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I am an adjunct in a reputable North American university. It is my first semester teaching an upper-year/beginning graduate-level course.

A student raised a complaint against me to the chair of the department because they did not get the grade that they wanted. The complaint is without merit whatsoever as far as the student's coursework is concerned; however, they did mention that the distribution of the course grade was "lower than all the other courses he has taken" (obviously reeking of entitlement here). The chair took issue with me solely on this.

The distribution was around 15% A, 30% B, 40% C and the rest D. The average of the course was 77% which is a C in this particular school. The chair apparently saw this as a big issue.

The compromise which we arrived at is to raise the grades of the student collectively. The reasoning (or excuse) for this grade adjustment is that the students had poor preparations coming into a tough course. But the actual reason (which the chair mentioned) is because poor grade signals difficulty and hurts enrolment and graduation rate to the college and hurts my career because apparently students will avoid taking my course. The distribution of the grades for each professor is somehow available to the students which is a travesty in my opinion.

I am utterly at a loss. The grade adjustment is utter nonsense. I am moving students who cannot even multiply two vectors together into the C or B range. The school is highly reputable. But yet it seems that the chair is encouraging me to abandon basic ethics in favor of business.

Worse yet, the student made up some completely fabricated lies against me to the chair even including that I have discriminated against them based on race/ethnicity (I am of the same race/ethnicity as the student) and the chair is not willing to say a word to the student.

I wonder if anyone else has faced this "pressure to raise grade" situation before and how you have dealt with it or rationalized it.

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    I suggest this should be written in a bit more of a neutral style. Maybe your students are idiots, but there's still no need to write (btw my students are idiots) after every other sentence. You taught them, so how do we know you aren't an idiot teacher with normal students, especially as it is your first time teaching? Dec 27, 2023 at 16:18
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    You have written this from the perspective of "My students failed because they are entitled little brats and my administration is horribly corrupt, how can I make sure they know they're entitled little brats and the admistration is horribly corrupt?" instead of "My students failed because something went wrong in this course, how can I excuse this to the administration and make sure the next students actually learn the material?" Dec 27, 2023 at 16:22
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    This is your first try at teaching a graduate level course, are you certain the fault for the low grades across the board lies with your students? There's a single common factor for those grades...
    – asgallant
    Dec 27, 2023 at 17:54
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    "Do not deserve" by what standard? Does the school (or the course) have published grade descriptors? Is there an explicit, documented policy of norm referencing/grading on a curve? Dec 28, 2023 at 19:53
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    Please avoid writing answers in the comments. Comments are for suggesting improvements to the post or seeking clarification about the question. Answers in the comments will be removed without warning.
    – cag51
    Dec 28, 2023 at 23:13

13 Answers 13

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A disclaimer: I am a full professor of math in a large US public university. I was never an adjunct and, except for two years as a tenure-track professor, always had security of employment. Thus, I have never been in your situation. Nevertheless, I do have some observations and suggestions that might be helpful.

  1. From what is written, the problem is not your fault. For people unfamiliar with math, "multiplying two vectors" is something that math majors learn during their first year of undergraduate studies (in Linear Algebra or/and Vector Calculus classes). For upper division and graduate classes, this skill (dot/inner product) of vectors has to be taken for granted and it is not something that one normally teaches at that level. Lack of this skill suggests that students are unprepared for an upper division/graduate class and have to retake some of the lower division classes. (This is a bit akin to the fact that Calculus students have know how to manipulate fractions, otherwise, they simply do not belong to a Calculus class.)

How is it possible that students are so unprepared? (such lack of preparation is real and I observed it while teaching math classes of all levels in my institution). From my personal observations, it is a combination of several factors: (1) Covid-19 pandemic and remote instruction. As the result, many students have some lost basic learning skills (such as taking lecture notes and preparing for exams). Mass cheating during remote exams and lenient grading made the grade inflation (already present in the pre-pandemic times) much worse. (2) Abolishing some of the standardized tests (SATs for undergraduate students and GREs for graduate students). As the result, for instance, in graduate admissions one frequently has to rely upon some unreliable information (for instance, grades).

Consequently, some of the (otherwise quite reasonable) suggestions appearing in other answers on how to deal with a large number of students performing poorly in a math class, simply will not work. What will work is retraining of the failing students by making them retake some lower division undergraduate classes (such as Linear Algebra or Vector Calculus). The alternatives are either not covering all the required syllabus in advanced classes (and teaching some lower division material instead) or "kicking the can down the road" and passing students who lack basic math skills (which is what your Chair is telling you to do).

  1. So, what to do? You are lacking security of employment and simply cannot say "no" to the Chair (which is something that I personally can and would do as a full professor). Thus, you have to agree to pass students who should be failing the class. However, in your situation, I would ask your Chair for an honest conversation and explain that while you agree with his/her suggestion, you see a potential serious problem having unprepared students moving to more-and-more advanced math classes. For future, suggest "prequalification exams" before students take upper division/grad classes and making students failing such exams retake the relevant lower division classes. If this is not feasible, suggest changing (temporarily) syllabi of some of the upper division/grad classes to allow time for covering the more basic material for unprepared students. Another suggestion is to talk to other faculty at your department and ask how do they handle the problem of dealing with unprepared students.
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    +1 for addressing some of the specifics raised by the OP, while being realistic.
    – Yemon Choi
    Jan 2 at 2:13
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  1. The question feels a little "ranty" to me. It reads to me like someone who knows that they are an amazing teacher, who did a wonderful job all semester, and had terrible students who failed themselves, and a corrupt chair who isn't backing them up. I have no idea what the actual situation is, but you are not presenting yourself well.

    From the question, this is your first real teaching experience. Teaching is hard. My father—who had a PhD in anthropology and a JD; who clerked for Stanley Feldman and wrote legislation for the Democratic party in the Arizona House of Representatives; who spoke several languages, including Diné (the language spoken by the Navajo people); who was, by all measures, a very smart man—took a teaching position after leaving the House, and was nearly run out of town on a rail at the end of his first year. His evaluations were terrible, the DFW rate was terrible, everything was terrible.

    But he took responsibility for much of this failure and, rather than taking the next summer to work on getting papers out, opted instead to attend a several month long teaching workshop hosted by Princeton University. He approached his teaching with humility and, by the time he moved on from teaching to administration, was one of the most popular instructors at his institution. But this came from accepting his own faults and failures, and learning how to improve.

    I would very much encourage you to approach your teaching with the same humility.

    Your department considers your class to have been something of a failure. It is possible that your students were unprepared, but it is also incredibly likely that you were unprepared, and that you have a large role in the failure of your students. Stay humble, reflect on your teaching, and figure out how you are going to do better in the future.

  2. You indicated that this was an upper division / introductory graduate level course. In most classes of this type, the students who are enrolled are subject area majors. They are self-selected, and are expected to be strong in the field. It is rare for the average grades in such a class to be lower than a B—in graduate school, a C is generally as bad a an F, as a lot of funding decisions are predicated on a student maintaining a better than 3.0 GPA (in my second year of grad school, half of the cohort below me lost their funding when they all got Cs in one class—this caused something of a scandal in the department).

    It sounds very much like your course is an outlier. This is going to raise concerns.

  3. That being said, let me address the following question:

    In a course that I taught this semester, the distribution of grades at the end of the term was significantly lower than the distributions of other instructors. I am being pressured by my chair to raise my grades. What should I do?

    The pragmatic answer is "Do what your chair asks you to do." You are junior faculty (and it sounds like you are not even tenure track), so your employment is tenuous, at best. Make your bosses happy. If this is not sustainable in the long run, start looking for other work now.

    The idealistic answer is "You should do what you think is right." One of the principles of academia is a notion of "academic freedom". While this freedom exists primarily to prevent faculty from being sanctioned for the research that they perform (e.g. you can't fire a faculty member for doing research in a controversial framework, such as critical race theory), it is also there to protect faculty from pressure to change their courses. At the end of the day, you are the instructor of record, and you can assign grades pretty much however you like. You might not be rehired, and sticking to your guns is unlikely to win you any friends or supporters, but should have the right to leave your grades as you assigned them in the first place.

    You have to decide what is important to you: your idealistic views of the academy, or your pragmatic need to put food on the table and to maintain good relations with the folk you work with.

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    In my view you have either misunderstood the question or you don’t know that grade inflation really exists. You should ask yourself: what is the goal of teaching? There are no pragmatic or idealistic answers to this question. There is only one answer: the goal of teaching is to produce learning. Any other answer is a scam. Dec 28, 2023 at 4:58
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    @MahdiMajidi-Zolbanin I strongly disagree. Your answer is an idealistic answer: the goal of teaching is to produce learning! Sure. I agree. But now play out the scenario where you act on that ideal, as an early career instructor who has no political power. You might lose your job, and maybe your career. You don't get to teach anymore. You lose the ability to put your ideals into practice. Some people are okay with this---maybe you are, too. If we take the asker at face value, this seems to be the position they are in. Dec 29, 2023 at 13:49
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    @MahdiMajidi-Zolbanin Grade inflation exists but so also do new instructors who don't have a good baseline calibration of where the bar belongs. Dec 29, 2023 at 21:18
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    @barbecue If the question were simply "I am a new instructor, and I am being pressured to change my grades, what should I do?" I would agree with you. However, the majority of the original question is a rant about how terrible the students were, and how corrupt the administrators are. This make the whole thing feel like something of an XY Problem, and I feel that it is necessary to also address some of the underlying assumptions and biases which seem to be present. There are other answers which do a good job of addressing the purported question about changing grades. Dec 29, 2023 at 22:23
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    @barbecue Yeah, I get that, but the first part is what I think is the important part. The other parts are not very dissimilar from the other answers. Dec 29, 2023 at 23:29
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It is my first-semester teaching an upper-year/beginning graduate level course.

You do not have political power in this situation.

The average of the course was 77% which is a C in this particular school. The chair apparently saw this as a big issue.

The situation requires someone to intervene.

The answer is to find someone else in your department who has the political power to intervene. Comply with the request, then tell the powerful sympathetic person your story, and see what happens.

The best-case scenario is that your school has some faculty who are unionized. I suspect you are not in that situation, because in that scenario, many faculty have political power and your chair's actions are highly unlikely.

On the other end of the spectrum is a school where no faculty have the political power to address the situation. That school is doomed; let it die and move on.

I do not agree with other answers here which seem to think everything is doom and gloom and every school has lost its standards. I do agree that some schools are in danger. Most schools are somewhere in the middle.

But your question is a simple political question; when you do not have the power to take action yourself, talk with a more powerful person who sympathizes with your position.

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    Yes, avoid pointless self-immolation... Dec 27, 2023 at 20:08
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I think the answer to your question ultimately depends on your personal values regarding integrity versus employment, as well as any dire life circumstances that are unstated in the question (e.g. if your next paycheck is necessary to put food on the table for your family, and the lapse in integrity is not something egregious like violence, then that would obviously push the dial towards employment).

So I'm not going to attempt to tell you what you should do. But I'll tell you what I would do, and you can use that information however you want. I'm also going to assume that you've taught the course in an effective way, most students would reasonably be expected to have learned the skills that they are lacking. (By the way, that assumption of effective teaching has not been addressed in your question, so I would recommend adding some details about how the course was taught.)

Personally, the only time I might choose employment over integrity would be in the context of dire life circumstances. Barring that, I would turn the dial all the way towards integrity. My goal in life (which I'm sure is shared by many) is to do things that impact a ton of people, including and especially myself and loved ones, in an extremely positive way. The more positive the impact, the better. Integrity is kind of like a half-compass in the journey towards that goal. It doesn't tell me what to do, but it does tell me what not to do. If my continued employment depends on corrupt things, then the employment is useless for achieving my goal. So why would I want to continue it, especially given the opportunity cost of missing out on employment opportunities that are actually useful for achieving my goal? It's like staying in a bad relationship. Yeah, breaking up might still feel painful in the short term, but it's ultimately the only way to get to where you want to be in the long term.

In your particular situation, I would probably write a long email

  • communicating my understanding of the expectations of the course and asking whether my understanding is aligned with the expectations of the department (to make sure that the whole situation isn't just some misunderstanding about that),

  • telling the department chair that I will assigning grades that are reflective of the students' demonstrated learning relative to the expectations of the course (keeping a level head and using respectful language of course), and

  • documenting some brief notes about any students who are receiving a low grade (e.g. student X has a grade of F because they have repeatedly failed to demonstrate learning skills ___ and ___ or any of the more advanced skills of which those skills are components, which consists of over half the course, even though I took reasonably sufficient measures ___, ___, and ___ in attempt to help them learn these skills).

If they confirm that they want me to give student X a passing grade despite the information that I provided, then I would just tell them that I'm not going to do so and start thinking about employment elsewhere. If that decision ends up terminating my employment, then fine, I'll just accelerate the upcoming job search. (I would also keep an open mind to different industries, e.g. if you know a lot of math, but you don't love teaching enough to put up with the low pay and political drama that often surrounds it, then there are other options, especially if you can code or are motivated to learn...)

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    I would rephrase some of this to focus less on students' "ability" to the students lack of "mastery" or "failed to learn how to." If classes were only based on inherent "ability" then there would be no point in having classes. Indeed, assuming that your students are capable of learning the material and that your job is to facilitate that is essential.
    – Elin
    Dec 30, 2023 at 20:50
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    @Elin I never referred to inherent ability, but that's fair enough, I tweaked the wording to avoid the word "ability" since its connotation appears to trigger that particular kind of reaction. Dec 31, 2023 at 5:32
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Teaching is very hard. It sounds like you did not pay attention to how the students were doing early on. If they don't know how to multiply vectors, you needed to either teach them to multiply vectors or tell them to drop the class. It is very hard to tell without more details (we don't know what your syllabus says or how you assessed students), but math education is an area where there is a huge amount of research about effective teaching strategies and as someone teaching, you really need to spend time diving into that and into learning in general. It's a serious job.

It's important as a teacher that you remember that your students are not you, not even you as an undergraduate. You were most likely an outstanding student, but think back to who were the other students in classes with you. How did your instructors help them all to learn and all get them to Cs?

It's a learning experience and you sound like you haven't reflected on what went wrong in the class. The fact that you say insulting things about your students indicates that you have quite a bit of reflecting and maturation to do.

What should you do? I'd look back over the semester. Are there some things weighted too heavily in retrospect? Where did you lose them?

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TLDR: The Problem is You.

That's a strong expression, so I'll explain.

I am an adjunct in a reputable North American university. It is my first-semester teaching an upper-year/beginning graduate level course.

It's a reputable university. You're a beginner at teaching. Beginners in anything make mistakes. It's more likely you made mistakes than that the reputable university doesn't know its business.

A student raised a complaint against me to the chair of the department because they did not get the grade that they wanted. The complaint is without merit whatsoever as far as the student's coursework is concerned, however, they did mention that the distribution of the course grade was "lower than all the other courses he has taken" (obviously reeking entitlements here). The chair took issue with me solely on this.

And you should have taken that criticism as a signal that there was a problem with your approach to either teaching or marking (or both). You do not seem open to criticism directed at yourself.

The distribution was around 15% A, 30% B, 40% C and rest D. The average of the course was 77% which is a C in this particular school. The chair apparently saw this as a big issue.

You're an employee, so if your bosses say it's a big issue, then you should treat it as a big issue.

The compromise

Let's remember that word.

which we arrived at is to raise the grades of the student collectively.

You don't have to like this. It's a compromise and your employers want it that way. Just do it. Compromising means you should consider the matter closed and move on mentally, which you do not seem willing to do (not from the tone of your post).

The reasoning (or excuse) for this grade adjustment is that the students had poor preparations coming into a tough course. But the actual reason (which the chair mentioned) is because poor grade signals difficulty and hurts enrolment and graduation rate to the college and hurts my career because apparently students will avoid taking my course.

This is known as being practical and living in the real world. Those are legitimate concerns. You are in the business of education and you need to accept those realities.

The distribution of the grades for each professor is somehow available to the students which is a travesty in my opinion.

A different issue, but if you're not comfortable with that you can move on to a different job. It's how they do it where you work and you're unlikely to change that.

I am utterly at a loss. The grade adjustment is utter nonsense. I am moving students who cannot even multiply two vectors together into the C or B range.

Honestly it's hard to find that claim realistic at graduate level.

The school is highly reputable. But yet it seems that the chair is encouraging me to abandon basic ethics in favor of business.

It could simply be that you're not a match for the institute. Again, consider if you're suited to this role and/or this institute. Consider if the problem is you or them.

Worse yet, the student made up some completely fabricated lies against me to the chair even including that I have discriminated against them based on race/ethnicity (I am of the same race/ethnicity as the student) and the chair is not willing to say a word to the student.

Unless this had negative consequences for you (with respect to your employer), you need to mentally move on. In your career it's unlikely you'll avoid people making negative claims about you. Get used to it and develop a thick skin. If this did have a negative impact with your relationship to your employer you may need to move on or find a way to address the problem constructively.

Note that, if your tone in this question was anything to go by, it's easy to imagine you speaking down to students or coming across as arrogant or dismissive of their concerns. If you had e.g. a student who felt they had (elsewhere in the past) been a victim of discrimination, it would (again) be easy to see them interpreting a "teacher with an attitude" as "discrimination".

This may be a sign you need to work on how you communicate and interact with people.

I wonder if anyone else has faced this "pressure to raise grade" situation before and how you have dealt with it or rationalized it.

No rationale required. Your bosses made a decision and your job is to implement it. Period.

The real problem here is that you're not willing to accept what you describe as a "compromise" or let go of your personal anger. Nor do you seem prepared to accept your role in this could be the main issue.

No one else can solve those issues and you won't change everyone else.

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    Re "Honestly it's hard to find that claim realistic at graduate level" - I have heard similar stories from people I trust (working in North America). Comprehensives/qualifiers exist in North American systems for a reason.
    – Yemon Choi
    Dec 30, 2023 at 12:33
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    @YemonChoi I've a STEM background and it's hard to see how you could avoid something that basic for an entire undergrad course and still get into graduate school. I suppose money talks is a thing, but if a student's family has enough money to get away with that level of incompetence, it's hard to see how a first year teacher could have enough clout to do more than accept the compromise offered and get on with it. We all have to learn to walk away from fights we cannot win, and stand our ground when there's a reasonable chance to win. Dec 30, 2023 at 23:23
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    @StephenG-HelpUkraine OP may have had different levels of achievements in their studies. I can vouch that I come from a generation where we covered more early on in a year (and it felt completely natural) that is covered today in a full degree. Objectively. The standards have slipped drastically. "Honestly it's hard to find that claim realistic at graduate level." - actually, this is unfortunately a very plausible claim. The question is what to do with it. As it looks, one has to compress the actual scale of achievement in the "departmentally acceptable" grade interval. Dec 31, 2023 at 12:28
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    "Your bosses made a decision and your job is to implement it. Period." I heartily disagree. Consider the extreme case of a teacher in medical school experiencing pressure to increase the grades. The result is poorly prepared doctors going out into society and costing lives. You have a responsibility to society, and to your students, not just to your boss. Jan 1 at 13:11
  • @PeterBloem In such an extreme case (your words) the responsibilities are a little different. It doesn't alter the general advice for non-extreme cases and, even in such an extreme case, someone who wants to remain an employee probably doesn't have good odds of being able to avoid implementing the policy without negative consequences. Typically you'd be looking at resigning and maybe becoming a whistleblower is your extreme case. In the OP's case I'm not sure what is accomplished by such drastic actions over someone who cannot multiply vectors. Jan 1 at 14:39
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I'm former military, and used the G.I. Bill to finish my college education. As such, unlike some other students who I kept hearing chant the mantra, "C's get degrees", I was there to actually learn. After all, I was paying for the education, both with my service, and with my own money where the grant did not cover.

In classes, I would strive for perfection on tests. While almost every class had a curve involved, I almost never benefitted. I think 3 classes I actively benefitted from the curve, with two bringing me from a high B to an A, and one bringing me from a high C to a B. The only reason why I didn't have a near perfect GPA was prior college in my youth where I did poorly like Steve did.

Now, at my college, not all of my classes were curved, and not all of them were curved favorably. Specifically, none of the math courses were curved at all, and Physics 2 for engineers was actually curved against the students, only allowing a certain number of As, Bs, etc. in each, no matter how high every person scored. In the end it was a very competitive class. I am left to wonder, what kind of degree program are you teaching for?

Honestly though, that shouldn't make a difference. The grades are a standard. Students shouldn't be there to party, they should be there to learn. Our culture is in part to blame for that. We treat high school as the big end all hurdle, where they can then coast to victory if they get into college. However, the truth is that they have to actually try, or they will as Steve said, be useless in life, and have a useless degree with a wad of debt.

While we do need to change, I'm not sure it's necessarily in the colleges that we need to first change. Change does have to come to there at some point though, but unless our culture of treating college as some sort of party place for teens changes, it isn't going to matter. Other countries have already tackled this problem though, and perhaps we can learn how they did it, if we can humble ourselves enough.

For what you should do, don't be a martyr. Instead of dying on this hill, I recommend trying to engage your students in future classes, and make them more interested in coming to your class somehow. I know that linear algebra can be boring. I got through it by doing autopilot calculations for moving around asteroids for example. Get creative!

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    Can you explain "G.I.Bill"? Is this something from US?
    – user111388
    Dec 29, 2023 at 12:57
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    @user111388 The GI Bill is a an umbrella term for several bits of American legislation which provide benefits to veterans. Among these benefits are funds for higher education. Dec 29, 2023 at 13:54
  • Yes, specifically, I refer to the Mongomery G.I. Bill and the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill here in the US. If you were honorably discharged for your service and were recruited under this programs, you received a grant for college tuition and living expenses. Dec 30, 2023 at 22:08
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    It says that you "voted up Steve Kalgren's answer, as he hits the nail on the head" but unfortunately I don't see anybody by that name or even an answer that seems to resemble the one you are referencing.
    – Michael
    Dec 31, 2023 at 11:13
  • You are correct, the answer is now missing. Possibly removed when the question was migrated over to educators stack exchange from academia. Maybe he didn't have an account here. I will remove the reference as it is now irrelevant. Jan 1 at 16:32
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Don't fight over grades.

Grades depend on so many factors, the curriculum, the ability of the teacher, the ability of the student, the teacher student relationship, whether the student was fit on the day of exam, etc. etc.

Try to to be a good teacher, but try not to care about the grades too much.

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  • I agree that this is where you want to end up, but I don't think it's a good starting point for a beginning teacher. Students care about grades, and with good reason. If they fail, it costs them a lot of time and money. For that reason, they are entitled to care about the grade. I think a well-designed course can help students past caring about the grades, but you need to take that worry away first. Jan 1 at 13:06
  • @PeterBloem It did not really get your point. My suggestion was to not pick a fight over grading. Just grade as the dean, or the head of department or the other teachers expect you to grade. Jan 1 at 16:47
  • I guess my comment wasn't really specific to the situation in hand. Sorry about that. More specifically, I think it is important for the OP to care about grades in this specific case. Consider, for instance, what happens if other students complain about the grading being too light, or being ill-prepared for future course, despite getting a good grade. The OP can't say "well, the head of department made me do it", they need to be able to defend their grading scheme. It's their course design, and they need to be able to stand by it. Jan 2 at 9:07
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    @PeterBloem The OP can very well say that they graded "following the standards and general grading schemes of the institution". It is not necessary that the OP believes this to be a good way to grade. Jan 2 at 9:16
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I think you need to realise that the most important thing for grades is fairness. Students who achieve more should get better (or at least equal) grades. And this needs to apply across the board. Grading standards need to be comparable across different instructors, since otherwise the main factor affecting a student's grade would be what instructors they had, not how well they performed. That would be unacceptable.

So it is up to the institution what their standards are. It is not up to you. And they have decided that your standards are too high.

(Grades do not so much need to be comparable between institutions: employers know that they are not, and generally have a good idea of how to allow for this. But you can't tell from someone's transcripts that they just had harsh instructors.)

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The distribution was around 15% A, 30% B, 40% C and rest D.

What is the typical grade distribution for courses at that level at that school?

It does not mean that you should automatically adjust your scores handed out, yet if your class distribution differs much from the college average (which is a refection of students' and other professors' history), then you should be prepared to provide an explanation as it certainly will arise in the future.

Your standards do not need to be in lock/step with the college, yet notable deviations will need explaining. Considerations to align are worthwhile, yet need not wholesale comprise your integrity. Perhaps a nudge?

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    FWIW, I had a noted profession (W. T. P.), that although the class was in analogue circuit design, he tended to grade digitally: many As and Fails. I still remember his name to this day and think positively of the course. (I did get the A.) Dec 30, 2023 at 2:10
  • I also had one prof of this kind. He also often used to say before the exam (or even at the start of the course) which grade one would get: "You look stupid, you will fail my course." I got an A and think negativly of the professor.
    – user111388
    Dec 31, 2023 at 12:42
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    At a German university, I would never assume that all courses of a particular program are equally hard and have similar grade distributions. For instance, in a computer science program, it's a safe bet that the percentage of students who fail in "Math for Computer Scientists" is much higher than the percentage of students who fail in "Introduction to Programming". I'd assume that this holds for all STEM programs.
    – Uwe
    Dec 31, 2023 at 19:46
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    @Uwe I would actually be kind of interested to see those statistics. Both "Math for CS" and "Programming 101" are introductory level classes, but I would guess that the fail rates for the programming class would be higher, since there are going to be a bunch of folk in that class who think they want to major in CS or "computer engineering" or whatever, and they end up dropping out, while those in "Math for CS" are maybe already committed majors, and are both self-selected and incentivized to do better. But, again, I'd be interested in those stats. Jan 2 at 18:36
  • @XanderHenderson Both ""Introduction to Programming" and "Math for Computer Scientists" are mandatory courses for CS freshmen, so the students in both courses are the same. Moreover, "Math for Computer Scientists" may be a proof-oriented course, and that's something that many freshmen find really hard. (The "Math for CS" exam that made it to the news some years ago with a failure rate of 94% was a bit exceptional, though. Yes, it was repeated.)
    – Uwe
    Jan 6 at 12:52
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I don't wish to reinvent much of what's been said, so I just have one thing to add. There is a basic idea that I think should hold for most classes. If one person makes a mistake, it's their fault. If half or more of the class makes a mistake, it's now my problem.

As the numbers state, most students (55%) made less than a B in the course. Even if this was arrived at in a "fair" way, I would ask myself why this is. Yeah it's true, not everyone can make an A in the class, but education is about learning, fundamentally. If students can't multiply vectors, it is your responsibility to ensure they can multiply any vector you give to them.

Sun Tzu once said something like if your men don't listen to your orders, they either don't want to listen or can't understand you. In the former case, they're punished. In the latter case, it's your fault because directions should be clear enough for them to understand. In this analogy, it seems like you're the one that needs to make things a lot clearer.

This doesn't mean that everyone should make an A and only 2 people make Ds, but self reflection and critically engaging with what students are telling you will make a world of difference, and I don't care where you're at; MIT, Cal Tech, the university you're at doesn't matter.

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  • Indeed. When others don't do what you directed (e.g. your children don't do X), there are two choices: they are unwilling to do it or they are unable to do it. How one should respond are quite different. Here if the students are unwilling to do the work they should get the grade they deserve. If they are unable to do the work, but were let into the class anyway by the department, should they be punished? The chair has stated their interpretation.
    – Jon Custer
    Jan 2 at 14:49
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Two things: First, in the current situation, if the chair insists, just request a written and signed order from the chair to change the grade, and, if the chair provides it, do it and consider the incident settled. If he fails to provide it, just tell him that you do not carry out requests that the requester is not serious enough about to put in writing.

Second (for the future), if you do not trust the class (I normally trust graduate students that I've taught before only), make sure that the class requirements and the grading scheme are crystal clear in your syllabus. In that case, you'll be able just to say to the chair: "Well, as far as I'm concerned $65<70$, and that determines the grade, but we can take all student exams and quizzes and go over them together to see if $65$ should be $71$". Note that your syllabus is a legal document and nobody, even the chair, can override what is written there without a really good reason.

I would certainly neither change the grade just based on an informal oral request, nor say that I would not change it under any circumstances. I would just say something like "I believe that, based on the student performance, the grade is correct, but let's double check together; here are all records".

At last, just remember, that not every teacher is for every student and not every student is for every teacher. So, whether one person, or one half of the class fails, it may be just an incompatibility issue. It is true that as a teacher you have more responsibility to try to adjust to your students than your students have to adjust to you, but they still do have that responsibility unless they all have the same abilities, level of preparedness, and learning style (which I have never seen in the class of more than 2 people, though I was blessed once with having such class with 2 people rather than 1).

Just my 2 cents.

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This is a long-term solution, so it won't help in the current problem, but I think it addresses a part of the problem.

Develop a detailed system and philosophy for setting a grading scheme

Let's call the raw amount of stuff the students got right the "points". Your grading scheme is the way you translate the amount of points to a grade. This is by no means a simple matter, and it's something that students, and in some cases even higher-ups, will complain about.

If you don't want to spend a lot of time and energy on these arguments, it helps a lot to have a strong philosophy for how you decide the grading scheme. This helps you to be firm when you need to be firm, and lenient when you have been to strict.

To set up and troubleshoot your grading scheme, here are a few things you can look at:

  • The distribution of grades compared to that of other courses You could look at bar charts, or just the pass rate. This is tricky: if it's off, it can be for many different reasons. Maybe your course is too difficult. Maybe all the other courses are too easy, because of political pressure to deliver good grades. Maybe you're not teaching well (yet). Maybe the students aren't used to your style of teaching. Maybe the preliminaries aren't well taught. Or, maybe the grading scheme is just too strict. In short, it's dangerous to blindly adjust the grades to fit the average distribution, but it could be justified.
  • Random guessing and other baselines Assume for the sake of simplicity that you only evaluate with 4-answer multiple choice questions. In that case the students will have an expected score of one quarter of the points. You are justified in making this the minimal score, and having it correspond to the lowest grade. Likewise, the maximum number of possible points should correspond to the highest grade (all grades should be attainable is a fair maxim). In practice you probably evaluate in a more varied and complex way, but this basic principle can still be held up. In between these two extremes, a linear scale probably makes most sense, since every point should correspond to an equal amount of work.
  • Students' score on key items This is a very crucial tool. Look at the learning goals, and decide some key tests that should decide when a student should fail. About half the material should be key items, that everybody in your field should know, and their mastery of the rest determines where they fall on the scale between low pass and high pass. You can either mark on key items explicitly (and fail people who miss too many key items), or just use the key items to check whether the grading scheme you've set is correct. In the latter case, most students who fail should miss many key items, and and most students who pass should answer almost all key items correctly.

I think the last one especially can help you in future discussions like this. In fact, you're applying it already when you say "I am moving students who cannot even multiply two vectors together into the C or B range". This is a key item analysis. The only problem is that you're applying it after the argument has broken out. This will always sound like you're justifying your own grades after the fact.

If you set out these key items before the start of the course, this gives you a good foundation for a constructive discussion on the grades. People (students of faculty) can either argue that your key items are poorly chosen, or that they did hit the key items, so they should get a pass. If neither is true, you can hold fast.

Your job is to test students' abilities. If you let them pass without sufficient mastery, they will go out into society and build a faulty bridge, because their diploma suggested they knew how to multiply vectors. That means you are not just in your rights resisting pressure from the chair, you have a responsibility to do so.

You also have a responsibility to the other students not to let the value of their diploma slip away due to grade inflation. Even to the student with the failing grades: they may be disappointed with the low grade, but they will be a lot more disappointed to find that they spent four years thinking they were studying but not learning anything.

The key to taking that responsibility and resisting pressure, is to anticipate, and to build a strong case before the argument starts. Do your homework, and set up a very sound logic for your grading scheme. For your chair to attack the key items. If he does, and tries to tell you that, as a rule, somebody who can't multiply two vectors together should still pass, then you have a moral obligation to kick up a stink, and your colleagues should support you in this.

Going forward

In your current situation, this may be a good way to repair the working relationship with your chair: suggest that for next edition of the course, you will develop a well-grounded grading scheme, based on a set of key items, and you will put this to the chair for comments ahead of time. You could do the same with a small selection of students: discuss the key items with them, and see if they think it's reasonable. There may be other problems you're not aware of, such as preliminary skills that are missing.

If you have key items and a grading scheme that the chair and students all agree is reasonable, then nobody will have a leg to stand on if a specific student needs a grade boost without doing the work next year.

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