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Imagine that you want to conduct your undergraduate classroom in a more creative way and introduce practical projects as a part of the final grade. However, students are lazy to embrace extra activities, and all of them decide not to deliver any report.

The department does not like the trouble of failing all students in a course because of an extra project.

What would you do to implement change when students are widely resisting? Or as @JeffE suggested, How to deal with a department that does not give its instructors autonomy in assigning grades?

Additional Description: In fact, I want to change the grading system to reduce the weight of final exam, and add to small projects (e.e.g writing a one-page about the topic under consideration). The lazy class prefer to deal with one final exam instead of continuing homework. The school does not support this method, but they do not stop me as long as there is no trouble.

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    How about not giving anyone an A - making the top grade to be something like B+? – TCSGrad Apr 26 '13 at 21:36
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    When you say "decide not to", does that mean they are actively resisting your policy by complaining or non cooperation? It seems to me that if you are teaching the course (or solely in charge of it), you decide the parameters of a good grade, no? – Shion Apr 26 '13 at 22:37
  • @Shion I mean non-cooperation. Yes, I can decide about the grading system, but when they are non-cooperative, the system must fail all of them, but it is officially impossible. – Googlebot Apr 27 '13 at 12:29
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    I think the real question here is "How to deal with a department that does not give its instructors autonomy in assigning grades?" – JeffE Apr 27 '13 at 21:39
  • @JeffE yes it can be. Actually, I am looking for a way not to give up! It can be dealing with students or the department officials. – Googlebot Apr 27 '13 at 22:02
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It's a very difficult position you are in. The school does not want you to fail all the students and it seems the students might know that and are cooperating to overrule you. This is the like the two prisoners (in the Prisoner's Dilemma) finding a way to coordinate their actions. In this case, as I said, you have a very difficult situation.

It seems to me that three major issues in this case:

  1. The school says they give you power but they really don't. If this is the case, then you must deal with your boss (or higher) to find out what you can do and what you cannot. One way to test that power is to tell your boss that you will fail all the students because they are actively resisting course requirements. If your boss says that you must find a way to get the students to do the work, then you know you do not have any power and you must decide if this is acceptable to you or not. If not, go somewhere else (if you can). Otherwise, you have to live with it.

  2. You may be out of touch with what the students are capable of doing. This is quite common for new teachers. For myself (when I was starting to teach undergraduate students), I thought the students would all be hard-working and dedicated to their studies but later found that they were just like most undergraduates trying to get around the work and they didn't understand the importance of studying or the importance of their university degree. I was comparing them to my graduate-level classmates (since those were my most recent memories) but that was clearly wrong of me and I was far too expecting and too strict. If you are putting on them more than they can do, then perhaps you need to reflect on the requirements you've created. Are they really reasonable for the students you are teaching?

  3. The students might simply not understand how to do what you are asking them (this is related to point 2). Some students (especially 'unprepared students') need more attention and more explanations in order to do the work required in higher education. You might need to spend more time on general study skills (inside and outside of class) and less time on course content. That is, teach them how to research, how to write a lengthy report, etc. as opposed to simply teaching them about Theory A, B, and C.

There is a fourth issue which I raised in the initial paragraph and that is the students might be working together to overpower your authority. If this is the case, you must balance between finding out why they feel the need to do that - see points 2 and 3 above - (and solving the underlying problem) and maintaining your own power of authority (which requires you to challenge them back but then you're back to dealing with point 1 above).

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    "You may be out of touch with what the students are capable of doing." One other thing to realize is that undergraduates are taking your class for a wide variety of reasons. You care deeply about your subject, obviously, but you should understand why your students are taking it. – chmullig May 5 '13 at 15:32
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First things first: what did your syllabus say, and what did you say when you assigned the project? If the assignment was a part of the final grade, and getting a zero on the project means that all the students will fail, and they knew this when the class began and when the project was assigned, and the project was assigned with enough time for them to produce an adequate result, then no one should complain when you fail them (or at least no one should have a legitimate reason to complain). I have a feeling that if this is not a hypothetical case, there is more to the story.

I have been guilty of deviating from the syllabus in various ways over the years, but the students knew the ramifications of that deviation, and I was always fair in my grading because of it. I find it hard to believe that an entire class skipped an assignment that guaranteed they will fail, unless of course it guaranteed they all receive an A.

I think you need to provide more information for a better answer, but the bottom line is that if the students failed the class legitimately, then fail them. Just make sure you've got the means to back up your reasoning for those failures if it is indeed the entire class.

  • It is not matter of syllabus, but mainly the grading system. For example, some teachers wish to use quizzes as a part of the final grade, and some merely use the final exam. I want to use tiny projects (e.g. writing a one-page report) during the course, but what when no student delivers a report? – Googlebot Apr 27 '13 at 12:33
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    I don't understand what you mean -- one of the purposes of a syllabus is to set out the grading scheme for the course. If you put on the syllabus the requirement for projects, then the students know they have to do projects to pass. If what you mean is that you don't have control over the syllabus (e.g., it is a course with multiple sections and teachers), then this is something you need to work out with the other teachers. If the course has a combined syllabus, then all teachers should be assessing the same, with tests, quizzes, or projects. – Chris Gregg Apr 27 '13 at 12:40
  • Sorry, my bad! I considered syllabus as a part of the official curriculum instead of educational material of a course for students. In any case, as described in additional description of the question, the school does not approve such grading scheme, but they do not care if I use it without trouble. – Googlebot Apr 27 '13 at 12:57
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    I see; thanks for the clarification. If you don't have support from the administration to use your own grading scheme such that it forces the students to do the work for the grade, you're left with fewer options. One would be to build a relationship with the students such that they want to do the projects--possibly a difficult endeavor if they aren't self-motivated. You might also consider the carrot approach instead of the stick approach: provide extra credit to those who do the projects. – Chris Gregg Apr 27 '13 at 13:17
  • Good point about extra credit. I know that it is quite difficult, but I hope to receive some ideas to continue with a tricky methods, before giving up :) – Googlebot Apr 27 '13 at 13:51
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Grades are best used as a formative tool to highlight areas in which students need to improve and not as a proverbial stick to punish students. You should be commended for introducing a project that you thought would be a proverbial carrot, but the problem is the students didn't see it that way. It now sounds like you want to beat the students with the stick for not liking the carrot. Instead of punishing this years students, I would suggest you talk to them so you can figure out what they did not like about the projects and work together to make the project work in the future.

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One direct way to solve this problem it would be to put in the final exam questions related to the projects that you have assigned. Of course, you should tell this before hand so your students know about it.

The problem of changing the weight of the final exam would be that if you have not say that clearly, at the beginning of the course; some students will take it that is not a fair measure, because maybe other lecturers are assigning a great weight to the final examination and that is also a policy of the department.

Other advice would be to write reports informing to your Faculty coordinator or Dean about what is the current situation, but also proposing solutions. In some institutions when the number of falling students is very big they blame directly to the lecturer, and that can bring problems to your academic development in that place.

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It sounds to me as if you are fighting not only the administration, here, but somehow going against the established school culture with your change to small assignments. If all other teachers are requiring only a midterm and final and you switch to weekly graded assignments, students are likely to rebel, feeling that you are requiring them to do more work than students in other classes.

This is not to say that your idea is wrong; it may be a very good one, but clearly you haven't sold it to either the administration or the students. Do they understand the benefit of learning/mastering something in small bites, rather than trying absorb everything for a final? Why do you think that these smaller assignments will increase their learning, in the end?

I was a teacher educator at the high school and college levels for many years. I always told my teachers-in-training that if all or most students fail an assignment, the problem is yours, not theirs. And I include myself in this -- it took me a number of semesters to enable students to be successful at a large, semester-end project; what it required was for me to break it down into smaller parts and have due dates for each of those.

But as others have said, whatever you do needs to be built into the syllabus, so students know about it from Day One. If you do change your mind about your curriculum midstream, you must present it to students as an addendum to your syllabus, in writing, but . . . that might lead to an impression that you're changing things on the fly. Give it thought ahead of time, get it into your syllabus, or wait until next semester to make what appears, in your school culture, to be a fairly big change.

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