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I have a student who wrote a final paper for a class in a masters program. He was disappointed with his grade. His paper had extensive copying, so I had a zoom call with him explaining why that was a problem, and then both my teaching assistant and I gave extensive written feedback on his paper, final grade of 69. He has written several times about it, claming that we took points off unfairly. I re-explained why points were taken off, and where, He writes back "but I thought the grading rubric meant..." or "I explained this, here is what I meant", etc. After five go arounds, I said I had nothing further to say, so I would no longer reply, and he would need to raise this with the department if he would like further review. Today, he sent me an extensive email again re-hashing points that I have clarified and explained again. I should add that he has a history of grade grubbing. Since I told him in 2 emails that the mattter was closed, and I would no longer reply, do I need to reply? Thank you.

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    Copying is plagiarism and an academic offence. Can you offer it to be evaluated by the misconduct board? – Captain Emacs Jan 24 at 18:21
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    It could be. It was weird copying though, and badly done. Evaluating by the misconduct board would be a large process and I'm not sure it would be satisfactory. Our policy states that we can do that, or we can provide a failing grade. Given the kind of copying (he copied the structure, but not ideas of other sources, replacing with words to fit his paper, which ultimately did not work), I opted for the latter. I wish I had the nerve this student has to continue to persist in this manner. – beto Jan 24 at 18:40
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    Fool me twice; you ain't going to fool me again. - what happens if you do reply for the third time? You lose integrity yet again for the 2nd time. – Mazura Jan 25 at 2:49
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    In some universities, the penalty for copying/plagiarism is an automatic zero on the paper. In other universities, it's expulsion. He should be happy with his 69. – shoover Jan 25 at 5:22
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    @shoover I agree if it's really plagiarism (here it would be expulsion I think and I think that's fair), but OP clarified in a comment it was "strange copying" and "structure not ideas". If the structure itself is not a significant idea, then I think it's okay or even a good idea to try and mimic the structure of a good paper. Not everything that is heavily inspired by something else is automatically plagiarism. – Nobody Jan 25 at 18:13

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No, you don't need to reply, but you should make sure that you retain all evidence for your decisions in the event the student complains to some higher authority. Retain the email thread as well.

You've already said it was closed. Stick with that unless your chair or other such people force it to be reexamined.

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No, you don't need to reply. You might find out the name of the person above you to whom he would logically escalate this and send them a heads up.

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    Thank you. I'm new, and part time, so don't know much and am a little hesitant to call negative attention to myself, although recognize it would be worse if my student did first. Would it suffice to say "Dear ____, I wanted to make you aware that I had a student (named X) who is not satisfied with his grade, after several attempts by me and my teaching assistant to explain where his performance fell short. I informed him I could no longer help him, so he may reach out to you,or not. In the event he does, please do not hesitate to contact me and I will support the inquiry in any way I can." – beto Jan 24 at 19:54
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    That sounds completely appropriate to me. – David E Speyer Jan 24 at 21:01
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    The downside to advance-informing the chair is that it might simply be a waste of time. Consider: If every faculty member followed that practice, the chair would be getting hundreds (?) of emails like this every week. Personally I would choose to skip that -- although the downside is probably minimal for a new teacher like the OP, so if that makes them comfortable, then I guess ok. – Daniel R. Collins Jan 25 at 6:10
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    While informing the next step in the ladder of every minor problem would be a waste of time, I think that this is precisely the kind of thing that they should be forewarned of. This student clearly has the bit between their teeth and it's a reasonable guess that they might escalate. I think this issue crosses the threshold of sensible escalation on the teacher's side. – Dancrumb Jan 25 at 16:12
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    @DanielR.Collins having read your response, maybe I can identify the middle ground here. I think you're absolutely right that escalating this with the intent of putting it into the hands of one's superiors would be unhelpful. I think that giving them a brief heads-up that it might land on their plate from the student, a very brief summary of the issue and a clear notice that you require no action from them at this time is good communication. – Dancrumb Jan 25 at 16:14
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No, you do not have to reply.

You do not have to confirm receipt of further emails in any way. In fact, my department staff usually recommends in cases like these that the faculty member just stop interacting in any way. Total radio silence is acceptable and recommended.

You also do not have to provide information or assistance in how the student could contact your superior or engage grievance procedures.

You do not have to touch base with your chair or superior at this time. In my experience, the chair appreciates faculty who can "handle" this without escalating and making more work for the chair. There are a legion of students who want to complain about grades, and the chair doesn't have time to handle them all.

As others have said, keep your documentation and be ready to provide it to the chair if the student does engage them (without your assistance, again) and the chair then asks about it.

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    Radio silence it will be. Thank you for letting me know that that kind of response to that kind of behavior from a student is seen as appropriate. And I am keeping everything in case things go further, which hopefully they won't. – beto Jan 25 at 16:12
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While you’ve received good advice about how to proceed in the current situation (Daniel Collins’s answer is the best one IMO, and I say this as a former department chair who would indeed find the “heads up” email pointless and unnecessary), to avoid similar situations in the future, don’t repeat this:

After five go arounds, I said I had nothing further to say, so I would no longer reply

(emphasis added). You should have cut off the exchange after one or two go arounds. Grade grubbers perceive a willingness for an instructor to enter a prolonged debate with them as a sign of weakness and that the instructor may eventually cave to their demands if they keep arguing long enough. In the future, my suggestion is, do not even enter such a debate - state the reasoning for your grading decision if one is called for and refuse to get drawn in to any further discussion on the topic.

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    Yes, that was a mistake. I'm new to these types of exchanges with students, and I very much appreciate your seasoned perspective. It really does seem like this student just wants to keep me in a long and exhausting debate. – beto Jan 25 at 16:09
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    @beto To add to this, when a student complains about the grade, check with an open mind if you haven't made any mistake in the grading—they happen—but if there isn't any, truncate any discussion at the very first iteration. – Massimo Ortolano Jan 25 at 19:02
  • @beto Another thing you can do to prevent this happening in the future is to tell your students that you're always willing to discuss an assignment until the due date. Once the due date has passed, assignments will not be discussed any more (De facto excluding grade discussions). ;-) – Fabby Jan 26 at 0:37
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I'm not sure why you graded the paper at all if you found evidence of plagiarism, which I assume is what you meant by "extensive copying". At most schools, you're required to report this stuff.

Personally, what I would do is respond to the student by telling him that his emails have prompted you to take another look at his paper and that unfortunately, in this new examination, you discovered extensive plagiarism and have reported him to your honor council or academic conduct officer, as appropriate at your school.

Don't like the 69? NP. Here's a zero and a misconduct report. Have a nice day.

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    I agree with the first paragraph, and the second would be okay after a first or second exchange, but to do it now together your last paragraph makes it seem spiteful. – Kimball Jan 25 at 15:41
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    I'd have reported them immediately. But even done late, I prefer to regard it as both fitting and most likely to cause a lasting change in behavior. I look at it as a teaching moment, if you will: Don't plagiarize and don't be a jerk. – Nicole Hamilton Jan 26 at 16:13
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    Is that "zero plus misconduct report" covered by university rules? Because if not, the professor might get into legal trouble if the student likes to take things to court. – toolforger Jan 27 at 18:06
  • When you enter the zero depends on your school's policy. Here at Michigan, where I teach, students get an incomplete until the honor council rules. If found responsible, the usual penalty is a zero on the assignment + 1/3 letter grade deduction on their final grade. – Nicole Hamilton Jan 27 at 18:35
  • Here, we have a process by which the prof and student can either agree on a penalty, with the outcome reported to the Board, or the student can request a board hearing and determination. Any penalty due to honesty considerations requires formal reporting, though. – Scott Seidman Jan 27 at 22:34
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Since I told him in 2 emails that the mattter was closed, and I would no longer reply, do I need to reply?

You should have stopped after the first time. As long as you are not good to your word, there is a point in him continuing to pester you. Keep a copy of all of your correspondence, and in future if you say you are not going to reply any more, do not reply any more.

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No. Stop engaging the student unless absolutely required to (by the Dean or the chair), and stay away from arguments. When the student states “but I thought...” the answer is “I’m sorry but you thought wrong”. If the emails persists answer politely but firmly as you suggest: “Sir, all has been said and there is nothing for me to add.”

Let the student escalate, i.e. let him waste his time (and possibly $$) on this: presumably there is a formal appeal process in place to review marks if the student disagrees with the instructor and no understanding can be reached. (Here it starts with Chair then Dean then academic appeals committee). Because you want facts to drive any appeal, keep all correspondence and email threads, and start a timeline of past events: even if approximate it is useful to recall when this or that meeting took place, and who was present. Ask any teaching assistant to also keep correspondence on this matter, in case it is needed.

If you have to meet the student, write a short memo summarizing the discussion and promptly send it by email to the student so there is a contemporaneous record of the discussion.

Unfortunately some students think that if they ask sufficiently many times the instructor will eventually give in. Others think a submitted mark is the start of a negotiation. It is true that the path of least resistance might look like acquiescing to the student but in the longer term if you are known to flinch others will try their luck.

I found it good practice to keep an appointment calendar where the names of students that come to my office, and the date of their visits, can be recorded. I don’t do this for regular office hours but if a student is possibly problematic I insist that he or she make an appointment. This way, it is very easy to check if said student has indeed discussed the situation with me at some point in the past: it is very useful if the appeal starts some time after the final marks are published.

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  • This is really solid guidance that I can and will use moving forward. Thank you for taking the time to share it. – beto Jan 25 at 16:35
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You might reply with a one-liner like "Thanks for your mail. I have nothing to add to what we have discussed earlier", which will work as an acknowledgement receipt, which is in a way also fair and might be preferable to plain silence.

In my view an interesting underlying question is whether you should continue reading and considering what the student writes; I would say yes, since he may realize to be wrong and apologize or announce further initiatives.

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To add to other answers, I would set a rule in my e-mail client to detect a message from this student. The actions would be

  • auto-reply with something briefly reaffirming the instruction to stop the harassment; and stating that you didn’t read it.
  • Mark the message as read
  • move it to a folder with the others.
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    That rule might catch legitimate emails from the student about other topics, though. – nick012000 Jan 28 at 0:08
  • Thought of that. He'll just have to walk to the office. – WGroleau Jan 28 at 2:15
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Pdf everything and share with your chair. Ask your chair what to do next. Tell the student that you are escalating the discussion to the chair and sending the chair a copy of the email correspondence, the paper and your analysis. Also, depending on your country,your institution may have a process for grade appeals and you should tell the student to pursue that. Also, in many cases on a US campus you can contact the office of student affairs if it seems like the student is behaving in an out of control or harassing way. Those people are experts at talking to students who interact inappropriately with faculty or other students.

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    I'm pretty sure your chair would prefer you to handle it yourself. – Nicole Hamilton Jan 25 at 12:50
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    The person has already tried and failed to handle it themselves. As a former chair and current Dean I would rather have it come to me from the faculty member than from the student, Dean, Provost or President. When and if the student or one of the others contacts me I want to say I am aware of it. Plus it is a chair's job to help with difficult situations. – Elin Jan 26 at 20:38
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What may help is to write an email were you put everything in a broader perspective. The student is enrolled at university to study. Grading of work to judge if the student has mastered the topic well enough, while a necessary part of the system, is not what it is all about. The attitude of the student is self-defeating regardless of whether or not the student is able to get higher grades than he/she should get.

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Focusing on whether to escalate yourself: Some people have said "your department chair doesn't want to know". Others have said "As a former chair I would rather have it come to me from the faculty member than from the student".

In the UK I would definitely send a heads-up to my head of department or similar. Maybe this differs between academic cultures. But in general I would advise that if you new to this, and are not sure, then it's worth escalating - both to make sure that somebody more senior is aware, and potentially to get advice on how to handle it.

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