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I am currently teaching part time at a community college (in the US) and I have one student who is about 16, I think he is a senior in high school (at least he is about to graduate HS in the spring). He is currently applying to MIT, Harvard, etc... and he is taking my differential equations course. But he wants an extension on his take-home exam.

I gave my students their exam last Monday. It was too hard... if anyone is interested in what "too hard" means, I can post it, but trust me, it was difficult... anyway, so I give them their exams back this past Monday (after our Thanksgiving break) and I tell them "give thanks, the exam is take-home now and due Wednesday". He didn't show up for class that day (which when I was in HS was called being delinquent) and I told the class I would also make the announcement on our "online blackboard" so that anyone who missed would get the announcement. I forgot to do this, and Wednesday I made the announcement that I forgot to post it Monday and so I said it was due Friday (this time I didn't forgot to post it online).

In any case, the student in question (and only one other student) weren't there Monday but did show up Wednesday. He asked for me to make it due this coming Monday. I told him that was not reasonable because the final is next Wednesday and I need to get the grading done in time plus I want to post solutions to the exam so they can study it to help them for their final (but I obviously can't do that if he hasn't submitted). So their submissions are due in just about 1.5 hours and he is the only person who has yet to submit his exam. This past Wednesday after class he said he wishes I would "work with him" because he has 7 other classes he's in (I think I'm remembering that correctly.... that's insane) and he has some winter concert he has to perform in for his school band and... he's never had a B ever... but in my class he has a C, many of my students by the way have A's. I think he lacks maturity and I told him if he wants to go to MIT that he should act like an MIT student and quit complaining and get his work done.

Main Points:

  • I have a young student applying to MIT who is a dual credit student in my differential equations course.
  • He is complaining because he has a C in the class, but I feel he isn't putting in the appropriate work.
  • He claims there is a lot of work to do in high school and wants an extension on a take-home exam.
  • I disagree with his request for an extension, and I wonder if his request is reasonable and if I'm the person being unreasonable here.
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    I'm incredulus as the mention of differential equations course for high school. Is that somehow different from the diff.eqn. course I took after 15 hours of calculus? – JDługosz Dec 5 '16 at 6:29
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    It's the same class, indeed! The student has taken calc1 through calc3. – Squirtle Dec 5 '16 at 6:34
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    @AndreaLazzarotto, it is becoming very common in High Schools in the US that students can take college courses that count towards HS and college. – mikeazo Dec 5 '16 at 14:11
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    What college the student wants to go to is irrelevant, except in one sense: I think many high school students benefit from a system which is mutually invested in their success. If the students get good grades, they can get into good schools, and so the school wants to make sure their students get good grades. For this reason, I think that smarter students are allowed to get away with more. This student may be used to that kind of treatment. As a college instructor, your job is really just to teach them things and evaluate how well they've learned them, not maximize their grade. – Matthew Leingang Dec 5 '16 at 16:32
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    @smci I gave a sit down exam before thanksgiving. It was too tough so I gave them their exams back last Monday and let them finish where they left off, it was made due last Wednesday. Wednesday came and I extended it to be due that same Friday at 11:59 pm. I did check with my supervisor, they had no problem with it, they even thought it was the appropriate response. – Squirtle Dec 5 '16 at 21:33
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We don't know why your student missed class on Monday. He may have been delayed in his travels after the Thanksgiving break, he may have been under the weather, he may have had an extra rehearsal, etc. What we do know is that you suddenly changed the ground rules about the exam, but neglected to inform students who were absent from class on Monday via the online blackboard.

A student who learned of the take-home exam two days behind the others, through your slip-up, should be given two extra days to work on it.

That may not change your dual enrollment student's grade, but it is fair.

On Friday, you can post a study guide instead of an exam solution, to help students prepare for the final. Post the exam solution two days later. You may need to stay up late to prepare the review study guide.

Once the stress of the semester is behind you, do some thinking about test design. For example, you could take a look at "Preparing tests and exams" from the University of Waterloo. You can verify an exam by asking a colleague to take it before you give it to your students.

We are all only human. But when we make a mistake, we need to make a reasonable effort to clean up after ourselves.

Note: Seven classes is normal for high school.

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    Should he take into account that the exams were originally due on Friday, and if the student gets two extra days, the exam will be due on Sunday? Other students had to deal with going to classes and other homework assignments being due; this student will get two full days to work on it. It seems very unfair to the other students, if you ask me. – Sana Dec 3 '16 at 6:44
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    @Sana - But what OP proposes to do is judgmental and arbitrary (this student has been doing C work and therefore shouldn't be given a fair chance). Why should this student be given less time only because the instructor is inexperienced, did not verify the exam before giving it, and didn't post the announcement on Blackboard? – aparente001 Dec 3 '16 at 6:49
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    Yes, I also believe that the OP messed up; he never should have made such huge changes to the syllabus. But the student is in fact being given MORE time, due to the fact that he is getting the weekend to work on it. That feels unfair to the other students who attended the class. In all honesty, if I were the OP, I would own up to the fact that I messed up, maybe say that extra 10% will be given if they turn in a complete exam, and more or less go with the original grade. – Sana Dec 3 '16 at 7:02
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    @aparente001 I liked your answer until I read that my proposal is "judgemental and arbitrary". In fact, reading your answer... I did exactly what you propose I should have done! The assignment was given Monday and due Wednesday, I forgot to post an announcement so Wednesday I said it was due Friday (everyone was there but I did still post an announcement). Sana's statement "the exams were originally due on Friday" is false. – Squirtle Dec 3 '16 at 19:20
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    @Squirtle - Teaching isn't easy; we all make mistakes. Speaking of which, thanks for correcting my misunderstanding about the due dates. I will adjust my answer accordingly. // If it concerns you that some parts of your question came across as judgmental/arbitrary, perhaps you'd like to edit your question and take those bits out. Your question is valid, regardless. – aparente001 Dec 3 '16 at 23:12
143

You give a lot more information about the student than seems relevant to the question. That the student is applying to MIT for instance is neither here nor there.

That your student is in high school may be slightly relevant. It feels awkward to have a high school student in a college/university course when they are not doing well, because usually students (especially in mathematics) take such courses because they are too advanced or gifted for their high school programs, but that does not automatically make them prepared for college/university standards. If you are an inexperienced instructor (and I think you are: more on that later) then it is a good idea to talk to colleagues to get some perspective on how high school students are typically dealt with. This may well be different at a community college than at a research university, by the way. I will say that my attitude in dealing with high school students in (research) university math courses is: if there are any special rules or dispensations that apply to them, these should be made clear at the time of their enrollment in the course. In the absence of such rules, I try to treat high school students identically to all other students (keeping in mind that "all other students" is a large and inhomogeneous group). I would certainly avoid talking to them in a way that would not be appropriate or respectful for an adult university student. E.g. you write

I think he lacks maturity and I told him if he wants to go to MIT that he should act like an MIT student and quit complaining and get his work done.

This sounds rather condescending to me. As I said above, that the student wants to go to MIT is really not relevant to your course, and dragging that into the conversation is unhelpful. By the way: telling someone to "act like an MIT student" presumes some involvement / affiliation with MIT on your part. If you don't have that, what you say can come off as obnoxious. I have taken classes at MIT (as a Harvard PhD student) and have some colleagues on the faculty there (for instance, I spoke there last month). But I would not tell anyone to "act like an MIT student": while MIT students are in the aggregate very impressive, they are people, not stereotypes, and in my experience evince a wide range of behavior, including complaining.

Coming back to the matter at hand: honestly, what strikes me most is the way you are teaching your course. Giving an exam which is too hard -- even much too hard -- is something that instructors do often, and it is not necessarily a problem but needs to be dealt with very carefully. Turning an in-class exam into a take-home exam after it has been taken in class seems like a prohibitively poor idea to me. If you are not sure about why, you may want to ask that as a separate question, since it would be helpful to get a range of responses about this. By the way, I also find

"give thanks, the exam is take-home now and due Wednesday".

to be a bit obnoxious. A week after an exam was given, a student is expecting to receive their graded exam back again. Coming into class on a Monday and learning that they are getting a "pop take-home exam" is something that a wide range of college/university students would not be thankful for. Most students are very busy with a range of activities (academic, extracurricular, work, health, family...), and very busy people plan their schedules in advance. Giving the exam back without a grade, asking the students to do it by the next class, and then forgetting to communicate that to students who missed that one class, is not great behavior on your part: honestly, it looks a bit lazy to me. You say that you want to post the solutions in time to have the students study for the final. That's good. However, remember that you were the one who created the time crunch in the first place by making an exam you were so unhappy with so as to mess with it later.

Okay, what do I recommend?

  1. You won't want to hear this, but: giving a take-home exam in an undergraduate math class in 2016 is probably a bad idea full-stop. As a participant on math.stackexchange, you know well that your students can get solutions to even a way-too-difficult undergraduate differential equations class rapidly without leaving home. I have colleagues at SLACs who feel confident that the majority of the students take the honor code seriously enough not to do this and feel that the cheating by a small minority of students is more than offset by the gain in learning from students who work through a carefully crafted take home exam. When I was a postdoc, I had the experience of students cheating on a take-home exam (at a research university) and saw the poisonous effect their higher grades had on the morale of the other students, so for me even a small minority of cheaters is a high price to pay. But this is not a carefully crafted take home exam: it's a too-hard in class exam. And moreover it's a take home exam that was already given as an in-class exam. Don't you think that many of the students spoke to each other about the exam afterwards? And that a few of the students may have been interested enough to look up the answers online and/or talk to outsiders (e.g. more advanced students, tutors, instructors) about it? I see no way to guarantee academic integrity in this situation.

  2. You could make a different exam for your student and all other students who want to take it / can't solve the take home according to the deadline(s) that you rather precipitously announced. Alternately, you could admit that the assessment coming from this midterm is not the greatest and just offer to drop everyone's lowest midterm grade. In fact I usually drop the lowest midterm grade in my undergraduate classes conditionally on satisfactory performance on the final. (And in fact I often don't announce it until near the end of the course, because I want all the students to take all the midterms.) I find that students are very happy with this, and since I too often give exams that are a bit more difficult than I had wanted, this ends up with course grades in the range that I want.

  • 6
    @Squirtle: Well, I also shared my concerns that your choice compromised the academic integrity of the exam. In the grading of the exam I would certainly take a close look to see whether collusion occurred. – Pete L. Clark Dec 3 '16 at 20:24
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    And you're right: instructors make a lot of decisions on the spur of the moment and learn from our experiences. In terms of what I "like": well, I am a full professor and graduate coordinator in your field and your country, so I do a lot of mentoring of students like you. So dismissing what I think are good practices is your right, but a more mindful approach would serve you better. I encourage you to talk to other students and faculty in your field and get a range of opinions on what are good teaching practices. Just because you can't please everyone does not mean you ignore everyone. – Pete L. Clark Dec 3 '16 at 20:26
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    @Squirtle: I'm glad that you consulted a lot of people. You still didn't mention how you ensured academic integrity under the circumstances, which for me personally is a strong argument against doing this again. But fundamentally I agree that you have to try something that seems right and see how the students respond. Since it sounds like all of your students are now satisfied that they have been treated fairly, then you achieved a good outcome this time around. – Pete L. Clark Dec 3 '16 at 21:14
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    I was a college student in the late 1960's. Important notices were posted to a bulletin board we could monitor. It's just a bit more convenient now - you didn't need any push pins to post your notice. – Patricia Shanahan Dec 4 '16 at 15:07
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    @Squirtle Sorry, you did say "I told the class I would also make the announcement on our online blackboard". If that's where you usually post updates to then you are actually responsible... – csiz Dec 5 '16 at 16:56
87

I think he lacks maturity and I told him if he wants to go to MIT that he should act like an MIT student and quit complaining and get his work done.

The issue here is that you unpredictably added a large amount of extra work into the student's schedule that had to be done in a short time. What I would expect of a mature student taking eight courses is some careful budgeting of time to make sure there was enough time to do everything. Suddenly learning on Wednesday of a new, high stakes, difficult assignment due on Friday would throw that into disarray.

I don't see anything immature in a student complaining about a last minute syllabus change which makes things substantially worse for them.

Sometimes mistakes happen, and I have to make changes to the course structure in the middle of it. I think it's my obligation in that case to make sure that every single student is at least as well off as before the change; that usually means a lot of extra work on my part, and making some individual accommodations or having several options, because different versions will be good for different students.

  • 37
    I think this answer captures the problem the best. The main answer to a student complaining about lack of time is: "You should have planned better". The problem is that there was no time to plan, nor is it a minor task that can be fit in somewhere. – Sumurai8 Dec 3 '16 at 15:42
  • I respectively disagree with this response. Many students said that they only needed about 3 hours in addition to the time spent in class on the exam; some said they did it Monday night immediately and others said they did it a little at a time between Monday and Wednesday (about half an hour to an hour per day). – Squirtle Dec 3 '16 at 19:09
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    +1 for "The issue here is that you unpredictably added a large amount of extra work into the student's schedule that had to be done in a short time." Even "only 3 hours" is a lot of time to have to add to your schedule unexpectedly. – BLT Dec 3 '16 at 19:57
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    @Squirtle: 1) Just because some students can do it in 3 hours doesn't mean they all can (a student getting a C and trying to pull that up is exactly the person you expect to need more time) 2) 3 hours is a lot of extra work to fit between two classes (9 hours a week is a typical upper bound for homework, so this is equivalent to doubling the work for that period) 3) if your student (responsibly!) prepared for your early to make room to work on a project or study for an exam in another class due Friday, it was reasonable for them to expect to put in 0 hours for your class during that period – Henry Dec 3 '16 at 20:30
57

The other answer are nice and true, but somehow nobody seemed to address the failure (and not meanness!) of the OP.

Summary (without offence! but with honesty):

You created a bad exam, it was too hard for the class. You did not do a good job in the first place but creating exams can be hard so this can happen. It still is your responsibility to create fair exams and it is you who did not achieve this. Anyway, this was an exam, you have to give marks and may think of ways for the students to compensate that mark. Period.

Then you handed out the exam for home-work. A homework exam without announcing it is just not possible at all. What if a student is working in the evening, is somewhere else, has other plans... imagine, you would come to class and get told like: Here is your ticket, you have to go on a two-day trip. Now! Or you will have a very bad mark. That is a complete NO-GO.

You told to upload the information on the webpage as announced before. I would actually even write an e-mail to be sure. You did not do either of this (or too late). For a student missing the Monday class, being sick or whatever, he could rely on the fact that you will announce it online. Which you then did not. You screwed up again and giving that student more time (to compensate your mistake of too late announcing it) is the least you could do. If he, on the other hand, knows about this from his fellow students already, he has an unfair advantage. But you don't know about this. Anyway, this is way beyond any legal or fair grading and by uploading the information too late, you crashed any possibility of making this exam count.

So what to do: Mark the exam written during the announced time. Marks will probably be bad, announce a second exam. Forget about the take-home exam, people will cheat! Mostly those which are bad at class and therefore they would get better marks than the good ones who did not cheat. What a motivation!

You're not mean. But you screwed up. Don't blame a single student for this.

  • 33
    I think there was an element of meanness in shifting the blame for a mess the OP caused to the student. Telling the student to quit complaining and get the work done would have been appropriate if the take-home exam had been announced well in advance, and the student had failed to plan for it. – Patricia Shanahan Dec 3 '16 at 15:23
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    You need to get this out of your head: being late does not equate being a bad student. Maybe the student has their own circumstances that make it hard for them to get to places on time, such as having ADHD or not being able to drive and thus at the whim of public transit. They are not being marked for attendance anyway. – user10033 Dec 3 '16 at 20:27
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    +1 This answer is what I would have written, but more diplomatic. The fact that one knows other awful professors is no excuse. – Daniel R. Collins Dec 3 '16 at 20:41
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    Seriously, I think you are out of line --- I don't think this answer is out of line at all. You messed up. Whether or not the student was also irresponsible doesn't matter in the least. – JeffE Dec 3 '16 at 23:43
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    @Squirtle I am not trying to cast blame; I am trying to place responsibility. There's a difference. The student is responsible for their actions; you are responsible for yours. The student is responsible for mastering the course material (whether they come to class or not); you are responsible for fairly assessing that mastery. The student skipped class; you changed the parameters of an exam without warning, and without carrying through on your own promise to communicate such changes to absent students. The student deserves your fair assessment, even if that fair assessment is a D. – JeffE Dec 4 '16 at 17:58
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First of all, I think the most relevant point is the fact that he hasn't submitted his exam and it is due in about 1.5 hours. I would email the student now and warn him that you plan to post the solutions at a certain time, and unless he submits by then, he gets a zero on the exam. Documenting never hurts.

Secondly, did anyone else miss the class besides him when you made the announcement? You are partially at fault for not making the announcement, and if it affected just this one student, then maybe some adjustments could be made (however, giving him extra time over the weekend is unfair, since the students got Monday-Friday, but he would not only get the entire weekend to work on it, he would also get an extra day).

But in general, I would caution against making major changes to your syllabus, because if the student really decides to go after you, he does have some grounds to stand on. The exams are probably worth the majority of their grades, and doing things like this unannounced is not good form, in any case, although it was done with good intentions. I would have opted to just take the original grade, then curve it.

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    +1: This is a good answer, especially: "I would have opted to just take the original grade, then curve it." Yes, I agree heartily. The problem with a very difficult exam is that it has bad effects on student morale. In my experience difficult exams actually do a better job of differentiating between better and worse students (up until the point where it gets ridiculously hard, of course). Curving the exam would have been much better. Perhaps allowing students to turn in one problem they got wrong for extra points is also a good practice. Giving the exam as a take home is not. – Pete L. Clark Dec 3 '16 at 7:16
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    @Squirtle Yes, but the other students still got two extra days, so it does seem unfair to the two students. In general, students will appear happy at random things that are not necessarily helpful to their learning (well-known example: student evaluations rarely actually address the quality of teaching). So it's the instructor's responsibility to ensure fairness, regardless of how the students feel about it. – Sana Dec 3 '16 at 20:15
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    They didn't really get two extra days if they had it done when they thought it was due. – WGroleau Dec 3 '16 at 20:21
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    @WGroleau PRECISELY! Also on another note.... With the exception of one student, every student present Monday turned in their exam Wednesday, even when presented with extra time..... and the one exception did well from what I can see. The belief amongst the students was "I don't need the extra time" (this isn't speculation this is what they said) – Squirtle Dec 3 '16 at 21:02
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    @WGroleau That's not correct. Unless things have changed since I was a student, giving me two extra days for a take home exam is guaranteed way to raise my score. Just because someone turns in a "done" exam doesn't mean they believe all their answers are correct. They are just done. That's two more days for me to reflect on places I thought I made mistakes, not to mention discussions you'd have with other students about the test (since you thought it was over). Which has now happened twice! Being a HS student, you'd miss out on a lot of this. – iheanyi Dec 5 '16 at 15:33
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My opinion is if he doesn’t make the deadline for the exam, make up another exam and give it to him. You can make it available as extra credit for other students too. Admittedly, this student may be stretching himself thin (something the establishment is encouraging him to do, depending on who is around him), taking up a massive workload, and yes, he’s floundering. But you grow through struggle, it’s easy to bite off more than you can chew, and it’s hard to grow if failure means you totally screw up your chances permanently.

Am I being unreasonable? A physics professor of mine would give the option of redo exams several times a semester. He said to me, "If you really want to study this material more, learn it better, and you want to do extra work for this grade, then i should help you do that. Sometimes you have something going on in life---who knows? Anyway, real learning doesn’t work on a deadline, and my job is to help you learn. The class, and every other class, has enough deadlines that I don’t mind doing this."

A chemistry professor of mine told me of a professor at Berkeley didn’t believe in failing students; he only gave incompletes. Students could do extra work after semester to bump up and get their grade. If students didn’t take care of it, it would bottleneck their class progression, so most students ended up finishing their work. The result? More students ended up not only passing, but did better overall and learned the material better. My professor said this man was only allowed to get away with these shenanigans because he was tenured. What a pity.

You may say people need to learn discipline and to adhere to deadlines. Remember who you’re talking about: students in differential equations who have plenty of experience, and will constantly be, working under deadlines their whole life. This is not a lesson that needs to be hammered in at every opportunity to the detriment of people’s futures.

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    I agree with this so much and I am not trying to "hammer in deadlines" in fact on their homework assignments I allow them to request for extensions. – Squirtle Dec 3 '16 at 19:25
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    @Squirtle - Hmm. It occurs to me that your elastic policy on homework assignments may have contributed to your current dilemma. – aparente001 Dec 5 '16 at 4:10

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