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I am a professor at uni, and I have been experiencing a number of unreasonable requests from students on these days, some of them arguing that they need a special treatment due to the current Covid-19 situation, such as students asking for:

  1. additional exam papers with full solutions (there are already three past exam papers with solutions available).
  2. a list of the exact topics that will be examined in each of the exam exercises (this is, if the exam contains five questions, then I should provide the corresponding five topics).
  3. providing the exact structure of the exam, such as one question about definitions, two questions about chapter 1 of the lecture notes, one question about chapter 2, ...
  4. labeling slides and clearly specifying if they cover a topic that will appear in the exam or not (not just if it contains examinable material, but if the exam contains a question about the topic in the corresponding slide).

I want to reply to these requests indicating that they are just asking for too much (I may as well send them the exam with full solutions), and to teach them that the point of the exam is not to regurgitate memorized solutions (i.e., life does not work like that).

What is some advice on potential ways of replying and covering both aims: being polite, but also educating them about how unreasonable/entitled those requests are?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Apr 14 at 18:35
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Let's assume your teaching practices are the best possible. Students want you to change your teaching practices. You should respond by explaining to students why your practices are effective (do this even if they don't ask).

Examples:

additional exam papers with full solutions (there are already three past exam papers with solutions available).

Studying the three past exams will help you learn what you need to learn from this class. Additional past exams will not provide additional help. If you have extra time, I suggest you ...

a list of the exact topics that will be examined in each of the exam exercises (this is, if the exam contains 5 questions, then I should provide the corresponding 5 topics).

All the topics listed on the course syllabus are important things for you to know. Therefore, any of them might be on the exam and you should study all of them. If it was not important enough to be on the exam, then I did not teach it.


If these types of responses are not true, then I suggest changing your teaching until they are true.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please only post a comment to suggest improvements to the answer. Before you post a comment, check that your line of thought has not already been debated in the chatroom. Also read this FAQ. – Wrzlprmft Apr 15 at 6:31
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First, let’s offer a bit of sympathy where it’s due: students are a population that’s suffering right now in some unique ways due to the pandemic. Being a student can be very stressful at the best of times, and my impression is that for a lot of them it’s now more stressful and challenging than ever before. So my first recommendation is to try to be less judgmental. What may seem like an unreasonable request to you may simply be a student’s way of coping with the extreme situation they are finding themselves in, seeking creative solutions, and asking for help when they recognize they need it.

The right mindset for addressing these requests should therefore not be about “educating” the students and showing them the error of their ways, in my opinion. Students have enough normal stuff on their plate right now, they don’t need to be lectured on the reasonableness or unreasonableness of their requests. Frankly, I think at the moment you should stick to teaching the material, handling whatever course logistics there are to handle, and being as accepting and kind to the students as possible. Whatever “educational” energy you have should be directed towards the course material rather than on imparting life wisdom. You’ll have plenty of time to help them with that when the world goes back to a more normal state.

So basically @JeffE and @cag51 have it right. If the request is unreasonable, just say no and try to do it in an empathetic way. Elaborate explanations are not really needed. But sympathy, and a sense that you understand what they may be going through at this difficult time, are.

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    +1 for "be less judgmental" and "they don't need to be lectured". – Reid Apr 9 at 16:47
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    "a sense that you understand what they may be going through at this difficult time"—students may be asking these questions because they don't feel confident that they have the tools to be successful on the exam (something that may be exacerbated by the present situation). Acknowledging and trying to address that need, while maintaining reasonable boundaries around what help you can provide, could go a long way. What other mechanisms, without compromising the integrity of the exam by giving too much away, could you provide to help students succeed and feel confident going into the exam? – Zach Lipton Apr 9 at 23:04
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    In other words, a "no" may feel more empathetic if it's paired with help of the sort that you actually can provide and an understanding that more such help may be desired right now. – Zach Lipton Apr 9 at 23:10
  • I like yours the best for the less judgmental. Having to teach my 3 kids (my wife does 90% of the work there) and we both still have to do our 8-10 hour days, I can totally get the distraction. And I'm sure the first couple of weeks have become 'fun and sleep'... which is now catching up with them. That said, this is life. It sucks. It isn't fair. And if the Prof says you need to know it, you need to know it. Studying is hard. Learn to do it. – J.Hirsch Apr 10 at 22:50
  • "First, let’s offer a bit of sympathy where it’s due: students are a population that’s suffering right now". Students ask these things (Items 1 through 3 anyway) all the time even before COVID-19. – LordStryker Apr 25 at 20:43
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I agree with JeffE's comment: just say no. Students already know why these requests would normally be unreasonable, they just need you to explain that these norms haven't changed. So, taking your first example, I would reply as follows:

Hi Name,

No, I will not be providing more than the three that are already available. While I empathize that the public health crisis has produced an unfamiliar and stressful situation, I believe three practice exams is already a very reasonable number.

With kind regards,

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    Well, "say no with_an_explanation..." – paul garrett Apr 10 at 0:24
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    haha, fair enough. – cag51 Apr 10 at 5:02
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    "Students already know why these requests would normally be unreasonable" Do they? It's not unheard of similar requests in normal times. – fqq Apr 10 at 14:59
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... Students [are] asking for ...

Post this in a common forum.

Dear Students:

I am preparing my best to continue with the course to cover the same topics, give the same format of assignments or exams, and adhere to the same grading metrics.

The resources that have been available in the past for this course are still the best that I can make available for you to study going forward.

I will keep you informed should anything in the current situation demand a change in the course topics, course assignments, or grading metrics. I will address any contingencies that you have individually.

Now, as for the "unreasonable" emails, the reply is:

As noted, the resources that have been available in the past for this course are still the best that I can make available for you to study going forward, especially in the current situation. I will let the entire class know when anything about this should change.

Do you have issues that are not concerned with requesting other study resources? I can try to help.

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    This is well-written, but you’re really over-explaining things by a lot. If OP is stretched so thin, it would be a waste of their time to spend this long writing an email to their students explaining that they’re stretched too thin to meet request for extra materials. My advice: keep the explanation short and to the point and focus on teaching. The students also have better things to do than reading your long, super-articulate email and digesting it on top of the twenty other emails loaded with COVID-19-specific information that they received today. – Dan Romik Apr 10 at 5:04
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    I agree with @DanRomik. Furthermore, I find that often when I have an urge to tell off the whole class like this, it's really only in reference to a small number of students (like, 2-3 is enough to hog my mental space), ones who are quite likely to not be in class/not paying attention/not reading an announcement like this. So the whole effort tends to be a total waste. Inform individual students as needed, briefly. Save full-class communications for the core course content. – Daniel R. Collins Apr 10 at 5:34
  • I concede that it was verbose and have shortened. Also, to distinguish this, I suggest it belongs in a forum post (an Announcement to the entire class) rather than as a one-to-one email. – Jeffrey J Weimer Apr 10 at 12:36
  • I find this more rude in tone than the accepted answer. A student who asked for additional resources will feel they are being anonymously shamed, and a student that did not ask will find their time wasted with unimportant mass messages when they are currently receiving many. In addition, the language used here is formal, impersonal, and detached, to the point of meaninglessness; this is a class-wide announcement which boils down to “nothing as of yet has changed in this class,” and it takes three whole paragraphs. – Eric Apr 11 at 18:40
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    @Eric: Thanks. Your insistence on improving this is a lesson that I take back for myself. – Jeffrey J Weimer Apr 11 at 21:02
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Do you have a module guide? It should state why the curriculum for the course covers what it does. Forward it to them or copy and paste relevant excerpts. It might also be advisable to have a FAQ doc that you can share with students updating it regularly.

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Maybe your course puts too much emphasis on exams, especially high stakes exams. All your examples are just about testing. If I were evaluating your course, I'd look at that if you are getting a lot of such questions.

Students need to do a lot of things to learn, but exams are a poor way to measure what they have learned, rather than memorized. Most exams, anyway. They need practice, reinforcement, and feedback.

One way to both quiet the questions and give them a bit of practice is to ask them to answer their own questions themselves in writing. Tell them if they submit written answers to their questions then you will comment on them. A comment needn't be extensive. Even "close, but not quite" may be enough.

Yes, this is a directed way to say "go away and do your homework" but it is actually what they need to do to actually learn. If it seems a bit harsh, maybe you can come up with something milder but with the same goals.

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    All courses put 100% mark on the exam, this is not something I control, but this is at the university level. Perhaps in your country you have full control, but here the university defines how the final grade is defined. Students have tutorial sessions, with a teaching assistant, also quizzes, class tests, and etcetera. Giving them much more is just focusing on quizzing rather than teaching and learning, which is what you are trying to advocate against? – Prof Apr 9 at 0:05
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    Makes me sad. I have no control over such bad practice. I give your university an F on education. Many people have asked why Harvard is such a vast storehouse of knowledge. The answer is that the first-years bring so much with them and the graduates take so little away. Perhaps your university is like that. Not your fault, perhaps, though you are contributing. The questions you get are perfectly predictable and not unreasonable. – Buffy Apr 9 at 0:11
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    exams are a poor way to measure what they have learned, rather than memorized — Only if you write exams that test memorization! – JeffE Apr 9 at 1:54
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    @JeffE, what you say is true. But, I'm afraid, that what I said is also true. – Buffy Apr 9 at 10:29
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    @computercarguy I had some courses with such tests and I loved those courses. That's your chance to actually try and solve problems instead of reproducing solutions. – Džuris Apr 10 at 0:50
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I don't think any of those requests are unreasonable, because if you gave every student that same information they would all complete your course focussing on and mastering the essentials and the outcome would be a better education. I completed 36 individual 1.5 hour exams to get my physics major and only about 50-75% of the material would be considered to be core essential knowledge that needed to be mastered

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For what it's worth, I wouldn't consider (1) unreasonable - I'd consider it something that a strong student might well ask you. You're assessing them on their ability to be good at passing your exams. They're asking for more opportunities to get good at passing your exams by working hard and practising passing them. As long as all of the students have the same opportunities, that seems perfectly ok - they might all learn things by doing that. The counter-argument that a student might get good at passing your exams but not good at the underlying techniques can surely only be an indictment of your exams as a measure of their abilities - a high mark in an exam should imply strong skills, or what's the point? If the issue at hand is that you might want to repeat questions from previous years in your exams (which it seems to be, given that you're talking about memorisation), maybe that's the real problem, and it might be worth thinking about just making new/more original questions? If you do that, then you can share more past papers and solutions with all of the students without causing yourself any real problems.

Conversely, (2), (3) and (4) are clearly more likely to be asked by weak students who want to avoid having to learn all of the material. To those students, I would simply say that since the purpose of the course is to make sure that they've learnt all of the material covered, and telling them which bits to ignore would defeat that purpose, you're not going to do that, and you recommend that they learn the whole course thoroughly to put themselves in the best possible position to get a good mark.

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