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Our grades for the Coding class I am taking are divided between projects and exams. The professor I take the class under has the following policy on her syllabus:

If our cumulative average for either our exams or projects is below 65% we receive an F in the class.

For example, lets say your class grade was an 75% (C) with a 90% average for projects, but a 60% average for exams. You would receive a failing grade. To me this seems highly immoral considering some students simply aren't good test takers.

Just curious, but is this policy legal in any way?

closed as off-topic by Florian D'Souza, scaaahu, Ben Crowell, Bob Brown, user3209815 Apr 4 '17 at 6:49

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    Legal or not depends on your jurisdiction. Ethically, I would say that this is okay. Getting an average of 65% or anything (exams, projects, etc.) over the course of the semester shows that you lack understanding of the subject matter, and should repeat the course. – Chris Cirefice Apr 3 '17 at 22:31
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    @ChrisCirefice I disagree, in the UK a 65% corresponds to a mid 2:1, and would be considered a fairly good grade (70%+ is a 1st, the highest possible grade). – astronat Apr 3 '17 at 22:42
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    @astronat true; I'm not familiar with the UK system. Whatever standard is being used, being on the lower spectrum of that scale means that you don't understand the material well enough. – Chris Cirefice Apr 3 '17 at 23:24
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    @astronat I think it's safe to assume in this context that the highest possible (numeric) grade is 100%, and the highest possible (letter) grade is an "A", which kicks in at 90%+? After all, 75% is indicated as a "C", which is consistent with U.S. style grading; under which a 65% (or below) is never considered "fairly good". – aroth Apr 4 '17 at 0:56
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    65% would be a pass with safe margin in every course and university I've ever seen. Unless the first 50% is purely revision, giving no recognition to half the knowledge in the syllabus is farcical. – Nij Apr 4 '17 at 3:54
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It doesn't seem too unusual to me, and I don't think very many people will share your view that it is "immoral".

At least in US universities, the professor has quite wide discretion to determine the grading policy, so long as it is clearly described in the syllabus and applied equally to all students. This seems well within the realm of acceptability. Schemes based on some weighted average of assignments and exams are the most common, but I've certainly seen schemes where you have to have a minimum grade on certain components to pass.

As far as "legal", laws tend to avoid micromanaging academic matters, so I would be very surprised if there is any law that would forbid this. University policy is more likely to address it, but again, I'd be surprised if what you describe wasn't allowed. I don't think you will have any success trying to fight this at a higher level.

As far as it being unfair to students who are poor test takers, bear in mind that in many educational systems, it is common for the course grade to be determined entirely by a single exam. Rightly or wrongly, there's a long history of evaluating students by exams, with the attitude that students who aren't good at taking tests need to find a way to get better at it. (Accommodations may be made for students whose test-taking difficulties are due to a diagnosed learning disability, but this usually means adjusting the exam conditions rather than de-emphasizing exams in general.)

You are certainly free to express your disagreement with this policy, either directly to the professor or in anonymous evaluations, but it may not be possible for her to change it after the course has started. This could be seen as unfair to students who have been setting their priorities accordingly.

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    Odd question: If someone argued against the commonality/history of course grades being determined by final exams, to what reference could we direct them? – Daniel R. Collins Apr 3 '17 at 23:22
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    @DanielR.Collins The UK Unistats website shows the weighting of different types of assessment for every subject at every university, each year (I think). That would show there are many places/subjects where exams make up a large component of the mark. – Jessica B Apr 4 '17 at 5:56
  • @JessicaB: Thank you for that! Anyone have a reference for U.S.-based schools on that point? – Daniel R. Collins Apr 4 '17 at 20:28
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Most likely, the exam and the projects are intended to test different skills. So, it is only reasonable that a student has to pass both to pass the course. This is common practice at most courses in my department (in the Netherlands).

When I design a course, I have to specify the 'learning goals' and I have to explicitly state where and how I test them. My course might have five learning goals, three out of which are tested in an exam and two in some project work. As passing the course means that I testify you achieved all learning goals, it means that you have to pass both, and you cannot compensate a fail on one part with a good grade on the other. Therefore, in my view, the professor is doing the right thing.

Whether 65% is the right cutoff value probably depends a lot on the context, which is why we cannot judge that (see also the comments to your question).

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"Legal" is a very specific thing - and there's almost certainly no law governing how university professors in your area grade. So I would abandon the notion of legal right now.

Now, is it a good idea? There are arguments that could be made both ways - as you've noted, some students might not be good test takers, but on the other hand, failing any particular aspect of a course betrays a lack of mastery of the subject. This also prevents people with "good enough" scores to blow things off that won't harm their average much but might lower their score in a particular facet.

When it comes down to it though, professors have a massive amount of leeway in how they grade courses.

  • How much leeway is also highly dependent on context. There is a great deal in North America, but much less in the UK. Close to none in at least some institutions. – cfr Apr 4 '17 at 3:18
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It's an obvious way to stop students gaming the marking system, by only doing half the work for the course but still getting a pass grade.

It is a common practice outside academia for professional qualifications (e.g. accountancy) - why would you want to call somebody a "professional" if they aren't at least competent (even if not experts) in all the aspects of their profession?

Of course some people might take the view that anything which prevents every student from getting a degree is "immoral" - but I'm not one of them. If you take that to its logical conclusion, just issue everybody with a degree certificate when their birth is registered, and save all the time and money that is currently wasted on building schools, paying teachers, etc!

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