings up the news, forcing you to talk about it and "relive" the experience and pain. As that student, and especially because I might be on a narrow emotional precipice, I could expect myself to cry, at the very least. As the professor, I would not be surprised if the student maybe brings the issue up, then is refused, then never mentions it again. But of course, I would prepare myself for that conversation, because some students do prefer to discuss this kind of thing instead of avoid it.

I guess what I'm saying is to be ready for the conversation, but I wouldn't initiate it.


Long story short, don't "reconsider" the grade. (Of course, you can check to make sure you didn't make a mistake somewhere, but don't change the grade just because of the letter.) It's not only a dangerous pattern to fall into, it's just something that has to be refused as a professor. Not everyone will pass the class, and some who fail may really have "worked hard enough to deserve it". But tough decisions must be made, and there is no justifying awarding grades on subjective matters like effort at any university.

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    Agree, but for a minor quibble: if a program is intended to prepare you for a particular profession, there is no such thing as “worked hard enough to deserve it.” There is only “achieved the minimum standards to succeed in that profession.” – WGroleau Aug 22 at 19:13
  • @WGroleau Bingo. Air quotes added in. – user45266 Aug 22 at 22:59
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    There is too much unneccesary detail. OP does not want to reconsider the grade. – user111955 Aug 23 at 16:07
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Do not forget that you only happened to be the last one in a chain of instructors by accident. If she had taken her courses in a different order, you wouldn't have thought twice about failing her, and instead some other instructor would now stand before the same dilemma.

She is not being kicked out of the program for failing your course, she is being kicked out of the program for failing too many courses.

Would you have failed her with the same performance if she had taken the course last year?

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At my own undergraduate university, it is considered academic dishonesty to tell a professor that the grade they assign might hurt the student [eg "if I fail this class, I will get kicked out of the program / lose my scholarship / etc"]:

ASU Student Policy Part C: Student Responsibility (section 2.k.):

Attempting to influence or change any Academic Evaluation, or academic record for reasons having no relevance to academic achievement.

The act of the student telling the professor what your student has said is sufficient for the student to receive a grade of XE, "Failure due to academic dishonesty."

If your institution has a similar policy, you might choose to inform her of it and that she will receive the grade she has earned and that she shouldn't try this approach again or she might suffer worse consequences.

It's never easy to tell a student they have failed, especially when they are begging, but you will be doing her a big favor by telling her you haven't turned her in for cheating, on top of it.

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    That is a really silly policy. – user111955 Aug 23 at 22:20
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    I disagree, I think it is a perfectly reasonable policy. Trying to get an unearned passing grade by making your professor feel guilty is cheating and manipulative. In my eyes it falls in line with trying to bribe, seduce, or threaten a professor - all actions meant to get a grade the student didn't earn. – Tim Aug 24 at 1:14
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    +1 Fascinating! – Daniel R. Collins Aug 24 at 2:51
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    I also think this is absurd. In the UK, most lecturers are teachers, examiners and pastoral support. If a student confides in me that they are struggling and concerned for their future, they should be able to do so without worrying that I might think they're e.g. trying to sway my hand in upcoming assessments, and might fail them for it. Academics should be protected against bribes and blackmail, but not vague feelings of guilt. If we can't handle feeling bad, we shouldn't have such considerable power over people's futures. – Billy Aug 24 at 11:07
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    @Billy the fact that it is unusual doesn't make it absurd. It is logically consistent to protect the school's reputation in this way. The blinder the "review" the better. – A Simple Algorithm Aug 24 at 17:44
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Most universities have a standard process which allows retaking exams a bit later (maybe at the end of the summer) or repeating the year. The main reason for those is to cover students who have issues in their lives which have interfered with that year's study or with the exams. Perhaps they've been ill. Perhaps there's been a bereavement. Perhaps a significant relationship has broken down badly.

Or perhaps they've just had an unrepresentatively bad day on the exam day.

So you should be referring her to the university's own procedures for this. Point her to the right person, and point her to the relevant documents online. And then it's up to her.

It's also important to point out that you're just covering one module of her course. Unless your module is a prerequisite for continuing, her final grade will be an average over all modules, so it isn't something which is as clearly on your shoulders. You might want to tell her that too.

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    As far as I know, most universities do not have such a process, unless the student produces valid medical certification of illness or reduced capacity to take the examination on that specific day, or provides documentation to support exemption on compassionate grounds. Just having a 'bad day' on the exam day with no evidence would not in most universities entitle a student to retake an exam and erase the original grade. However, it is true that most universities will allow students to retake courses they have failed, though the original grades remain in the transcript. – user21820 Aug 22 at 8:12
  • Also note that from the vague description in the question, it is likely that the student is in some 'special' program that requires maintaining the semester grade point average above some cutoff, and has to drop out of the program if she does not make that cutoff. This could be the reason for the 'begging'. In that case however, it is also likely that the student has tried to bite more than she can chew. A significant fraction of students in more demanding programs actually cannot cope comfortably with the level or workload, so dropping out may actually result in an eventually happier student. – user21820 Aug 22 at 8:16
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    "Most universities have a standard process which allows retaking exams a bit later" this may have already been her last attempt. Judging by luftbahnfahrer's name, this may be in Germany. In most German universities you can retake exams twice. If you fail three times and it's a required class (or sometimes even if it's not required) you're kicked out unless you can argue special circumstances. – Maeher Aug 22 at 8:47
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    @user21820 I would agree with that. The UK system is that unis get paid according to the number of students who start the course, not the number who complete it. So they are strongly incentivised to take many students who are simply unable to handle the academic standard required. I think that's profoundly unethical, but sadly it's the reality over here. – Graham Aug 22 at 10:37
  • @Graham: That's very sad. Incidentally, I have even heard (second-hand information) of one case in my university of a student who cannot cope with a special program but does not want to drop out because he does not want to 'lose face' to his peers. It is rare, but such things happen. Personally, I think that the best system should allow a student to choose a certain small number of courses to erase from the transcript (but the courses that remain must fulfill the course requirements). This would almost completely eliminate the pressure on students to do well in every course. – user21820 Aug 22 at 13:19
1

Every professor I had followed the "if I make an exception for you, then everyone will expect preferential treatment as well" policy. So, they didn't provide preferential treatment.

The syllabus should state what kind of preferential treatment is allowed, eg: a student that plays on a team may be allowed to take make-up exams, a student that misses a critical exam due to illness or such may be allowed to make it up in a fashion professor deems fit.

If this student failed.. they failed.

If they were under some kind of hardship during the semester, then they should have addressed it with you.. found some way to get extra credit or what-not.

I had a lot of major stuff going down in my grad semesters, from a parent ending up in the hospital to me ending up in the hospital needing surgery. I didn't dump my problems on the professor and go "woe is me, please curve my grade b/c I'm special!" The parent in the hospital issue made me have to organize and plan things in order to care for them. Me being in the hospital caused me to drop all my classes for the semester (the recovery time was putting me behind, and that just added stress to recovery).

Part of being in college is learning how to proactively deal with issues instead of just showing up to the professor at the end of the semester going "pity me and let me pass."

If she was having problems in the class, she could have dropped it and retaken it. There's just things she could have done proactively instead of dumping her situation in your lap at the last minute.

As a professor, you have an obligation to the other students to ensure people that don't make the grade don't pass. If you magically just pass this person, then you're devaluing everyone else's work and potentially their degrees. You're letting someone that didn't make the cut move on, when everyone else had to work hard for it and make the grade.

In the grad program I was in, some folks got a strange idea that professors would auto-pass everyone with at least a "C" even if they didn't do any work. So, it came as a shock to some students when they didn't pass.. and had to go back home since they were here on student visas.

Another aspect is she could be the type of person that's used to manipulating people. She may have done this to other professors. This may be her modus operandi in college. Don't do the work, don't make the grade, but then email prof's and ask for a pity party to get a passing grade.

Bottomline, if she didn't make the grade, she didn't make the grade. Tell her to go take it up with her advisor or academic counsellor so they can tell her what her options are.

You are a noise gate. Your job is to filter out the wheat from the chafe. You did your job. She needs to move on and figure out what she can do, and the university has resources for her to do that. But, she's trying to get something out of you that she didn't earn..and thus trying to manipulate her way past the filtering process.

If you pity her and give her a pass, word will get around and you'll have more students expecting the same going forward.

So, make a stand now.

1

I did this once. She student ultimately got kicked out and went back to China. I just sent her a two sentence email to her response asking for mercy. This was in April. But for the entire summer she sent me emails asking to change her grade. She might have sent me 15 emails for that summer.

I think you need to change your psychology: I don't feel bad for her. It's 100% her fault for not studying enough. Why should I help her? And if she is mentally not capable of handling the work, do I want her in the real-world screwing up again? No. I feel I did the right thing. She needs to take studying seriously or change programs -- simple as that.

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