This is a follow up to my previous question. Some context:

  • I teach at a new Fachhochschule-type institute, where my course is 5-day, 1 hour/day course to 20+ students.
  • I am actively teaching, providing the material, and encouraging the students to always ask questions.
  • My course is structured to have 4 days of lecture and 1 day of practical. In the practical, I explain a real-world problem and give the students graded exercises.

In week 1, the exercise in the practical was to prepare a half-page report on a short consultancy problem. I gave them 7 full days to write the report. No one asked questions or stated any concerns before the deadline.

The day after the deadline, only half the class had submitted on time, half of which only at minutes before said deadline. I was gobsmacked, since even half of the submitted results were very poorly made (one even stated, in the report, "excuse me, but I didn't understand anything"), by totally missing the point or even copy/pasting definitions without context from the lecture notes. In total 1/4 of the class actually proved that had sit down and worked actively on the practical.

The next day I explained that their actions were completely out of line, since in 6 months they are supposed to go in the workforce, and this behavior of completely ignoring and not giving notice to the professor would be very detrimental to their careers. I refused to evaluate any latecomer who did not advise me on time. My stern reaction did upset the students who didn't submit. I even received an 1-page email (double the size of the report) from one of the students claiming that my job is only to teach and their is only to take exams, and they are not obligated to do any extra work I give them.

Is there anything that I can do to improve the cooperativity of said students? Should I modify the final exam mark structure or organize the lectures differently? Since this is my first shot, I don't really know how to proceed.

Clarifications and Update:

  • It is technically true that the student's grades (according to university policy) are determined by exams only.
  • But, I am allowed to have practicals and other assignments count as part of the exam score. My mentor confirmed this.
  • I think these students are bad apples because they are clinging to this technicality rather than doing the useful assignments (or at least respectfully letting me know of their concerns in advance).
  • Based on the discussion here and with my mentor, I have decided to count the practical for extra credit only.
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    – cag51
    Commented Jul 4, 2020 at 20:06
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    OP: I made some edits to incorporate info from the comments and to improve readability / clarity. Please feel free to make additional edits if I screwed anything up, but I recommend keeping the length as short as possible.
    – cag51
    Commented Jul 4, 2020 at 21:31
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    @cag51 Thanks for the edit, in particular the 3rd bullet point summarizes perfectly the main issue.
    – TheVal
    Commented Jul 4, 2020 at 22:04

9 Answers 9


Welcome to higher education! Students will use formal assesement to guide their learning, and no amount of cajoling, or appealing to their sense professional or intellectual propriety will change that. Some students will always work above and beyond what the assessment requires of them, but most won't.

Assessment is how students comprehend what is the stated aim of a course. Instead of fighting against it, you might embrace it. For each learning outcome there should be an assessment that is aligned with that outcome - that is, it is impossible to successfully complete the assessment without have met the learning outcome. The learning activities are then designed to meet the outcomes. This might seem like "teaching to the test", but in fact it is the opposite: in "teaching to the test", the assessment defines learning outcomes, here the learning outcomes define the assessment. Biggs and Tang [1] refer to this as "constructive alignment". [1] is a good read for the evidence that students have more or less always measured what they are supposed to learn by what they are assessed on.

Thus you would ask "what learning outcome am I hoping my students achieve by this homework, and where is that assessed?". If the learning outcome isn't assessed anywhere, then it should be. If it doesn't meet a learning outcome then perhaps it shouldn't be set.

In practice we either make homework credit bearing (even if only a tiny percent of the overall credit), or, more frequently, ask an exam question that tests the learning outcome that a homework is aimed towards, and a student won't be able to answer without having done the homework. The final possibility is that the homework is practice for what will be tested in the exam. In this case you need to make this abundantly clear to the students. Even then, you will probably only get a fraction of the class doing it. The consolation is that this is the part of the class that deserves to do better in the exam and undoubtedly will.

[1] Biggs, J and Tang, C. (2011): Teaching for Quality Learning at University, (McGraw-Hill and Open University Press, Maidenhead)

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    The phrase "test-driven development" comes to mind from your second paragraph, but with rather a different meaning than it usually carries.
    – David Z
    Commented Jul 4, 2020 at 3:43
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    Not only do most students only do the bare minimum to get their grades, worse still, many cheat. Even professionals, e.g. 1, 2. So this question, honestly, should have been "how to deal with bad students". Sigh...
    – user21820
    Commented Jul 4, 2020 at 16:10
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    Could you tone down the undifferentiated “all students” sentiment? It's just not true, and in particular not that all students do primarily focus on the formal assesment and some do some extra. There are also students who excel in such aspects of the course, because they're just interested, but don't really care about the assessment at all (and consequently end up getting bad grades). Commented Jul 4, 2020 at 18:31
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    @leftaroundabout: Or they get bad grades because their lecturer is actually incompetent and finds fault with their assignments and test answers when actually their lectures and textbooks are irreparably flawed. When I was a student, I got A in every course except for some dumb ethics course (where I disagreed with something), some english language course (where the teacher wrongly claimed that I made grammatical errors), some humanities course (where the lecturer was unethical), and some computer science course (where the textbook spouted nonsense), and some physics course (that I was bad at).
    – user21820
    Commented Jul 5, 2020 at 5:14
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    While I agree with that approach and try to implement it myself, I've always felt – as a student – explicitly demotivated by such grading systems. Having the freedom to decide to do less actually encouraged me to do more. I had exchanges with other students who were also more likely "to do more than asked" who confirmed my feelings there. Do you happen to know whether there are any studies regarding this problem and how to remedy that?
    – ljrk
    Commented Jul 5, 2020 at 7:15

I think your perspective on this is a bit skewed. Other answers have touched on why your assessment probably needs tweaking, but I'd like to address your general view on your students and what you see as their obligations to you.

First, it's important to be clear about your grading rubric at the very beginning of the course. It's okay to announce extra credit work in the middle of the course, but you still need to make that clear when you give out the assignment, not afterwards. You like comparing your course to the workplace, so imagine this: at the beginning of the year, you sit down with your supervisor and decide metrics for how you'll be judged at your review at the end of the year. You both agree on what tasks are important and will be used to rate your performance: task X will count for 50% of your rating, task Y will count for 30%, and Z will count for 20%. Now imagine a month later, your supervisor chews you out for not doing something that was never even mentioned in your agreement, and he tells you that it will be considered in your rating after all. That'd be completely unfair, right? Even if it was something he asked you to do, if he stated it was simply to increase your understanding of something and you wouldn't be paid to do it, then most people would consider that to be voluntary. If it's mandatory and will affect their grade, be clear about that at the beginning. Probably nobody would've objected if you'd done that.

Secondly, students don't have infinite amounts of time and energy to spend on your course. They may have multiple courses, families, jobs, spouses, hobbies, volunteer work, or any other number of reasons to not spend all their resources on your course. Moreover, it isn't a job, you aren't their boss, they aren't being paid to be there, and they aren't delivering anything that you need. So it is completely up to each individual student whether any particular task provides enough benefit (either in increased understanding or as points towards a certification) to be worth the resources it takes to complete it. This isn't unprofessional or a personal insult against you. It's simply rational prioritizing. If this causes them to have poor understanding or to fail the course, that's on them. They're adults, they can make their own decisions and accept the consequences. You don't need to chew them out for not doing extra work; that's unprofessional and inappropriate on your part. In fact, they can simply stop participating at all halfway through if they decide that's the best thing for them, and that wouldn't be unprofessional like not coming into work with no explanation would be. Grade them appropriately and move on.

Your obligations to your students are a clear grading rubric and the tools to succeed in your course. Their obligation to you is to not disrupt your class and to accept a fair grade for the work they submitted. (And you should both treat each other with general basic respect, of course, but that applies to all situations.) That's it. They don't owe you effort or completed assignments, and you don't owe them handholding. Give them the best chance at success that you can (within your own time constraints), and let them decide whether to take the steps necessary to achieve that success.

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    Sorry for the previous two comments. Upon careful reading of your answer, I understand your point. One take away is that I should have laid out better the grading scheme, and set the priorities of what was mandatory and what was not. This would have solved the "students ignoring" problem (there was an error on both parts, me for not being clear and the students for not letting me know of any concerns arising for my possible unclarity). I'll gladly use those insight for my possible future courses
    – TheVal
    Commented Jul 4, 2020 at 22:20
  • @TheVal You say in your comment it was an error for the "students for not letting me know of any concerns arising for my possible unclarity". It sounds to me like they thought they had clarity -- that the exams were the basis of their grades. To me (as a former student and teacher) it's folly to expect students to ask for additional graded work (unless they're looking for extra credit). They're not there to do your job, or to make your job any easier. They're there to receive a grade to move on with their lives. Commented Jul 6, 2020 at 20:59
  • @ChrisBouchard I don't understand how you got this so backwards. The students were introduced to a simple, standard, wholly used "practical", that is a collection of exercises in the form of a real-world problem that is based completely on the portion of course they experienced up to that point. To me (as former student) this is not "my job", it is theirs, as in any conceivable university course. I explained that to them, and, again, none said anything (nor complained). If you really think that "they're there to receive a grade" then I am sorry to say you are at the opposite side of right
    – TheVal
    Commented Jul 6, 2020 at 23:20
  • @TheVal: I think for students who are not interested in the course, they will indeed be there just for the grades, and so will just blissfully ignore whatever you said about the assignments being practical. (Disclaimer: I do agree with you that for a student whose aim is to excel through this course, then they need to consider what you said seriously, including the assignments.)
    – justhalf
    Commented Jul 7, 2020 at 2:00
  • @TheVal: I'm sorry if I wasn't clear. I was not taking a shot at your course content. In my mind part of "your job" is to decide the structure of your course and to clearly explain it, e.g., in your syllabus. To expect the students to question your ambiguities is expecting them to check your work — or in other words, to do your job. If you are lucky, some students may ask those questions. But in my experience, if you are not clear in your expectations, expect them to interpret every ambiguity in the way that most benefits them. Commented Jul 7, 2020 at 20:45

I guess that most of the students are obliged to take your course, right?

They do not come out of interest for the topic but because they need the exam.

I have first taught mathematics and later logistics at universities. While most of the mathematics students were interested in the topics, many of the logistics students were not.

At first, I found this disappointing and then I realised that it is legitimate to do not more than one is obliged to do to pass the course. I can try to make the course interesting but I cannot make somebody like it.

When I remember my high school time, I tried to be good at any subject, but there were some which I really did not like and for which I did the minimum amount of work to get the grade I aimed for.

So if three quarters of your course hand in work written in the hour before submission deadline or even don't hand in anything at all (I guess that most students have not even looked at the topic before the day of submission, so it is not strange that you did not receive any questions), just be happy about the quarter who did.

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    Thanks for the answer, and I wholly agree with you. I am feeling pretty much the same, in particular I believe that any teacher at some point realizes that "I can try to make the course interesting but I cannot make somebody like it", no matter how much passion for the subject someone has. In the end "just be happy about the quarter who did" seems exactly as the famous Gibbons' quote "The power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous."
    – TheVal
    Commented Jul 4, 2020 at 11:17
  • Fully agree in the "nobody is interested in everything". OTOH it seems to be quite frequent in some degrees (e.g. CS) that quite many aren't interested in any CS at all. That's frustrating, but more importantly, I think one shouldn't try to "cater to them" by giving more focus on, in that case, programming rather than scientific/conceptual topics.
    – ljrk
    Commented Jul 5, 2020 at 7:10
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    @larkey at least in the UK (and even more so America) students are paying customers. CS is a very employable degree so I suspect it attracts a way above average number of students primarily motivated by the good career after the degree. The degree is a means to and end, and I think that's a perfectly rational and legitimate end, and I think students have a right to optimise their attention and enthusiasm toward that end given the extortionate cost they have fronted up. They pay lecturers' wages, it's not on them to also flatter the lecturer's intrinsic love of the subject by feigning thesame
    – benxyzzy
    Commented Jul 5, 2020 at 10:58
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    @larkey I disagree, if they want a given job they should pursue whatever employers of that job value in potential employees. That is a perfectly rational and legitimate end. Most degrees do not get the student a job in anything related to the subject at all, just an overall better job than they would be competitive for otherwise. CS is in fact comparatively rare for the relevance of most students' eventual job to the subject matter. They're (mostly) not hoping to be CS professors and it's unfair to expect that of them. They've paid the huge sum and are thinking correctly about their future.
    – benxyzzy
    Commented Jul 5, 2020 at 17:44
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    @benxyzzy And who's then teaching actual CS and not "called CS because that's what employers expect but actually programming"? Also, on a more general level, universities are IMHO not service providers but institutions that work for society. And society is not made up of all people pursuing their own career but a greater cause. I firmly believe we shouldn't see universities as service providers to individuals who just want to jump start their own career or companies who want comparatively cheap but good workers. But I digress.
    – ljrk
    Commented Jul 5, 2020 at 22:05

Your overall tone and emotional state sound extremely similar to my own, the first semester I taught at a U.S. community college. I note in comments you've said this is likewise the first time you've taught; and your description in the linked question of your "Fachhochschule-type institute... the middle ground between high school and university or industry" sounds pretty analogous to our 2-year community colleges.

At least in the U.S., the overall graduation rate nationwide for our institutions stands at about 20%. The majority of our students are not remotely ready for college work and have a very large challenge at succeeding in such a program; i.e., the majority are functionally illiterate, innumerate, possibly have learning disabilities. (I wonder what the success rate is at your institution? You should find out.)

Personally, my first two disaster moments were (a) assigning a one-page paper in the first week and assuming any college student could accomplish that (basically, none could), and (b) giving a test and seeing everyone just start openly copy answers off each other when I didn't know how to immediately start giving out punitive measures.

You'll need to digest and accept that this institution is not remotely like where you went to university, and the students are not remotely like yourself. In fact, is it possible that more students where you did go to school had similar attitudes, but you didn't know it, because you weren't receiving their work as the teacher?

Let's estimate that roughly half of your students won't do any advance work for any reason, whatsoever, no matter what you do. Whatever the exact proportion, it will be a large number and you have to expect that. The rest will only do work in direct response to specific point awards. You need to state those grading policies up front very explicitly, and highlight them. It will be the top driver for student behavior in the class. (In the comments/edit it sounds like you didn't specify a grading formula at the start of your term, and that's a major mistake.)

Will there be any students who act "professional" in the sense of doing extra preparation, advance studying, looking for extra material? In my experience, maybe roughly one or two per calendar year -- around 1% or less, when I'm teaching upper-level (2nd-year in the major) courses. You cannot expect or rely on this being customary, because it will simply never happen. You absolutely need to let go of your surprise or disappointment over this.

It's sad and painful and our students are human beings with their own hopes and emotional existence, and we should wish them well. But in cases similar to your institution, the best we can do is set up fair grading policies for fair work, apply them objectively and honestly, and know in advance that about half will be failing all the time. That's the job at these kinds of institutions.

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    I wouldn't call it "unprofessional" to do more than the bare minimum. Maybe it is unwise etc but in principle the bare minimum should be so high that everyone who obtains is is ready for the next courses, work, fuether studies etc. I also do think that many of us had subjects in school where we did not prepare more than needed, for me eg in Music and Physical Education.
    – user111388
    Commented Jul 4, 2020 at 18:18
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    @user111388 Again, it depends on the context. In university, doing the bare minimum may still be accepted, but not in the context of this question. This is because those students will start soon (6 months) traineeships with partner companies of the institute. Allowing them to keep the "bare minimum" behavior should NOT be allowed, since it does not send a positive message to the potential employers which they will join for traineeship. I believe this issue stands for a single example of how NOT to behave in the context of what shortly they will have to do in a real company.
    – TheVal
    Commented Jul 4, 2020 at 20:09
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    @TheVal: I disagree here, provided the bare minimum is set well enough. In jobs, doing more than the bare minimum (which is doing the job right and well) is working/learning in the free time, which might be beneficial but should never be expected.
    – user111388
    Commented Jul 4, 2020 at 21:48
  • @user111388 I understand, and I might add that the point of disagreement hinges on the "wellness" of the "bare minimum" required by the student. In this context, I consider advising (even telling "no, I don't want to do the practical because...") the professor as included in the bare minimum (or common sense) that the students are required to perform. Hope that this better illustrates my reasoning
    – TheVal
    Commented Jul 4, 2020 at 21:53
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    @TheVal: I do understand your point. I think a big problem is that people are not taught that this is information to tell - if I told a prof I don't want to do a voluntary assignment in my time, he wouls say "why are you telling me? This is your choice since its voluntary. It will only harm you. Get away."1
    – user111388
    Commented Jul 4, 2020 at 22:27

In my experience, the only way to get students to do coursework activities or contribute to forums is to allocate some of the marks to those activities, and to make a minimum pass grade.

e.g. coursework 40%, exam 40%, forum contributions 20%, and a minimum score of 60% for each of the three components in order to pass, so 24/40 for coursework, 24/40 for exams and 12/20 for forum contributions.

Where I currently teach, we have assessable coursework tasks worth 50% and an exam worth 50%, however, if students have not completed weekly coursework activities, we do not accept their coursework tasks as we cannot validate that they are a student's own work.

Edited to add: but yes, you need to inform the students at the beginning of the course how things will be assessed, so in your case it's too late. Extra credit for future coursework seems like a good compromise.


If you hire a group of fruit pickers, and tell them you'll pay them to pick strawberries, but it'd be nice to get some apples. Would you be surprised that nobody picked apples?

You either need the assignments to form part of the mark, or you need to ensure that it's clear that the assignments will cover ideas that will be in the exam, which will not be taught directly in class.


I'm not sure of your exact locale, but some universities have resources that are free for the asking about how to be a better teacher. You may get some good advice here (including adjusting your expectations to include a theory of alien minds to people with a vastly looser work ethic), but some of the universities I've been at have some very good people who can offer you things academia.SE can't.


I perceive school, in parts, as a place:

  • to learn things which are useful in later life
  • to learn things which are not useful in later life
  • to listen to things without learning them
  • to meet with a reality different from your family, more "workplace-like"

You have students which are graded on the exam and you gave them extra work. It is their choice not to do it. If you were a robot that would have had zero effects on your future grading.

I am a human though, and when faced with someone who does not care - I am not well inclined to help them.

I will not be vindicative, but they should not count on any help from my side. If their answer is good, they will get good marks. If their answer is bad and they explain that they had a bad night before - well bad luck: this is life.

I believe that we are tip-toeing around students because they are offended by virtually anything. Tomorrow, in the workforce, they will be fired.

So help the ones who want help and let the other learn something from life. And be fair despite your emotions.

As for the last part (being fair): I had a teacher once I hated and he hated me. I had an exam where he could easily sack me. I got 6 questions, 5 were easy, one was horribly difficult. I did not have enough time to solve it.

He said "See, Mr WoJ, the last question was for brilliant students. You are not a brilliant student. I will just give you 20/20 (max grade) but if you were better, you could have had a few more points, above the maximum".

20 years later, when we met by chance, I told him that while we will never be on good terms, I sincerely appreciate his fairness and I respect him for that. I learned something that day.

  • I know it is too late for the downvoters, but I genuinely wonder whether this is because "I do not agree with you" (which is a choice, though a downvote is for answers which are "not useful" (whatever that means)), or because the answer was wrong (not an answer to the question, for instance - on which case the downvote is very much corect)
    – WoJ
    Commented Jul 6, 2020 at 14:09

Give them an F, and report the one who sent the snotty email for disrespecting a staff member.

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    @TheVal That is fine as long as you did so well before the first practical was due. Otherwise, it is unfair to students who made rational decisions about where to spend their limited time. Commented Jul 4, 2020 at 11:56
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    I don't think reporting is okay (and in my experience with German unis, there would be nobody interested in taking this report and doing something). Indeed, I think the student stated their opinion about this practise, which should be okay (as long as the word choice is not unprofessional) and should not be reprimanded.
    – user111388
    Commented Jul 4, 2020 at 14:24
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    @Kat Once the work is submitted, it is graded, full stop. As in the workplace, you have submitted the report and it is judged on the basis of what has been done (and I stress, NO student came to me to ask questions or clarifications on the report). If the report is poor, the mark will be low, and vice-versa. If the student had any issue, I had made very clear I was available to discuss it. Thus, no communication means no issue, thus no issue for me to grade them for what they deserve
    – TheVal
    Commented Jul 4, 2020 at 14:54
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    @TheVal so the people who did nothing don't have it count against them, but those who at least attempted it do? Does that seem fair to you?
    – Kat
    Commented Jul 4, 2020 at 20:02
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    @TheVal also I have no idea what you mean by this being similar to the workplace. In my industry, it's standard to "submit" work with flaws, get feedback, then fix those flaws. That's what QA departments are for. Even in academia, reports and studies are reviewed and people get a chance to revise them. If you routinely submit substandard work or miss critical deadlines without explanation, sure, you'll eventually get in trouble. But work taking longer than expected or needing revision is completely normal.
    – Kat
    Commented Jul 4, 2020 at 20:19

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