What if failure was not an option?

Would you rather get an F, or be made to rewrite?


This year, I seem to have reached some kind of breaking point when it comes to grading essays. At one time I kind of liked terrible papers — not because I took a perverse delight in giving a low grade — but because they were easy to assess. Utter incompetence cannot be hidden. But after ten years of such nonsense, it’s getting a bit old, and I’m tired of seeing the Fs pile up at the end of the year.

My first attempt to encourage better writing came a a few years ago when I instituted a generous rewrite policy in most of my courses, but that has had mixed results. Lots of students won’t rewrite papers no matter how badly they’ve done on them, and those who do rewrite often make only superficial corrections, hoping to get a few more points here and there.

I should point out that I’m not talking about papers that are simply dull or jejune; I’m talking about papers that do not even begin to address the issues at hand or remotely attempt to meet the most basic requirements.

Right now, I’m hatching a plan by which I would provide students with a list of basic things that must be included — and done correctly — in any paper. Essays must have a title; they must cite sources correctly; they must actually cite the text in question; they must be of the assigned length. And so on. If the paper does not meet all these basic requirements, it simply gets handed back, ungraded, and must be redone.

If the paper meets these deal-breaking criteria, then it will be assessed for its intellectual quality. If it does not rise to the level of a C-minus, it goes back with comments (inlcuding specifics on what needs fixing) but still without a grade and still must be rewritten. When the rewrite comes in, the student must include a note describing the changes and how the problems have been fixed.

I’m eager to try this out, and curious to see how students will respond. The optimist in me hopes that the lack of a low grade on a failing paper will help prevent students from getting discouraged, and the clear, tough guidelines will force them to be more scrupulous. I also hope the revision note will compel them to think about  real revisions and not just pretend that fixing a few spelling errors constitutes a rewrite. The pessimist in me worries that students will get stuck on the first paper and never finish even that, and so fail all the more completely (of course, many students give up after the first paper or two anyway).

I also wonder whether students will object to the no-grade they might get on the grounds that it should be up to them whether they want to accept the low mark. This, in effect, would be students fighting for their right to fail, but I wouldn’t put it past them. I could always remind students that they are still free to fail exams as badly as they want.

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What if failure was not an option?

  1. I think that providing students with an exemplar along with your requirements would show them exactly what you expect of them – it could even be the work of a previous student(s). Commenting papers that are found wanting would also be good pedagogical practice. That being said, I would hate to have to write a paper for a person that uses “jejune” in a blog post.

  2. I briefly thought you were being sarcastic when reading your first set of conditions (title, proper citations etc.), but then pessimism scored a victory when I realized that people actually hand in papers that don’t meet those amazingly remedial guidelines.

    My pessimistic side also forces me to believe that most students who are unable to achieve the most basic standards of formatting would not have the intellectual ‘fortitude’ to actually hand-in a second paper after their preliminary attempt.

    I am somewhat more optimistic about the second part of this system as it may serve to elucidate the students about what was lacking in their paper intellectually. For a personal example, the only paper that I’ve received back that I kept was a paper I received a C on. To that point, I had been a straight-A student, so it came as quite a shock. However, after asking the teacher about the paper, I realized an area of my writing that was terribly poor. On later papers, I was able to foresee the same problem and work to avoid it and improve the overall quality of my work.

    Of course, there’s always the likelihood that the students won’t find it helpful and continue to make the minor changes to try and scrape together a slightly better grade, but one must remain optimistic in such an endeavour.

    Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a small, yet vocal group that fights for their right to fail while still receiving the partial marks for their work, so that by the end of the semester, they still mathematically have some hope to pass the course.

    Finally, if you do decide to implement this system (at this point I assume next academic year), I hope you use the time saved from unformatted papers to write another post about how well it works.

  3. Speaking as someone who just went through a course where the prof actually did this (the list of essential criteria, that is), please don’t. It is utterly demoralizing for those of us who DO know how to write a paper to feel as if the class we are paying good money for has been dumbed down to cater to idiots. Why do professors feel the need to devote so much time to teaching people who clearly aren’t interested in learning? Just keep failing the idiots and make it good and challenging for everyone else.

  4. “It is utterly demoralizing for those of us who DO know how to write a paper to feel as if the class we are paying good money for has been dumbed down to cater to idiots. Why do professors feel the need to devote so much time to teaching people who clearly aren’t interested in learning? Just keep failing the idiots and make it good and challenging for everyone else.”

    The answer to this is, in part, is because professors can be penalized quite severely for failing too many students. Universities give a surprising amount of weight to student evaluations, for example, for decisions related to salary, tenure, or even continued employment of professors. Since failing students overwhelmingly give worse evaluations than A-students, there is an incentive for professors to teach to the weakest students in the class, rather than trying to challenge the abilities of all students. University administrations with a heavy focus on “customer satisfaction” may come down hard on professors who fail significant numbers of students because, if those students complain, drop out, or whatnot, it hurts the university’s tuition-fuelled bottom line.

    There’s a more important question in the subtext that ought to be addressed: why are students arriving to university so woefully unprepared that they don’t even know the basics of how to write a paper? Or don’t know how to proofread? Or can’t do basic algebra? If there are students who haven’t even mastered the basic skills required to function in a university setting, why are they allowed to take courses like Professor Pettigrew’s that take such skills as assumed knowledge in the first place? Unwinding that tangled mess of poor public policy would probably make a great paper.

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