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Below is an email I received from a student whom I'm giving Spanish lessons to. He took a assessment test and failed it. I received this email (which I've attached below) from him today, and I'm not sure how to respond to it. I would like to encourage the student.

Dear teacher,

I participated in your research study today...and failed miserably. It’s as if I didn’t retain anything at all! I want you to know, however, that I’m not giving up. I’m going to double down because I have dear friends in Florida who, although quite bi-lingual, speak Spanish frequently and I would dearly love to be able to communicate with them in their native language. I’m preparing even now for round two, and I sincerely hope to be successful.

Yours linguistically,

Sara

P.S. You have a fantastic system, which is why I’m double chagrined. But don’t give up on me.

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    What do you want to convey to the student?
    – GoodDeeds
    Oct 19 at 18:32
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    Mainly encouragement Oct 19 at 18:33
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    dumb question: why does there have to be a reply? there wasn't a question exactly...
    – BCLC
    Oct 20 at 17:09
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    What kind of "lessons" you are giving? One-on-one tutoring, or teaching a formal class? I suspect some of the differences of opinion here are due to different assumptions about the nature of your role.
    – cag51
    Oct 20 at 22:21
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    @BCLC: not answering could be understood by the student as "I don't care what you feel". Though replying is not mandatory, I think a teacher should do his/her best to encourage students.
    – Taladris
    Oct 21 at 3:31
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Actually you need to do more than suggested by Wetenschaap, though that is good. It isn't enough to just encourage them if they have poor study habits. I learned that a lot of students reach university not really knowing how to use their time and other resources effectively. I've had to take time out in CS courses to teach people effective note taking (and summarizing).

More isn't necessarily better in studying. Cramming for assessments is almost always counterproductive. You want them to study more effectively not just harder. Harder is good for pounding nails.

I was once in your student's place, having failed the first exam in a Physics course. I eventually got an A in the course, but it was only by changing my study habits.

One thing professors often neglect to do, often because they don't see it as their job, is to teach their students how to learn effectively. Presentation of material and assumptions that students know how to deal with it isn't effective.

You might actually need to meet with them and ask how they went about studying for the assessment. Perhaps you can make suggestions about a better study plan. You may be able to do this with email, but it will take some thought and maybe a couple of iterations.

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    +1. And even when pounding nails, there's more to doing it well than just doing it harder. Oct 19 at 21:51
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    Yeah, I'm with this suggestion. My answer focuses on how to reply to the question as asked, but I do appreciate that more could be gained here beyond what was asked. Oct 19 at 21:58
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    Teaching a great student is always amazing, but nothing special. Turning a weaker student into a great one is where I draw the line of actually being a good teacher/lecturer/any other teaching related position. Oct 20 at 3:54
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    @JRE, many people can coast for quite a long while through their education, never finding anything very hard. But at some point, if they haven't learned the skills, many falter and fail when they hit their "natural" limit and face a hard-to-understand problem. My sister found learning easy early on, and I found it hard. But I managed to go farther than her since I hit my limit early enough that I knew, afterwards, how to work. I agree that teachers should focus more on "teaching learning" than they do. Good advice for professors is that "your students aren't just like you".
    – Buffy
    Oct 20 at 16:11
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    If you decided to follow this advice, @op, I'd love to hear how it all worked out in the end!
    – Sixtyfive
    Oct 21 at 10:37
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I would suggest writing something like this:

Dear Sara,

Your attitude towards adversity is commendable. I'm sorry that you didn't achieve a better result in your first try, but if you convert the motivation that your message displays into study effort in the next round, I am sure that your success is just around the corner.

Yours sincerely, X.

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    I'd +1 this except for the "I am sure that your success is just around the corner" part. That cannot be honestly delivered. Oct 20 at 3:20
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    @DanielR.Collins You also can't be certain a performer is going to have a great show - but you might say "Good luck tonight, I'm sure you'll be great." or as a coach "You'll get it next time". Sometimes encouraging another takes (potentially)false confidence in them.
    – TCooper
    Oct 20 at 17:42
  • @TCooper: Disagree. I recommend Clark, "The Cooling-Out Function in Higher Education". Oct 20 at 18:30
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    I think this can be said honestly based on how well you know the student, without showing any "false confidence". If your experience with the student leads you to believe that they are capable to succeed in [whatever evaluation], saying just that is not dishonest. The suggestion does involve "if you convert the motivation... into study effort...", which is crucial.
    – GoodDeeds
    Oct 21 at 0:32
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    I would change the "but" to an "and". ;)
    – Michelle
    Oct 22 at 1:24
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Many times a communication like that (esp. the "hear is why I'm motivated" part) is from a student hopelessly behind. If that turns out to be the case, let them know there's no shame, esp. attempting to learn something with lots of "just getting it" like a language. Suggest that instead of beating their head against a wall in the rest of the class, retaking it later and focusing on their other classes might be better (students seem to rarely fail one class while easily passing others). How will you know, because...

But either way, focus on specifics. What parts of the test did they have trouble with (can they bring it next time they see you)? What about previous quizes where they got a "passing" C-? Should they be spending more time memorizing nouns? Irregular verbs? Should they/do they have Flash cards? Or did they simply not understand the format of the questions?

What's the most complex thing they can read or understand or say? Next time they see you, instead of discussing some future plan, can you two practice this one thing right now? Do they know when office hours are? Are they finding the assigned readings in the book -- and what problems are they having with it?

Then in this case, they have friends who speak Spanish? Can they facetime them and practice (yes, they will be mocked for speaking school mainland Spanish, but not too much).

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I wrote this fast the first time, but will explain my reasoning as suggested by Joao Mendes in the comments.

Exams are unfair. They attempt to extract quantitative information about subjective things, but both students and teachers sometimes forget the subjective nature of this kind of assessment. A teacher will often consider a student weak because he/she didn't do well in an exam, and worse: The student will do the same with him/herself. Exams reflect so poorly the acquisition of knowledge that their results often don't even correlate with the ability of employing what they were supposed to measure.

I can give you an example in my field. Suppose student A did exceedingly well in a calculus exam such as the ones I used to take in my undergrad courses, where you were supposed to differentiate some artificially complicated function in order to assess if you had understood the chain rule. Student B did poorly in this exam, getting virtually all signs wrong, and failed it. Then, while working on a physics problem, student A was completely unable to even figure out what to differentiate, but student B noticed the secant approached the tangent and drew a picture that allowed you to write an expression. This expression could, then, be differentiated. Neither student could solve the problem alone, but A could use the expression from B and arrive at an answer.

The process above describes a collaborative aspect of knowledge that is essentially impossible to assess by an exam (although people do try sometimes). In the end, this is much closer to how knowledge works in the real world. We are not alone, and we have the right to not know. We also have the right to study and not learn. It is fine. In fact, in my personal experience, I have found out that student B in the example above it much more valuable than student A, since any computer can differentiate, but no computer can interpret (yet). In language, the teacher must ensure every student is reserved the right of finding it difficult. Not everyone is good with languages. You cannot blame the French for being unable to speak a proper "r" in English, given that their own language doesn't have that sound. The teacher has no context over a student's background, motivation, personal problems. Even in the subject you are yourself teaching, what you get when you talk to students about their difficulties is only an approximation, because they themselves are often unable to pinpoint a cause for their poor performance. It's not their fault: it is extremely subjective.

There are students who fail exams, and there are exams that fail students. I prefer to always work with the possibility of my exam being unfit for what I wanted, especially when I see that a student is working hard. If they do work hard and have a poor grade, I personally tell them that that grade means nothing. That I don't really know what I'm doing when providing a grade, because as for myself I don't feel that exams capture much. Unfortunately, the alternative assessments demand too much time and effort, and we end up stuck with our poor, medieval methods. In the end, my nightmare is not missing out a bad student and giving them a good grade, but to block a good student from reaching his/her full potential. The former will be corrected by life itself, but the latter is so destructive I cannot allow myself to be the cause.

Thus, here is my suggestion:

Dear Sara,

I am sorry about your test result. Unfortunately, it is not always easy to understand why we failed an exam. Sometimes we study a lot and fail, but the opposite can also happen. In the end, exams are not perfect. The most important things you have to ask are: do you think you are learning Spanish? Do you feel like you are studying and gradually improving? Do you feel motivated in this course?

If the answers are all positive, then we must understand why the exam didn't capture them. Feel free to drop by my office etc etc...

Sincerely, X.

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  • @JoãoMendes I updated the answer. I wrote it fast the first time. Oct 21 at 8:31
  • Yep. It's much better. :) Oct 21 at 12:55
  • "Exams are unfair" is an unfair characterization. They may not assess what we think they're assessing, but that's not what "unfair" means Oct 22 at 0:20
  • @ScottSeidman If a test is devised in order to measure something, it measures a different thing, and then all decisions are based on this wrong output, then that's precisely what I would call an unfair situation Oct 22 at 5:22
  • "unfair" strongly implies different people are being treated differently. That's not what a test, even a bad test, does. Oct 22 at 10:46
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Keep it short; your time is precious, and this email isn't really communicating critical or subject-matter information. I'd likely do this:

Thanks for the kind words about my system. I'm sorry to hear you were disappointed in the test result, that sounds frustrating. It's a good sign that you're thinking about this as a signal to make more time for studying. Good luck from here on, regards,

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    my face would be like -_- when I would get such a reply
    – undefined
    Oct 20 at 7:27
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    Yea, this feels kind of empty and detached. The kind of personal message the student sent seems to me to be incredibly rare. Something more personal and forthcoming would be appropriate, I feel. Oct 20 at 7:53
  • The student's message might be taken either as a honest message or as the common "I want to do X very much" (yet zero effort given). If the student is the latter type, it's a very much the reply you'd want to send or even worse. However if it's the first type, you effectively kill a student's motivation. It's hard not to be biased in this case if you mainly encounter the second type though.
    – KeyWeeUsr
    Oct 20 at 8:27
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    @JoãoMendes: I disagree, IME I get this kind of communication several times each semester. Oct 20 at 13:44
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    @JoãoMendes I think you're right more personal could be appropriate, but less personal doesn't mean it is inappropriate. An educator has rights to boundaries / choose how personally they answer any email from a student. I think this is a valid response, if not my personal choice. +1
    – TCooper
    Oct 20 at 20:54
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How should I reply to an email from a student who took a test and failed, and promises to do better?

Don't reply. There was no request for information, and any information that you volunteer carries risk of misinterpretation.

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    I think it would be poor etiquette to simply ignore and delete this email - it's pretty personal, the student is being very open about their shortcomings and motivations and desire to do better. To me, ignoring it implicitly sends the message "I don't care about any of that", which is a rather unkind reaction to someone sharing personal information. Oct 20 at 14:03
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    @NuclearHoagie why not ignore but not delete?
    – BCLC
    Oct 20 at 17:08
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    @BCLC That's not any different from the perspective of the student - either way, they just see no response. Not responding but keeping the email doesn't address any of the issues I mentioned. Oct 20 at 17:21
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    @NuclearHoagie ..."Silence can never be misquoted", so if I say something in a situation where I didn't have to, then it's like this thing can be used against me. So I don't really have an incentive to reply here.' Do you know what I mean? Personally, I would reply, but I believe I can understand why someone is entitled to the opinion to not reply. Is it unethical to not reply?
    – BCLC
    Oct 20 at 17:25
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    Might as well reply with an email saying "K, I don't really care. Adiós."
    – user347489
    Oct 21 at 21:05
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Most people here have either never written an email, written too many emails or have passive anger issues.

You are thinking way too much about it. Your email is simply supposed to confirm the situation, optionally give some advise and wish positive outcomes for the future.

No human being won everything on their first try, which is why I don't understand the passively angry replies people reply here such as:

  • "but if you convert the motivation that your message displays into study effort in the next round" <- So basically this comes off as the teacher having seen zero motivation in the student after n-years. If I was the student receiving the reply, I would think twice opening up to the teacher about learning difficulties.

  • "Sometimes we study a lot and fail, but the opposite can also happen. In the end, exams are not perfect. The most important things you have to ask are: do you think you are learning Spanish? Do you feel like you are studying and gradually improving? Do you feel motivated in this course?" <-- Goes on for way too long and even sounds a bit demotivating, maybe even as if the teacher didn't even read the email or know the student at all. Your are beating around the bush and the forest by the end.

  • "It's a good sign that you're thinking about this as a signal to make more time for studying". <-- This is the most passive agressive way to say that the student is a lazy... and finally starts to take the course minimally serious. I would immedietly cancel the course with such a teacher, clearly not an honest teacher who cares about the students.

  • @dotancohen you are basically assuming that the student will be interpreting it as such. But you're wrong. The reply will in 80% of the cases come off as => "The teacher is massively disappointed, maybe I shouldn't go to their course and bother them", "The teacher is angry, failure, failure, failure" and lastly "the teacher doesn't care about me".

OP, just say it's okay to fail the exam and simply throw in a positive phrase like second times a charm or whatever and thank for the appreciation of your system (maybe also add something like "we will figure out how to get you through / improve".

The longer the email gets the more it seems like you are too invested in it or deeply struck by the result, as if your ego was pushed down because the student / your put-forth student didn't succeed.

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  • I think the perception of these phrases may be somewhat dependent on the cultural context. I agree with some of your interpretations and disagree with the rest. To me, "say it's okay to fail the exam and simply throw in a positive phrase like second times a charm" sounds quite demotivating given the nature of the student's mail -- it sounds as if the teacher is trying to dampen the student's enthusiasm rather than push them / help them to succeed.
    – GoodDeeds
    Oct 22 at 16:15
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    You may have replied before the edits but I added some things to it to make it seem more fuller / to avoid the too little and too much issue. The goal of the email is to confirm that the teacher has read the mail and acknowledges the students desire to try again -> "we will figure" etc.... In general, I believe people are wasting too much time on emails and messages. They were supposed to be quick exchanges of information, not the discussion. Oct 22 at 16:22
  • This answer criticises all the others and provides, at best, nothing. -1 Nov 3 at 20:51
  • Then you haven't read my answer at all and just skimmed over it. Good job. Nov 5 at 9:47

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