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I'm taking a math class at community college. The class has three regular exams (25% of grade) and a final (25%). Normally, the professor generously grades the fifteen-question exams with partial credit, but because of the COVID-19 crisis, we have had to move everything online.

I received excellent scores on the first two exams, but the third exam we had to take online. In the new, twenty-question format, she obviously could not offer partial credit because a computer scored it. Going into the exam, I didn't feel unprepared, but I ended up getting a terrible 62%. But then, the professor announced that the entire class had performed poorly on the exam, and she gave us another day to retake it. I had already spent an entire day studying and working on the exam, and I knew it would be dropped anyway, so I declined. I still don't think that there was much that would have changed if I took it a second time without being able to see what I got wrong. When I did get it back, I found that several of my mistakes had nothing to do with math and were a result of failing to correctly enter my results into the computer.

I don't know how the rest of the class performed on the exam compared to me, but the professor was concerned enough to give an extra day, so I'm willing to bet it was around the same. Needless to say, I strongly suspect that our collective failure is a result of the new exam format. I think that our grades depended on the partial-credit scoring. And now, the final, worth 25% of my grade, is coming up on May 18th.

I have a 98% in the class. If I get a 60% on the final, it will completely destroy my grade. And what's most disturbing to me is that so far, there has been no correspondence on what the final will look like. In terms of format, I don't know what I'm studying for, exactly. If it is going to be similar to the third exam, then I'm very likely doomed. With my two AP exams also around the corner, in the same week, it is causing an undue amount of stress.

I really appreciate the professor, and I naturally want to remain respectful and stay on good terms with her. Is it appropriate for me to voice my concerns? What kind of language should I use, and which parts of what I have disclosed here are appropriate to include? And what reasonably should I request?

  • Changing the rules shouldn't disadvantage anyone. But perhaps if everyone suffered then she will make allowances. But yes, express any concerns. – Buffy Apr 27 at 19:05
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    "I have a 98% in the class. If I get a 60% on the final, it will completely destroy my grade." If you have a 98% before the exam and get 0% on the exam, you will still pass the class. If this is an introductory class, I would guess you would have an above average grade, too. I think you are worrying too much about your grade. Learning is more important than grades. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 28 at 3:12
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    If you do send a message, I suggest you acknowledge that the professor has already put in extra effort to help students by putting the exam online allowing retakes. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 28 at 3:15
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    What do you mean by “Several mistakes were a result of failing to correctly enter my results into the computer.”? – Damila Apr 28 at 3:34
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    @AnonymousPhysicist I am a high schooler taking this through dual enrollment. My goal cannot simply be to pass--GPA is important in high school. – General Nuisance Apr 28 at 5:48
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It’s totally appropriate to point out to your professor that your grade is suffering for technical reasons having to do with the online format of the exam. If your professor is reasonable she will not be in the least bit offended by this.

By the way, we are pretty much all dealing with issues of this sort nowadays. I experienced something similar just a few days ago when I gave an online quiz. One of the problems required entering the answer to a question in decimal notation, and this was automatically graded by the testing platform. The correct answer was 15/64=0.234375, but some students assumed it was okay to round off the answer and entered 0.234 or 0.23, only to have that marked off as incorrect. When they emailed me to point out the issue, I gave them the points for the question.

To summarize, let your professor know. Be polite and explain the technical issues in entering the answers that caused your answers to be marked as incorrect. If you explain it clearly and convincingly enough, not only will the professor be in a better position to design a fairer format for the final exam, she may actually give you back some of the points that were marked off in the current exam.

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  • BTW, if teacher is minimally tech-savy, he could hash the answers and give the hashes to students. Hence, if you know the answer is 15/64, you can test "15/64", "0.23", "0.234375" and other variations and tell if you've got the right answer or not. While it partially informs the student if he's got a wrong answer (no variation is working) it gives absolutely no clue as to what the correct answer should be. – Mefitico Apr 27 at 20:46
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    Many teachers new to online exams don't realize that the computer grading is very intolerant to formating issues. There is often a partial credit or re-grading possible. I am very happy to have my students point out that I missed another grave misspelling or extra blank or rounding error on an online exam. As Dan said, be polite. We are all stressed out. – Debora Weber-Wulff Apr 27 at 20:48
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    Thank you for the wisdom, and for sharing your experience. Is it hard to believe that I had never even really considered trying to get the points back for the other exam? I guess I have a phobia of asking for things--I'd rather quietly chug along and turn out good work. I think I need to be more aware of how this crisis is effecting my professors as well as myself--it's a bit of a revelation to me that a professor would be happy and even relieved to receive this kind of feedback. I will take your council. – General Nuisance Apr 28 at 6:00
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It is perfectly acceptable to give your professor negative feedback on the exam format. You can either do this by email, or you could do it anonymously with an unsigned letter in her pigeonhole on campus (once it is open). Since the exam format was necessitated by the remote learning circumstances due to COVID-19, it is likely that your professor already knows that this format is sub-optimal, and your negative feedback will probably just confirm what she already knows. Once you are back to face-to-face classes, it is likely that she will change back to her previously preferred format.

If you decide it is worth giving negative feedback on the exam format, I suggest you write this with some context that recognises that the professor is operating under remote learning restrictions. Make sure you are polite and appreciative of her work, and frame your feedback as something to give her the experience from the point of view of a student. Generally speaking, professors do not mind negative feedback from students so long as it is constructive and polite.

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  • Thank you for the advice--I will be sure to include context acknowledging the steps that my professor has already taken. – General Nuisance Apr 28 at 5:54
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TL;DR:

Your professor probably does not care about these issues as much as you do. That is a non-problem. Just reach out to your professor and do not sweat over it. Focus on whatever is more important than these grades. Family, sports, opposite/same sex, this does not worth your time.

Longer answer:

If you have a concern about something that affects your life (grades do, unfortunately) why shouldn't you be able to reach out to your professor?

Academics, in general (or at least in theory) are devoted to science and justice. There are some oddballs, yes but that is the kernel of their profession. Why would you spend all your life behind a desk/in a lab if you don't have such passion -even only for the first few years of your profession? Money? That falls under oddballs category. Prestige? Do academics have any prestige in this world at all? Nothing. Dealing with problems is my passion and that case is yours is another problem to be solved.

Don't tell everyone but there is a trick: If you can pose any problem in a brain-tingling way you can lure any academics to pursue any problem. What to do with this information is up to you though. I will not give away all our secrets out of nowhere.

Don't be confrontational, because in that case their first instinct would be to destroy you with facts -that is how academy works: the way of hard science. That is most probably not personal. I said instinct, because in most cases it can't be controlled and maybe even noticed.

Of course this is my experience and my way of interacting with students, and not everyone has to be like this. Yet even if they unwelcoming, what would you lose? Your grade you already lost? Your grade which will be even lower? Latter is why there are boards and ethical committees. They will say some bad words and hurt your feelings? Don't be a special snowflake. There are idiots posing as academics, deal with it. You will not see them next year or the year after but I have to deal with them almost daily.

Just... Just don't be disrespectful and don't be confrontational if you are not ready to play that way. I can tolerate (and even enjoy in a sinister way) confrontation but disrespect is some another level. I can hurt your feelings, and you would brush them off by tomorrow.

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    Your knowledge of the academic world seems extremely limited and you make some very sweeping generalisations, as if they are hard fact, that I don't think are accurate at all. – H. Green Apr 28 at 14:01
  • That was an "insider info" to a person who was overly stressing about minor things, and was intended to be an eye-opener. If 10+ years is "extremely limited", then it is, sure. My academic circle, as far as I know, see things more or less like I stated. Of course it would vary from academics to academics, department to department, etc but I stand by what I have stated. Those being said, thank you for taking your time to write a comment. At least I can now understand why I am downvoted. – vdaghan Apr 28 at 14:34
  • @H.Green My comment above seemed dismissive. Let me say I give credit to "as if they are hard fact" part of your comment. (oops I can't edit a comment after 5 minutes) – vdaghan Apr 28 at 14:44
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    This seems like a pretty good answer to me, but the TL;DR seems to be saying the opposite of what the rest of the answer is saying. By "just do it" do you mean, just contact the professor? When I first read that phrase, I assumed you meant "just move on, don't worry about your grade". But I think you mean, just contact the professor and stop stressing about it; is that correct? To summarize, good answer but it could use a bit of an edit to make it a bit more clear, and I'd definitely remove the last line. I think it's a joke, but can come across poorly in a medium like this unfortunately. – bob Apr 28 at 15:55
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    @bob I meant "Just contact and forget, there are more important things to worry about" Edited. Feel free to edit further as you see fit, because I am probably bad at wording and you seem to get the gist. Thanks a lot. – vdaghan Apr 28 at 19:42

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