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I teach a course where attendance is required. The syllabus says "Every unexcused absence will result in a deduction of one point from the attendance grade". The total number of points for attendance is 3. Thus if a student has perfect attendance, they will receive 3/3 for the attendance grade, if a student has two unexcused absences, their attendance grade will be 1/3, etc. The school rule also implied that any student who has four or more unexcused absences should drop this course. So when the syllabus policy was made, the case where a student has four or more absences was not considered.

There is a student who has 6 unexcused absences. By right he should drop this course but for whatever reason he has persuaded the dean to allow him to remain in this course. In this case, should I give him -3/3 for his attendance grade based on the syllabus policy "Every unexcused absence will result in a deduction of one point". Or should I give him 0/3? I think this student deserves a lower attendance grade than someone with three unexcused absences, who will receive 0/3.

Canvas allows me to technically enter a negative grade, but I am not sure if it will be a good idea. What are some possible consequences of entering a negative grade?

Clarifications:

  • There are 100 total points in the class, so an otherwise-perfect student with a 0/3 on attendance would receive 97% (and -3/3 would be 94%).
  • The student has a remarkably good attitude despite the absences (this may have affected the dean's thinking).
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    Comments only tangential to the question have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Academia Meta, or in Academia Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed. Apr 26, 2023 at 17:28
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    Can I clarify - if the syllabus says the penalty is a deduction of one point from the attendance grade does it not imply the deductions are limited to the available marks for that criteria? Suppose the syllabus said every unexcused absence will result in a deduction of one point from your overall grade, it would be clear that you could deduct the student all the way to zero. If this was intended, then it would not make sense to have a separate pool of marks for an 'attendance grade'.
    – fabspro
    Apr 28, 2023 at 12:17
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    @fabspro, the syllabus is unclear about it. However, I, as the instructor, reserve the right to edit the syllabus as needed. I could edit the syllabus now and clarify this.
    – Zuriel
    Apr 28, 2023 at 15:33
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    @Zuriel Editing the syllabus mid-course to change a policy seems like a poor idea; for a student who perceives the policy differently, they would see this as a change not a clarification. If it's unclear, that's your fault, not theirs.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 28, 2023 at 17:06
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    @Zuriel I think what you have said hits the nail on the head. If you want to deduct more than three marks, a change to the syllabus would be the way to go - it would (presumably) go through a process of review and then be officially communicated to the students. I would ask however, is attendance really an effective way to decide if a student has learned the material and should pass a subject? Can't you think of a more effective way to actually assess knowledge and ability, instead of just rewarding simple attendance?
    – fabspro
    Apr 29, 2023 at 3:25

13 Answers 13

113

I'd recommend that you not lower the grade below zero (0). This seems to represent "lost all points for this category", which seems roughly appropriate.

Moreover, I think in cases that are in a gray zone like this, you're better off for multiple reasons erring on the side of being charitable towards the student. The fact that you're asking here indicates there's at least some vagueness to the policy. It could result in a student dispute that will be a drag on your time. You've already got a dean involved who's signaled they're willing to go to bat for the student. Etc. Probably others can explicate other reasons, as well.

Even though I'm considered among the strictest graders at my institution/department, nevertheless, in a case like this I think you're better off not making up a novel never-before-seen grade.

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    (+1) for including both reasons (first 2 paragraphs). The first reason is consistent with the often-made caveat that students earn points rather than lose points (so they earn points based on attendance) and the second reason seems common sense to me if the teacher doesn't want to alienate students and face reversal (as I suspect will be likely) when the student appeals to a higher authority. Apr 25, 2023 at 21:00
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    Yeah, negative points are so unusual that I would consider them not allowed unless set out in the syllabus. Apr 26, 2023 at 3:57
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    "Drag on your time" is crucial here. As they say, "is the juice worth the squeeze"? What is the impact to the student? What are the potential impacts to you?
    – user40176
    Apr 29, 2023 at 17:54
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Your student is being graded on a lot more than just attendance, so I assume the purpose of the attendance grade here is primarily to encourage attendance, rather than that attendance is absolutely necessary for the content of the course (for example a course based primarily on discussion between students is basically meaningless without attendance).

Setting their attendance grade to zero sounds sufficient to me. If they're able to do well on the other 97% without attending classes, they've found some other way to learn the course material. If not, well, they're already being penalized for the lack of attendance in other ways.

I'd also keep in mind that a student missing a lot of sessions may be dealing with issues that you are not privy to (maybe the dean is, maybe not), involving their own health or someone else's health, needing to watch/assist a child or elder or person with a disability, or needing to make other tough choices between your class and something else. I don't think it's necessarily up to you to decide whether their reasons are 'good enough' and certainly not your right to know what they are, but if they're making other efforts towards the course besides being physically present at a certain time that should count for something, and you kind of just have to assume they've weighed the consequences they know about and understand and try not to create new ones that would be unexpected.

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    +1 for the last paragraph. I started to write something like it but couldn't keep it polite enough.
    – Boba Fit
    Apr 25, 2023 at 22:44
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    That last paragraph is golden, and our asker should bare it in mind when assessing whether docking points for attendance at all is really legitimate. Apr 26, 2023 at 9:59
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    @JackAidley Sure, though another commenter linked to academia.stackexchange.com/q/65868/63475 - I do think it's worth considering whether grading attendance makes sense, but don't think it's without value. A couple percentage points to encourage attendance seems among the more reasonable policies to me. I'm less sure about the 4 absences = drop policy, but it seems like the administration is flexible with that part.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 26, 2023 at 12:10
  • Regarding the last paragraph, the deduction of points is for "unexcused absence". I would think that surely most if not all reasons you mention are actually absences with a valid excuse
    – Ivo
    Apr 28, 2023 at 9:42
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    @Ivo Policies on excused vs unexcused absences vary quite a bit, and may or may not be reasonable in all circumstances, so I left those concepts out of the discussion. It would be reasonable, though, for a student to see the 3 point policy and not bother to get a 4th absence excused because it carries no consequences, except the forced withdrawal that they did get excused in some sense by going to the dean.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 28, 2023 at 13:43
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First, as I've stated elsewhere, your students are adults, and for that reason, the whole idea of "excused" versus "unexcused" absences, and grading based on attendance, is generally a bad one in the context of higher education. So I'd say you should not deduct any points for absences, but if you're going to deduct points, at least deduct as few points as possible. Giving 0/3 points for attendance instead of -3/3 would be more in keeping with this general philosophy.

Second, I think your "negative points" framing isn't actually the most correct way to look at the situation. It sounds like in your grading policy you've allotted 97 out of 100 grade points to "performance", and 3 points out of 100 to "attendance". Your idea of giving "negative points" in the attendance component is really a suggestion to have someone's lack of attendance eat into their performance-related grade points. That is effectively a penalty rather than a grade. If someone's performance grade was 97/97, they deserve to get those 97 points. You've basically declared that demonstrating correct knowledge of the course material will result in those points being awarded, but now you're proposing to retroactively change that and have a lack of attendance negatively affect the performance component of the grade. That's not logical, and does not seem like an appropriate thing to do. Students deserve to have clear goalposts to aim for that are not moved after the fact. And as @DanielR.Collins says in his excellent answer, leaning towards a charitable interpretation of your policies in cases of ambiguity is generally a good idea.

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There is a student who has 6 unexcused absences. By right he should drop this course but for whatever reason he has persuaded the dean to allow him to remain in this course.

This is the Dean's problem, not yours. You need to refer this to the Dean for them to make a policy decision or clarification of this case.

The Dean may be privy to information related to the absences which you are not, but whatever the case, it's their job to clarify the problem.

I think in the absence of guidance to the contrary I would regard the intent to have excused the absences and hence no further punishment is required. I would suggest you put this to the Dean when asking for clarification as your default position.

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    Or even whether any deductions at all are required. It seems likely that the Dean may have excused the absences and forgot to mention this to the OP. As you say, the OP can only find out by asking the Dean.
    – Graham
    Apr 27, 2023 at 10:18
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Getting into "negative points" is a super weird territory for grading purposes. I've never even heard of that before. Even if the math works, what does it mean philosophically? That you've....... done worse, than you could possibly do? I don't understand. I also agree with sentiments expressed in the comments: grades at the end of the day are warranted with strength/merit, not attendance. If someone can make a 97 in the course or a 95 in the course and miss 4 days, then I do not see why it is bad for them to do so. I know, I know, different schools have their own policies, but if attendance is the biggest issue we can find with the student, then I look at that as just fine. Note, that the opposite is true as well: if you miss 4 days, and then do not do well on the material covered on those 4 days, then that's the student's fault, not yours. Part of academia is being treated like an adult in the sense that people aren't going to hold your hand and look after you, in many instances. This is one of those instances.

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    Negative marking can be used as a strong incentive to not take an effort/reward tradeoff. eg if a project is worth 5% of the end of year mark but will take 100 hours to complete, some might choose to save the 100 hours and lose the 5%. A penalty from the final year mark >>5% is a strong incentive not to do that. Apr 27, 2023 at 11:39
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    @user1908704 Yes, but from a course design standpoint, I don't think an instructor should assign a 100 hour project that is only worth 5% of the grade. Except for academic dishonesty, I'm not sure I can think of a case where I would want a grading scheme to present that issue. Apr 27, 2023 at 15:36
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    Negative marking is most commonly used in multiple choice examinations, to avoid them being multiple guess examinations. Apr 27, 2023 at 19:18
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    Negative grades don't make sense. In fact, they ironically make less than no sense. If I get a 0 on a math exam, it means I didn't get any questions correct. If I made a -50%, does this mean that I've unlearned half of the material on the exam? It doesn't make sense! In academia, you have to earn points. You don't begin with a 100 and go down from there, you start with 0 and go up from there. Negative grading, short of better argumentation, is confusing, and should never be implemented. Apr 27, 2023 at 21:27
  • @JaredGreathouse negative points could totally make sense. A zero would indicate no knowledge of a subject. A negative score would indicate having incorrect knowledge that you believe to be true. For fields like civil engineering that could be a very important distinction, where overconfidence in one's own knowledge could lead to serious harm
    – Steve Cox
    Apr 28, 2023 at 23:21
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When you say, "the total number of points for attendance is 3", it is absolutely not the same thing as, "I will deduct a point for every day you miss." In the latter case, there is not reason to specify any number. Taking more points is not fair to students because it does not follow your syllabus. Perhaps a bit capricious too, and it seems like you are singling out one student with a special policy.

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"Every unexcused absence will result in a deduction of one point from the attendance grade"

At 0 points, they have no attendance points left to be deducted. If you deduct points into the negative, you are taking points away from other categories.

Since you do not know the circumstances of the absences and don't need to (the dean has vouched for the student), I don't think you need to worry about minus points.

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Your syllabus says attendance is worth 3 points, and the student read that and determined, for whatever reason, "I don't need those 3 points".

Now you're talking about changing the rules, and taking points away from the student in other areas (whether you think of assigning negative points this way or not, this is what you'd effectively be doing).

You should clearly stick to the syllabus, and assign the student a 0 for attendance. If you don't like that outcome, you can change the syllabus the next time you teach the class.

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  • Well, except the syllabus also says 'miss four classes and you're out', so this argument doesn't hold water, I'm afraid. Apr 27, 2023 at 19:19
  • @DavidA.Craven -- I don't believe the syllabus says that. "So when the syllabus policy was made, the case where a student has four or more absences was not considered." Apr 27, 2023 at 19:21
  • I agree it looks less clear-cut than I originally read. But if someone had to get dispensation from the Dean to continue the course after six UAs, I would guess it's certainly considered a rule by everyone, so what to do if you have 6 out of 3 allowed UAs is far from clear. Apr 28, 2023 at 8:08
  • @DavidA.Craven -- and "less clear-cut" in a syllabus often pushes the decision in the students' favor Apr 28, 2023 at 14:53
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What do you hope to achieve by negative points?

If attendance can go negative then essentially your attendance grade could be rescored as a positive number but with attendance taking a larger percentage of the grade.

So for example: saying attendance is 10% of the grade and you scored a -10% on it and the other 90% of your grade was scored 85% gives you a final grade of (-10%) * 0.1 + (85%)*0.9 = 75.5% (a C+)

You can alternatively look at this as saying attendance is 11.5% of your grade and you scored a 0%. The other 88.5% of your grade was scored 85% giving you a final grade of

(0%)*0.115 + (85%)*0.885 = 75.5225% (a C+)

(for those that want the exact threshold to make them match is 151/170)

I hope you see the point. Negative grades are basically just a way to mislead what the true grading is. Any negative grading scheme can be rescored as a positively graded scheme with different weights (namely increasing the weights wherever the scheme was negative) assuming you have a maximum number of losable points for a particular weight.

Also what is the purpose of the grade? It's a measure of competency (hopefully). So what does it mean to be below 0% competent at something?

Where Negatives Make Sense:

I think in the medical field you can score someone on "did they improve the condition, did they do nothing but pass it along to the right parties, did they actively make the problem worse"

If I had a class on surgery that was hands-on I could see a justified negative grading scheme "-15% student's performance would result in severe complications, not only did they fail the task but the way they performed it caused a rupture to the lung as well"

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In my opinion, if you want to give negative points, you should start with them at 0/3 and inform them that they will start getting negative points for more absences. The student may have incurred these additional absences without a full understanding of the consequences for this happening (I don’t think it’s unreasonable to incorrectly interpret your policy (you haven’t made up your mind on your own policy here either!)).

You may want to also ask the dean if the student has an executive functioning disability. Perhaps that was a factor in their decision and could inform your decision too.

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No, not with the syllabus as currently written. You said "Every unexcused absence will result in a deduction of one point from the attendance grade" (which is assumed by default to be zero or positive), not the overall grade.

-1

I think that if you give negative points then the total overall possible grade would be the positive opposite of the negative. For example, if you deduct three more points for the other absences then the highest possible grade should be 103. It doesn’t seem fair that someone with perfect attendance only earn 3 points with no chance to gain more, and someone with 6 absences can lose points outside of the allotted attendance grade. As that is not how the class’s grading system is structured, I don’t think it’s logical to go below 0/3.

Since the dean has allowed them to remain in the class, I’d follow that lead and only deduct the three points allowed for attendance.

-2

For the sake of offering a contrary view from what I'm reading in the other answers, I will support the idea of negative points in general.

Not every instructor agrees with the importance of classroom attendance. (There would certainly be a difference between the U.S. and Europe on this question.) I don't want to get into that, but certainly in an American context it's not unusual to require attendance and participation.

I don't believe that just because participation is expected, it therefore needs to be a large fraction of the grade. That flattens out the grades and makes it hard to differentiate students.

I have used negative points in homework grading. (Again there will be different ideas about this, but for me, doing the homework is a fundamental.) So I would give people negative points if they didn't do it, to reflect the importance of the work to the course. That incentivizes students to do the work, without requiring me to have a large fraction of the final grade devoted to homework.

In your particular case, since you didn't indicate that negative points are a possibility in your syllabus, I don't think it's an appropriate thing to do. But you could change your syllabus in the future.

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  • It's polite to make a comment when you downvote, to make clear the nature of the objection.
    – adam.baker
    May 5, 2023 at 12:23

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