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When working as a class tutor, I quite often receive apologies from students for not solving all of the assigned exercises, not knowing how to solve a problem, being absent from the class, etc. This is not particularly surprising - the workload at my university is quite heavy, there is a lot of potential distractions, and people in the UK have a reputation for apologising more than is strictly necessary. I normally don't pay too much attention to this, beyond the factual information that is being conveyed (e.g. a specific exercise caused trouble to several students and so we should discuss it in detail during class), and I try to respond with something polite and reassuring (such as "No worries, this is a difficult problem sheet.").

However, in some cases the students seem to be genuinely quite apologetic, and seem to believe that (what they perceive as) their poor performance somehow troubles me. This makes me feel somewhat odd, because I really don't mind. They're all adults, it's their prerogative to decide how much to focus on each course. The way I see it, my job is to provide them with the opportunities to learn (have their homework checked, discuss problems in class, etc.) and if they don't take me up on it it's actually better for me - fewer submitted problems means less grading, fewer people at class means more relaxed atmosphere, and so on. At a stretch, I could imagine feeling bad if I was the lecturer and felt students' poor performance reflects badly on me somehow, but I'm just a tutor - my job is to grade students' solutions and discuss the problems during class, nothing more.

Would it be a bad idea to explain this to the students? I worry that being too honest about this might be perceived as demotivating or unprofessional. However, I also don't want my students to feel guilty, or to feel like they need to explain themselves to me.

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    it's actually better for me - fewer submitted problems means less grading, fewer people at class means more relaxed atmosphere, and so on. --- This probably depends too much on your personality and the specific culture there to be appropriate here, but that issue aside, from my experience there is a huge elephant in the room, namely to what extent your continued employment and reputation for later employment depends on student complaints and student evaluations (or even student attendance, if tracked). Mar 7 at 17:45
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    I can't see how "I actually don't care how you're doing" would improve interpersonal relationships with your students. Mar 7 at 20:02
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    @AzorAhai-him- "I don't care" and "I don't mind" are two completely different sentiments. "I don't mind if we skip going out tonight, so you could stay home to support your ill family member" is quite different to "I don't care of we skip going out tonight"
    – penelope
    Mar 8 at 15:00
  • @penelope Well, yes, I phrased it that way to illustrate that it would be really really easy to phrase this message the wrong way. Mar 8 at 16:13

8 Answers 8

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I can identify well with this question, and sometimes I think it would be nice if I could stop them apologising and feeling bad. I don't however think that it will make much of a difference either way. I doubt that the students who feel guilty feel guilty because they haven't been told before that it doesn't matter to you. And if you tell them, they may well feel guilty for having bugged you with this earlier (on top of still feeling guilty for not doing everything fine if this is how they are conditioned by family background or whatever). It may help a bit with some, it may make matters even a bit worse with others, so the bottom line is, you may do it or not, however you like.

(I'm not much worried about whether it could demotivate them. I find this hard to imagine, and even if it were true for certain students, I don't think trying to make the tutor happy would be a very good motivation that helps them in the long run.)

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I think it depends somewhat on what your goals are. If your goal is:

I also don't want my students to feel guilty, or to feel like they need to explain themselves to me.

Well, it's possible you can change this with a speech, but probably not. Trying to control how other people feel is usually a path to disappointment and frustration.

If you just want to move on and spend your time working on the course material rather than hearing apologies, I think it's appropriate and professional to briefly deflect with a statement that the problems and assignments are for their learning so missed work hurts them and not you, and then transition to the next task at hand: "Let's talk about problem seven". Maybe they will "get it", maybe they won't (or won't until much, much later).

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I think there are some nuances here that haven't come out in other answers. It is also important to note the context here: as a course tutor at a UK university (~ TA for the US audience) you are probably supporting students with homework assignments and general understanding of course material, but not responsible for anything related to assessment.

In my experience, there are two flavours of apologetic student:

  1. "Sorry, I haven't really put any effort into attempting this problem set, I'm just here so you can give me the answers." - You need to decide how you want to tackle this kind of student (perhaps informed by an understanding of what your institution's official policies are). Options might include: escalating the issue to whoever is responsible for academic performance (e.g. a personal tutor); admonishing the student for their lack of work ethic; or shrugging and explaining the problems to them. Personally, my approach differs depending on whether these are first-years (who might benefit from a bit of 'tough love'), or further along in the career. For this kind of student, I can imagine saying "It's your own problem if you're not going to put the effort in; I get paid either way."

  2. "Sorry, I'm completely adrift with this course and I haven't got a clue what I'm doing." - Here, the apology is often a veiled plea for help: "Sorry, I think I'm too stupid to be taking this course, but I'm doing my best...". For this student, telling them you don't care would be a bad approach. In fact, a better answer might be "You don't need to apologise, that's why I'm paid to help you!". You then need to look beyond the immediate challenge of the specific problem set, and try and work out how you can help them understand the course more generally.

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I think it's probable that not every teacher has the same perspective as you.

Consider: you accept a Masters student with a strong track record and good recommendation letters, good enough that they might be competitive for the very rare MSc-level scholarships. Then they do badly in your course. Will you be disappointed, or would you say they're an adult and therefore it's up to them to decide how much to focus on your course?

The students are apologizing because they think you will be disappointed. Especially if you are at a top university, then it seems reasonable to suppose that you will be disappointed (since top universities attract students who are expected to do well). It's also very common for teachers to have a strong urge to educate - the moment when the student goes "aha, I get it now" is something every teacher recalls fondly, but since they are doing poorly, you don't get to experience it. Plus, which teacher doesn't like to see their students do well?

That said, it's still your perspective on teaching, and hence your prerogative.

The question is whether to tell students that your way of thinking is quite different from theirs. I suspect different students will react differently, but the reaction will be broadly negative. You'd probably come across as uncaring, since you appear to have no expectations of your students. You would not be someone they can confide in, and it seems unlikely that one day they'll ask you to supervise them. Still, from your perspective, it might be preferable to eliminate these incompatible students before you start working with them. Your call.

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  • I suspect it may depend a lot on how exactly it is said, tone of the voice, exact wording etc. The message is not that the tutor doesn't care, the message is that it doesn't create a problem for the tutor if the students don't do well, so the students shouldn't worry about the tutor on top of worrying about their own limitations. Mar 9 at 1:26
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If we're talking about formatively assessed work, then it would be pretty pointless if students could complete it successfully at the first attempt. In this case, it's fine to be upfront with them about the nature and purpose of the work to save them from unnecessary anxiety.

If we're talking about summatively assessed work, then it's a trickier balancing act. Yes, some students definitely need reminding not to make academic performance their whole personality. On the other hand, it's not a good idea to give the impression you don't care at all: after all, if your summative assessments are designed to be well-aligned with your intended learning outcomes, then poor performance in them is indicative of poor learning, and I bet you do care about that. (And if they're not well-aligned, I suggest you set about making them well-aligned for next year.)

(If you're at a less-than-amply-resourced university where you have to use the same pieces of student work to double up as formative and summative, then you're really in the soup. Sorry.)

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To me, this sounds like it might also be a mismatch in expectations based on the transition from secondary school to university. I think it might be worth making a general statement to clear the air. When I was teaching an exercise course for the local equivalent of 'freshers, we had an introductory spiel that covered these standard issues, which could be paraphrased as:

"Since this class does not have mandatory attendance, you do not need to notify me of or send excuses for your absences. It's your choice to come to class: I would encourage you to attend as much as possible, since we cover a lot of material very rapidly." (+ or whatever the attendance policy is)

and

"This course will have a mix of easier and more difficult exercises. I do not expect everyone to be able to solve all of them, but would recommend attempting as many as possible since you will learn the most by working on trickier problems." +some stuff about how grading works.

In cases when students got very nervous about their solutions being prodded at during presentations, I also had something like:

(+clarifying how their contributions fit into grading, then +) "I'm not asking these questions to try and trip you up: my job here is to help you get better at 'subject', and the more I understand about your approach and why you choose it, the better I can explain what works and what needs to be improved."

Obviously this will need to be adapted to your course and your perspective. I agree with you culturally- they're adults, they should attend (or not) and solve problems (or not) however they choose, and ideally send fewer emails. But I've found that the best way to convey this as not to say "I don't care", but to position myself as "I don't care about your grades, I just care about 'subject' and I want you to learn something".

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Would it be a bad idea to explain this to the students?

Yes.

I worry that being too honest about this might be perceived as demotivating or unprofessional.

Yes, that's exactly right. If you pointed out to students (or to anyone else for that matter) any little observation you have about some small misconception they have, that would end up being a major distraction. You would have less time to talk about the course material with them, and this could affect your relationship with them negatively and in turn cause all sorts of other negative consequences. It seems best to just let it slide.

Also, re: "if they don't take me up on it it's actually better for me": please never tell students that your life would be easier if they did less work! That is being way too honest, and again can cause all sorts of problems with how the students relate to you and poorly affect their learning outcomes. You never want students to think they are a burden on you in any way. (And ideally you would never even think of students as a burden on you, but if you must think that way occasionally, don't tell anyone except your spouse or therapist, or a very trusted colleague.)

However, I also don't want my students to feel guilty, or to feel like they need to explain themselves to me.

That seems reasonable, but is what you want the important thing here? You should choose the action that is best for the students, which is to neither actively affirm their guilt nor absolve them of it. The deflection strategy suggested in Bryan Krause's answer seems pretty effective to me. The way you described yourself dealing with the misguided apologies also sounds good, and is pretty close to how I deal with such things myself.

Also, while it may be a little uncomfortable for you to be in the position where someone thinks that you're upset with them when you actually aren't, I'd posit that the students are merely projecting their guilt on you. They are actually upset with themselves for not doing the work or for performing poorly, but it's easier for their psyches to maintain the illusion that it is someone else who is upset with them. You, a figure of authority, are a convenient target for that projection. But the guilt they are feeling may in fact be a useful feeling and even to some extent motivating, even if they are directing it in a misguided direction.

In other words, I think experienced teachers learn over time that it's not a bad thing if students overestimate at least a little bit how upset the teacher is with them when they don't live up to expectations. (That's probably true also for parents and their children.) So once again, the situation you're describing sounds healthy and normal, and there is no need to change your current approach.

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There is an alternative that doesn't require explanation. It lets each student decide for themselves how much to put into each course and what grade might be acceptable to them and then work toward that goal. It is called cumulative grading.

Set a point total for the course, say 1000 points. Set a total for each grade level. Say 900 points for an "A" grade, etc. Whatever you think appropriate. Explain this in the syllabus.

Assign a point total for each piece of graded work, say 300 points for the term project, 200 for the final exam. Whatever, just let it come to the overall total. Explain the total for each piece when it is assigned. They need to know this for their own planning. Important things are worth more.

For each piece of graded work that they do, assign a value, up to the "value" of that piece: perhaps 285/300 for the term project.

The do enough work to earn their goal. Some might be encouraged to go beyond that goal.

I used this for many years successfully. But I added an additional element. If a student wasn't happy with the points I assigned, I permitted them to do the work again to earn part of the total back (not all, though). In order to ease my workload, each piece of work was submitted in a folder with the student's name and the previous marked work along with the new. In addition, they had to highlight the changes made from the original. This meant that I never got complaints about grading and those who needed extra work had a natural way to do it.

And, if they were happy with a B-, I didn't have to tell them I thought it was OK.

Extra Credit work is easy to assign for those falling short of their goals if you think this is needed. Give such things some points and grade as usual.

I didn't permit rework on exams, however, though exams weren't the largest part of their total workload. This was in CS.

It may be that not everyone in your course needs to understand the material at the same level. This might be especially true in the US where students have "majors" but also need to take courses outside the major to gain some general understanding. Such students have other, perhaps more pressing, needs.

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