Failure is always an option

Laziness and apathy will find a way.


Last year around this time, I found myself fed up with giving bad grades. Students didn’t like them, and some potentially good students seemed to get discouraged by a bad grade and give up. Not only that, I didn’t like giving the low grades, or, for that matter, reading the  bad papers that made them necessary.

So I hatched a plan. What, I said to myself, if failure was simply not an option? What if a paper had to be at a certain level of quality or it went back to the student without a grade and had to be rewritten? A student asked to do a rewrite will be less discouraged, I reasoned, than one who gets an F. And if they are forced to do reasonably well, then they will be encouraged to do better on the next paper.

Everyone succeeds. No one fails. No young adult left behind.

Or so I hoped.

The reality was rather less exciting. For one thing, handing papers back for indefinite revision meant that there were no fixed due dates for any of the papers. Students in my intro course, for example, knew they had to do five over the course of the year, and they knew that some of them might come back for revision. So it was clear that they needed to get on it in the first semester, and from the outset I kept reminding and cajoling them to get those papers in because if you leave them all to the end, you won’t have time to get them all done.

Can you guess what happened? They left them all to the end and didn’t get them done. Well, a lot of them didn’t, anyway. Thanks to an extended final deadline, six of the original 37 students ended up doing all five of the papers. Those six all did reasonably well in the course, too. Of the remaining thirty-one students, many did nothing in the first semester and dropped in the second realizing they were never going to pass. Others did their best and managed to push through three or four papers, and some of those students managed to pass  too. Others made a half-hearted attempt and failed. Still others did nothing, and, of course, failed.

Overall, the failure rate in the course stayed about the same as in previous years.

All of which makes me sad. See, because I am a tough grader, students sometimes imagine I don’t want them to do well. But nothing could be further from the truth. I want them all to do well. To write with clarity and precision and to advance significant arguments — my heart lightens even to type the words — but I won’t give good grades for bad work.

And so I try to work out plans like the one outlined above, thinking, somehow, if I build the assignment structure correctly, students will take it seriously. And some do, but then, some always do. And some always don’t. No matter how the assignments are structured, it now seems to me, there will always be those who aim low and miss low. There will be those who simply will not correct their mistakes no matter how many times they are pointed out. And there will be those who simply will not do it at all.

So failure is always an option. Students demand it, and I cannot, in good conscience, refuse them.

Maybe next year I could pretend that there are due dates…


Failure is always an option

  1. Try assigning a date for a mandatory draft two weeks before the revised version is due. Stipulate that the final version will not be accepted without the first mandatory draft. In grading the drafts, you don’t have to go into great detail, but rather provide direction and suggestions. After the final version is completed, instead of giving an F, give them an RR (revise and resubmit), allowing them to (though many probably will not) do a second revision, giving them ample opportunity to then submit their best possible work. It means more reading for you — especially in a first-year course — but could be encouraging for students. Also, you could replace the mandatory first draft with a mandatory outline, including an annotated bibliography.
    In any case, I think students really benefit from learning early on the importance of pre-writing and argument formulation. A mandatory first step, worth enough of their mark for it to be worth it, could really give them the incentive to start it earlier, allowing more time for the formulation of proper, strong, and concise arguments (thereby possibly lightening your heart and increasing their GPA simultaneously).

  2. I’m really curious as to how tough of a marker you really are. Managed to get through my first year English course at CBU (Engl 200) with an 88.. was advised by many not to take you because you were too difficult of a marker (and your class was too early for me). However, I found my professor to be a difficult marker as well, so I’m wondering if your bad reputation comes from people unwilling to put in effort, or if you really are just an abnormally tough marker? Thoughts?

  3. To add to this discussion and take SM’s suggestion a bit further:

    Have you tried creating the opportunity for peer review and feedback prior to them submitting the work to you for a grade?

    Groups of two to three students. Provide time in/out of class to peer review/feedback each others work. Then ask for the draft with feedback notations on it along with the final work on your due date. I’ll bet the work will be of better quality and the students will procrastinate less.

    Students learn best and care more when they are engaged and when they can create and ‘teach’ each other. More info. on this link:


  4. Curious, the grades in my section are certainly lower than in some other sections, which is one of the reasons I have been trying to find ways to help make sure students do well.

    But what’s frustrating is that so many students just won’t do the work. In my intro course this year, six students did one or fewer assignments (that’s none or one out of five). So obviously, all those students failed, and yet in some sections there are only one or two failures.

    Canada’s point is well taken, but I have always been skeptical of peer review and instruction with students, especially in the first year. How can students teach each others what they themselves don’t understand?

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