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I have been experiencing anxiety based on some recent events. During my last semester of college I enrolled in a language course in a language in which I was already fluent. I did this to enable quicker graduation.

After the first two weeks of the class, it became apparent I wasn't going to benefit at all from this course. Additionally, as I was soon graduating, I had other work to perform. I asked the professor if I could stop attending classes and simply turn in the homework by the end of the semester. I did this while speaking the language that she taught. She said "yes".

I didn't attend class for a month and a half, and didn't hear from the professor again. Towards the end of the semester, I emailed the professor to inquire what she wanted me to do to pass the course. She scolded me because she wanted me to attend at least some of the classes (I had misunderstood her in our first conversation). She then told me that despite that, it was OK, she would give me a passing grade (via oral exam), as "you are fluent in the language and shouldn't come to class as it will seem unfair to the other kids."

This appeared to me as if she would pass me based on merit alone. I was VERY shook up, and called her again the same week telling her that I feel like withdrawing and holding off graduation and just taking a different course next semester before starting grad school. She reassured me I'm all set and I need not worry.

Graduation happens, however I was still uneasy as I was preparing to start grad school. I felt like I cheated the system. I contacted her again, and again she told me not to worry. After the first week of grad shool, I called her again and demanded I take the midterm and final for the course in an attempt to ease my mind and worry. Scored 99 and 96 on them without studying.

I still feel really guilty for some reason, and I'm still trying to cope with this. Its honestly affecting my performance in school. MY worse nightmare is that my undergrad will find out and take away my degree and that this will affect my grad school as I needed a bachelors to enter. The professor made it seem as if she was taking a risk by letting me do what I did. She made it seem I was doing something illegal. She told me not to tell my classmates..

As such, my question is: If what happened was found out, would my grad school have grounds to kick me out? If my undergrad found out, can they pull me degree?

Edit: Thanks for the answers, I guess why I'm soo stressed about this is because, to my understanding, she made it obvious that I and the prof. were doing something against school policies, I knew about it and didn't think much about it.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Oct 28 '16 at 3:26
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    "I have been experiencing anxiety": I think this is the underlying issue. – Peter A. Schneider Oct 28 '16 at 12:27
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    You have to ask yourself: what's the reason of doing a class? The reason for a class is to learn you something and in the end give you a grade to prove to others that you know the things which are taught in that class. You will end up with a grade that reflects exactly that. The professor tested you (maybe unconventionally) and found you to be proficient at the material taught in that class. – Pieter B Oct 28 '16 at 17:07
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    When a teacher approves an independent study, and oversees the independent study, and notifies the registrar you completed the independent study, you are set for life (provided you adhere to the academic and other institution standards). I'd recommend in the future following up with an email outlining the independent study parameters and getting the teacher's positive emailed response. This provides mostly affirmative proof of the mutual understanding should some discrepancy later arise – bishop Oct 28 '16 at 17:45
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    What do you mean by 'pass me based on merit alone' ? If the passing grade is 67/100, the professor doesn't check attendance, and I merited 68/100, do I not pass based on merit alone? – BCLC Oct 28 '16 at 21:38

10 Answers 10

90

I feel like you're overthinking this. What you did seems an improvement to me over taking, say, bowling to fill a last credit, which isn't uncommon in undergrad. The professor gave you your grade and you're off to grad school. There's no reason to revisit it, with yourself or anyone else.

Also, it isn't your responsibility, as a student, to audit how a professor grades a class. They may have even consulted with others before letting you do this; you don't know. Don't make assumptions - you did what you did, and the professor decided it was enough to pass the class.

Put this behind you and focus on grad school.

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    As someone who loves ten-pin bowling, that second sentence wounds me a bit -- who would take bowling merely to satisfy a last credit?! ;) – tonysdg Oct 27 '16 at 4:16
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    @tonysdg Especially when the bowling course I took required us to write 3 papers and had a weekly quiz! – pacoverflow Oct 27 '16 at 5:30
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    I would like to formally apologize for offending anyone who has studied bowling. This was not my intent, and I would like to modify my statement to say, uh, ice skating? Does anyone ice skate? If so we could maybe try... weight lifting? – Jeff Oct 27 '16 at 13:31
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    My father got the rules of his college changed by getting his final 3 credits from "Introduction to College Algebra"—as a math major who had placed out of the course originally. – KRyan Oct 27 '16 at 17:44
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    @JeffL. As a professional weight-lifter-on-ice... I am offended! – Patrice Oct 27 '16 at 22:36
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Many schools, including the one where I got my undergraduate degree, have a system whereby a student can get credit for a course by proving that he knows the material --- usually by taking exams but possibly by other means. There's usually a limit on how may credits one can get this way. Even if your school doesn't have such a system, the availability of the system in other, reputable schools indicates that there's nothing morally wrong with getting credit in this way. So you should have no worries about the morality of your situation.

You are also worried about the administrative situation, specifically that you could get expelled from graduate school if your undergraduate degree is revoked and that this might happen if that one credit is deleted from your record. As far as I can see, your professor acted within the limits of her authority in passing you on the basis of talking with you enough to determine that you know the material of the course (and more). Her actions are supported even more by your later performance on the exams. And she had a legitimate interest in preventing you from participating in the class because your superior knowledge would intimidate other students and possibly decrease their learning. So it's difficult for me to imagine anything in this situation that would cause administrative problems, such as removing that credit from your record.

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    Yes this was my initial thinking, this is why I was comfortable with it. but I was very shook up when the PROF made it seem as if I was cheating by telling me not to tell anyone. – Juan Alvez Oct 26 '16 at 17:55
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    @JuanAlvez My best guess is that, although the prof knew that what she was doing was OK and would not cause official trouble, it could cause unpleasant feelings for the other students, especially if they didn't fully understand the situation. – Andreas Blass Oct 26 '16 at 18:57
  • Yes, I did this with a number of 1st-year humanities courses. Though there was an official procedure through the department (and maybe higher - it's been quite a while) that had to be followed, not just a request to the course instructor. – jamesqf Oct 27 '16 at 5:05
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    @JuanAlvwz I second Andreas's comment. Sharing your arrangement will do nothing but make other students wish they could skip class too, even if it means they would fail if they skipped. I've taken language classes where it was published policy to be able to skip exams if the instructor felt your competency was sufficient, but you weren't supposed to share if you got to skip or not. It's just to spare feelings, that's all. There is no chance anyone will revoke your degree for this. – Kat Oct 27 '16 at 18:24
  • The College Board company has built the business of CLEP tests around exactly this concept. clep.collegeboard.org/exams – Ron Jensen Oct 19 '17 at 17:47
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I can assure you, that there will never be any consequences from this, that's for certain. You asked the professor - she allowed it. It's her problem, not yours. You won't ever lose this degree, because you did something totally legal.

In terms of morality: Those grades are - in the end - not made for universities, but rather for companies to have a rating of your competence. And you ARE competent in this language. I think there is no moral problem at all. You have a degree in something you really know. That's only fair.

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    -1: Unless you're a lawyer and can cite relevant law, there's no way to ascertain that the OP won't ever lose their degree. I agree it's extremely unlikely -- probably unheard of -- but it's still in the realm of possibilities. The UNC grade fixing scandal comes to mind -- the university did not revoke the degrees in question, but it's not a stretch of the imagination to see it happening. – tonysdg Oct 27 '16 at 19:11
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    @tonysdg yes I looked deeply into that, that did relief me a bit as I actually knew the material, those students at unc didn't. and their degrees weren't revoked siting university error. – Juan Alvez Oct 27 '16 at 19:23
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    I don't know in the U.S., but in all places I've been in Europe, the professor is responsible for putting the grades and noone can blame the student for the way they passed the exam. There are no laws that govern these things. At the end, it's the reputation of the university and their rules. But in anycase, if someone could have a problem, that would be the teacher. – BioGeo Oct 27 '16 at 21:00
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    @tonysdg Earned degrees are private party contracts. (Honorary degrees are merely awards.) Contract case law only applies if one side alleges the other did not uphold the four corners of that contract. Stripping an earned degree is hard, because the institution has to post-facto prove the student failed to uphold the contract. They'd have to explain why X years ago the student satisfied the contract but now doesn't. The usual reasons that condition holds is (a) record keeping failure or (b) internal malfeasance, and neither of those are contract defaults on behalf of the student. – bishop Oct 28 '16 at 17:27
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    Couldn't agree more with the morality part: we often get bogged down in "How was this learned?" when the reality is that education is there to teach you things, and qualifications simply trusted evidence that you are competent. – Jon Story Oct 29 '16 at 18:06
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The question is: is it a cheat and who is being cheated?

Instead of giving a straight answer, I give you a recipe to analyse the situation and test your view of the situation:

True story: As a TA, I had a guy in class who didn't work during class, and probably not even at home. Just chatted with me all the time (which was fine, everybody else was working, but that was not a problem with me). Very smart guy. Anyway, end of semester, they have to submit, he sat down for a weekend, did the task everyone else worked for a semester on and ended up with the by far strongest submission. Should I have failed him?

Ok, let's change the scenario to a hypothetical one, as you already were fluent in the language before the course: assuming this guy had thought about the same problem at school, before coming to my course. He already had a solution in his head, and joined the course, and could use the solution out of his head. Lucky guy. Should I have failed him?

Now, final hypothetical change: this guy comes to my course just because he knows that I am covering just the problem he knows how to solve. And that's where the dilemma begins. He chose the course for that very reason. In other words, he would not have demonstrated improvement during the course, only that he already masters the contents. Should I fail him for fulfilling the requirements of the course better than anybody else? Well, the question is: is the passing for improvement during the course or for final level of mastery?

The opposite question: A very weak student who improves significantly, but still not really to passing level, should they pass? Normally, standard is that students have to pass at a fixed competence level - and improvement is not typically what is measured during the course. Thus, the student will fail. Improvement is not what is measured.

Your dilemma is that typically courses are chosen for improvement and then demonstrating a certain level at the end (implying that the improvement was successful). In your special case, you know that there was no improvement, all you showed is that you do have a certain competence (which is all that an exam tests).

You seem to feel that you violated not the letter, but the spirit of taking the course. But, at the end of the day, you didn't cheat about your competency, which is all that the grades guarantee, and actually is what taking this course promises to anybody passing it.

So, who is actually being cheated here? The person you cheated is actually nobody else but yourself: after all, academia is about learning - instead of taking the course as an opportunity to develop yourself, you took the easier route and missed an opportunity to develop skills you didn't have to a nice competence level, and rather rehashed skills you already have, to an irrelevant level.

The one that needs to forgive here is therefore yourself: you essentially cheated yourself out of an opportunity, which you wasted. But I think you learnt a lesson. Other opportunities to learn will offer themselves.

Take this message home: Pack this up as a valuable experience and approach your future challenges with eagerness to learn rather than just passing exams. Good luck!

  • Thank you for this response. I feel internally that my mind cannot and will not go to rest until I'm 100% sure that nothing will ever come of this. the problem with that is that its impossible. I don't know what to do. – Juan Alvez Oct 27 '16 at 2:08
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    He said I also was busy filling in applications, traveling for interviews as well as doing research in the lab, so he didn't neccessarily cheat himself out of an opportunity, he traded in one opportunity (1 credit hour worth of learning in some subject he hadn't already mastered), with another (well, multiple) opportunities - opportunities that are likely more valuable to him than a single credit hour. – Johnny Oct 27 '16 at 2:15
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    @Johnny You are right. However, since OP is very harsh on himself, and others would have had to take the credit with full effort, I think it is more helpful for the OP to see the one person that can be construed as having been directly cheated. Your interpretation softens even this view. The OP is feels in a moral dilemma, and my view is that the party of this dilemma that comes out worst is just himself. – Captain Emacs Oct 27 '16 at 11:00
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    @JuanAlvez There is no 100% guarantee for anything - people even get accused of crimes they didn't commit. People cross the road and get hit by a car and die, just like that (this is not abstract, happened to a friend of mine). You took a decision, and you feel it's wrong. It's not super-right, but, as I said above, it's mostly yourself that you have to forgive. In life, you will likely be encountering a number of tougher moral dilemmas; this one is pretty much on the low-to-middling scale. Learn from it, forgive yourself, and put it behind you. – Captain Emacs Oct 27 '16 at 11:07
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    "he knows that I am covering just the problem he knows how to solve [and] chose the course for that very reason." - This is exactly why many institutions allow you to test out of courses. Curriculum requirements are one-size-fits-all; there's no reason for a student who already knows the material thoroughly to even take the class. Better for the student (and the institution) to not waste time repeating known material, and to skip ahead to new subjects. – brichins Oct 28 '16 at 16:18
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This is an edited version of my original answer to one of your deleted questions.

Juan, you have written about a feeling of panic, which doesn't subside. Panic is a metabolic process. Take it to the doctor. Model the behavior you will want your future patients to exhibit. Please see a doctor.

Seeking treatment for panic is not easy, but neither is living with panic. I know because my son has Tourette Syndrome, OCD, specific phobias, and anxiety. I have seen how panic affects him.

He's been in treatment for a year and a half and is making progress.

Someday you will be a doctor. Wouldn't Dr. Alvez send young Juan to see a doctor about this panic? Show your respect for the profession you want to enter, by allowing a medical provider to start to help you.

A family practitioner, or a student clinic doctor or nurse practitioner, can talk over your options with you. Just print out the question you posted here, and show it to the doctor.

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    This is excellent advice, wonderfully stated. Please, Juan, take this seriously. It could change your life immensely for the better. – Corvus Oct 27 '16 at 4:54
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    Thanks again, I'm heavily considering handing this question to someone. – Juan Alvez Oct 27 '16 at 18:50
  • Very glad to hear it, @JuanAlvez. It's worth a shot. – Corvus Oct 27 '16 at 20:51
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Let me add a very plain and straightforward answer:

It's fine.

Yes, what you did is morally acceptable. Some aspects:

Effort

Grades are and should be given for results achieved, not for the amount of effort invested or relative improvement. Plain and simple.

The people reading your grades later are not interested in the least about how much effort you invested. They are interested in whether you can speak that language or not. So you are not cheating them.

Fairness

Your co-students might be irritated that you got the mark without effort, but ... frankly, it is very normal that different students have to invest different effort in a course. Heck, there are also cases where one student hates a course and has to put in 20 hours of work just to barely pass; and another student loves the course and has to put in 0 hours of extra work. Is this "immoral" as well? No, of course not. What good would it do your co-student if you just sat in class, dreaming, wasting everybodies time. So you did not cheat them either. Neither did you cheat your professor, as you were very open with them.

If you really had cheated, for example by having a native speaker do a written test and writing your name on it, then you would have harmed your co-students by lessening the validity of the grade in and itself (e.g., if word came out that this is a common occurence in this particular school, everybody with a real grade would be under suspicion, devaluating the school itself).

Are you allowed to enjoy your education?

Finally, it is not only usual, but also just fine that every student choses a path through his studies that fits his own interests, enjoyments etc. - it is obvious that a student who does what he enjoys (or already can do, maybe partly or on a hobby level) will get better results, statistically. Not only better marks, but also better understanding etc. Doing things you enjoy will usually make it easier for you, and this is fine. School/education does not get better if it is artificially made harder.

This does not mean that students should "game the system", but that school/education systems should be structured in a way which allows people to live out their interests and predispositions. Of course, a common base set of knowledge is necessary, but this is easily achieved structurally by having courses being compulsary. The grading system makes sure that people are not just fooling around.

So, having fun during your education does not cheat anyone, either.

Drawback

You did do yourself a slight disfavour. A "mirror student" who already knew that language as well as you did, and got all the same marks as you, could have picked a real course for that last point (maybe in addition to your language course, if that is allowed in your school system). That student would have the exact same end result as you, plus some additional bonus. An employer would, everything else being the same, hire the other guy instead of you.

This alone easily balances out the fact that you filled up your grades with an easy 1-point course. You did not cheat; you weighed your options and decided on a permitted course, being open about it to your professor. All is well.

So, at the most, you cheated yourself a little bit. But you made up by doing other worthwhile stuff, you presumably did not waste the time you saved by not going to that course.

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    +1 For the idea that taking a course on something the OP already knew was some of a waste of resources. – Pere Oct 27 '16 at 18:33
  • Enh. I took archery for the easy A. It's graded only on attendance and I had perfect attendance. – Joshua Oct 28 '16 at 16:09
  • Good point on the resources although it can depend on the university. At one I attended, the workload per class was huge, and full-time registration meant you could take 3 or 4 courses per quarter. Taking 3 was not considered lazy or wasteful, especially because many courses could take as much attention as you could find to throw at them, so you just put more into each course. So like in your example compared to someone focusing on hard work in three courses, if they were registered for 4 but just taking credit for something they already knew, that person could be the more efficient one. – Dronz Oct 30 '16 at 21:28
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It's worth pointing out that this depends on your philosophy about what a transcript is. Clearly in some sense the transcript holds merits that you have achieved but there's leeway in how you interpret that, mostly in terms of whether you're looking for something which is normatively true ("here's how it should be") or whether you're looking for something which is descriptively true ("here's how it is in practice").

The most normative model

Your anxiety aside, you might be holding yourself the the highest ethical standards simply for the sake of your own moral foundations, and then you might want to know what a transcript should be. If you look at, say, ECTS credits (European) you'll find that they define those credits as time investment. This is a really sensible choice for how you "should" define such things as it creates a meaningful way to compare across wildly different scopes like different majors: I can't say whether architecture is harder than applied physics; but I can certainly add up all of the long nights that both are spending doing their respective works and simply compare time-investments in both majors.

If your transcript is a record of time invested in achievements then the answer is a straightforward "yes, you are now lying when you hand your transcript to someone and don't disclose that you didn't work very hard to achieve this merit." But on the other hand you have to be shocked a little by how crude the transcript is as a measurement of such things: the assumptions that "grade" and "credit hours" correlate with "time spent" is weak in practice, and there is no good provision in this normative system for "person X did well without effort, person Y did the same tasks but struggled for a long time:" you have to just normalize the credits to the average person in the class. So this is normatively stronger but descriptively weak.

The most descriptive model

This is really straightforward; a transcript is a record of bits that have been set in a database which are somehow important for the bookkeepers at the school to know that you're graduating. Any correspondence between the bits and the real world is an approximation due to the school and any failure in that correspondence is their fault. You got the credits in the system? Great. Doesn't matter how you did; that's a problem for the school, not you.

The obvious limitation is that on this model of what transcripts are, there's no moral implications to any sort of cheating at all, because cheating from this perspective is just exploiting ways that the credit-system doesn't match up to the reality intended by the school. But on this view it's the school's responsibility to secure themselves against that; in practice everyone will know the difference between the higher-reputation schools that are robust against this and the "they basically just mail you a diploma" schools that are not. What you did wasn't defined at the time as cheating by your school, so it's not cheating, period. You yourself said that they had no policy on it.

Something in the middle

Well you might not like either of those: you might not like how the super-normative model doesn't account for practical things like individual differences but you might not like how the super-descriptive model doesn't account for the moral import of cheating and lying that you somehow have achieved X when you haven't really put any time or effort into that achievement. Here's a model which lives in the middle and gets a lot of the best of both worlds. It says: your transcript is a record of skills you at some point had, with grades being competencies at-the-time and credit hours being roughly how much practice you had performing that skill at-the-time.

Now this suggests that probably transcripts are poorly suited to what they measure, because probably we should break down courses even smaller and have a lot of Proven-Competent/Not-Yet-Proven-Competent gradings. Different courses would then prove a set of skills competent, and you would be expected to take a set of courses which jointly cover some set of Required skills as well as covering some set of Optional skills. So it inherits some of those normative difficulties of "nobody actually does this 100%, the transcript is a crude approximation." But, I mean, it works if you imagine that all of those sets-of-skills are disjoint and don't look too closely at course prerequisites.

But overall it is pretty practical from a "here is what an employer is interested in if they request your transcript" perspective; if you go to work for Intel and they look at your transcript they want to see a Solid-State Physics course that presumably covered things like how NPN and PNP transistors work, as well as Electronics courses that covered things like "practically, what is an op-amp?".

Now if you take this approach, then clearly you didn't cheat the system. Your transcript reflects a skill which you did in fact have; you just got certified as competent in it without spending much time because you had already invested that time before you walked in the door, prior to the school year. That's no big moral dilemma; the same thing happens whenever people with great AP scores "test out" of certain required courses and so forth.

  • I'm in US btw. I really do appreciate your comments. – Juan Alvez Oct 26 '16 at 17:34
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So many good answers, but one angle still not covered.

When I went to college, there was always the test out/challenge option available. At the start of the class you could take the final. If you passed you got a grade of CR (credit -- pass with no effect on GPA) and that was that.

I recall some case where somebody challenged a course about two-thirds of the way through (something came up and he couldn't finish...) so the rule appears to not be restricted to start of the course.

I can't imagine anybody looking down on what happened here as you obviously could have passed a challenge, and the instructor may have recorded it as such.

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    Some people are not acquainted with the terms "challenge"/"test out" - would you mind adding an explanation? – Captain Emacs Oct 27 '16 at 15:16
  • @CaptainEmacs: I believe I did in the very next sentence. – Joshua Oct 27 '16 at 15:25
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    I am afraid I could not understand which one is the "test out" and which is the "challenge" and what exactly they entail. What does "challenge" mean? Perhaps I am asking the obvious, but these terms are not known to me here. – Captain Emacs Oct 27 '16 at 16:05
  • @CaptainEmacs: They're synonyms. The same concept has two names depending on where you are. – Joshua Oct 27 '16 at 16:20
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    @CaptainEmacs - I found it confusing too. Based on the clarification from Joshua I have edited his answer. "or" -> slash. – aparente001 Oct 28 '16 at 0:43
0

I was very ill for one semester's exams, and was given an oral exam for one subject. The professor (who was by no stretch of the imagination one to short-cut the system, and was reputed to have obtained his doctorate on the basis of a one-page thesis) explained that originally ALL examinations were oral and it allows the examiners to assess whether they need to extend the inquisition to determine whether the candidate is competent or whether the candidate has an acceptable knowledge of the subject matter.

Naturally, as the number of students grew, this system became incongruous and written examinations became the accepted method. With the rise of the universal doctrine of "fair", a written exam also ensures (at least in theory) that the same assessment criteria are applied to each candidate.

  • I'm not sure the relevance of speculation about the history of forms of assessment to the OP's question? – Ian_Fin Oct 28 '16 at 14:51
  • This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post. - From Review – Ric Oct 28 '16 at 15:43
  • @Ric: On the contrary this provided an answer indeed. The correctness is debatable but whether it answers the question or not is obvious. – Joshua Oct 28 '16 at 16:11
-1

The only thing that really matters is this: do you have a mastery of the subject you studied? The grade you get, and the degree you are awarded, should only be a documentation of this mastery. The purpose of an exam or a paper is to demonstrate your mastery of the subject. The grade is just a way of keeping score and communicating your master to people outside the field.

In light of that perspective, I would argue it's entirely ethical to be awarded a grade based on a personalized study and testing plan with the professor. As long as you are able to demonstrate your mastery of the subject matter somehow, you legitimately earned the grade, even if you didn't demonstrate that mastery the same way the other students did. The objective of college is gaining the knowledge, not getting a grade or a diploma. If the professor judged that you had an adequate mastery of the subject to award you the grade on the basis of an oral exam, that is his prerogative. Legally speaking, that is defensible as a reasonable accommodation for a disability under the ADA.

Bottom line:

If you cheat your way to graduation with a 4.0 GPA but don't master the subject matter, you might be able to get hired but you'll quickly be fired for incompetence. As a hiring manager I have to screen out these "paper tigers". I can't tell you how many people I've interviewed who had master's degrees but couldn't perform the most basic skills in their career field.

If you don't have a degree but do have a mastery of the subject matter, it might be harder for you to get your first job, but you'll keep it and advance because you're competent. After your first job, it's your work history that matters much more than your degree, except in licensed professions like law or medicine which have a degree as a prerequisite for licensing. (And even then it's not cast in stone: for instance in Virginia and some other states you can sit for the Bar exam and be admitted to the bar without a law degree if you study law under an attorney or judge)

  • In many countries the award of grades in a course and credit in a degree is at least generally regulated by law. That often means meeting conditions explicitly laid out, like adhering to policies and completing all work required. Suggesting that a professor can do what they like in place of a syllabus, especially when not formally recorded as the method of examination, would endanger the legitimacy of the course and possibly the degree, in law. Whether it's ethical or not isn't the question; whether the course credit or degree cab be withdrawn is, and you haven't addressed that at all. – Nij Oct 29 '16 at 0:42
  • @Nij you gotta say this when I was feeling good – Juan Alvez Oct 29 '16 at 2:37
  • @MalleusVeritas what do you mean by "that is defensible as a reasonable accommodation for a disability under the ADA" – Juan Alvez Oct 29 '16 at 2:40

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