When is less-than-50, 50? - Macleans.ca

When is less-than-50, 50?

A 38-per-cent grade isn’t special


This week, a student (I’ll call her Melissa) wrote to me, asking if I could raise her grade to a 50 so that she could pass the course she had taken with me over the summer. She made the usual excuses: I’m not an expert on this stuff, I tried hard, and I really need to pass this course. Of course, all of these things are irrelevant. You get a grade based on the quality of work that you did, and nothing else. I told Melissa so.

But then, in her third message, she wrote something that I could hardly believe. “Please,” she said, “I only need that additional 12 per cent.” That’s right. Melissa had received a grade of 38, and wanted me to bump it up to 50. Not 48, mind you, 38.

Now, most professors have sympathy for students who come in just under the line, and some are outspoken about those who won’t raise a 48 or a 49 to a 50. When I first started teaching I was encouraged to raise any grade above 45 to a 50, and any 50 to 51. The latter was on the grounds that someone might think that exact 50 was a gimme. Another legend in my school tells of an old-time professor who was once presented with a gold-painted screw on a block of wood, as a sarcastic trophy for screwing so many students out of credit by not raising their grades.

Now, I have no problem with someone who thinks that the student who got 49 ought to pass, and raises the grade accordingly. But why are we considered ogres if we don’t? When I was 15, I didn’t go into the Department of Transportation and ask to take my drivers’ test on the grounds that I was 15, and 15 was almost 16. Everyone knows that where the drinking age is 19, you can’t expect to get served unless you are actually 19 (or you make them think you are). Not a week away. Not turning 19 the day after tomorrow. Nineteen. So if we say that a pass is 50, why is failing at 48 such a problem?

One answer that has been proposed to me is that one’s age is an objective matter. You can document to the day just how old you are. But grading is often a series of judgement calls, and so, if it’s close, why not give the student the benefit of the doubt?

It’s an interesting point, but I don’t accept this answer for at least three reasons. For one thing, I (and I expect most professors) already give students the benefit of the doubt as we go along. If I ever find myself wondering if I should give the test answer the point or not, I always give it. If I think an essay is a borderline pass, I give it a passing grade. So if Melissa gets all those benefits of the doubts, and still can’t muster a 50 (or anywhere close), I don’t think she deserves further leeway.

Second, in other areas of life, we frequently expect judgement calls to stand. An umpire doesn’t call you safe because in his judgement your foot was nearly on the bag. The jury can’t find you guilty-but-maybe-a-little-innocent-so-innocent. Why can’t a well-credentialed expert in a scholarly field say close but no cigar?

Finally, in every university course that I have taken, given, or known much about, a grade in the low 50s has meant that you did not learn very well or achieve very much. Fifty-something is already a break. It means you don’t really know what’s going on, but your meager effort was not so abysmal as to merit an actual failure. In some programs, even if you pass all your courses with a 50, you still don’t graduate, because they know you have just barely scraped by. My point is this: if students can’t not convincingly meet even this very low standard, they don’t deserve a free pass.

Certainly, there may be cases where compassion and special circumstances merit a little bump. I sometimes bump a 49 if the student had some missteps early on and then ended up doing much better later and would have passed easily if the course had gone on a little longer. But such a modification is a gift, and it is rude to complain about not getting it as a matter of course. We call them special circumstances for a reason. Besides, if 48 or 49 must be raised to 50, then why not 45? Or 40?

And the next thing you know, students will be complaining that they didn’t pass because they got a 38.

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When is less-than-50, 50?

  1. Automatically passing students who don’t deserve to pass puts the university on par with the abysmal “no fail” policies of our public education system. It’s also a hard slap in the face to those students who actually work hard to get passing grades. How are the future workers of our country (or perhaps other countries) supposed to get through life if their entire young adulthood, a period which should be spent learning how to be independent and self-sufficient, was spend with various people holding their hand and telling them that others are wrong for judging their work harshly rather than telling them that they need to work harder and achieve the grades they EARN, like the majority of their classmates have done. We’re training a workforce which is incapable of taking responsibility for their own actions. A work force with no work ethic.

  2. What if a student came to you with a 40 and wanted it bumped to a 49 with the reason being that it’s still a fail, but this way it wouldn’t affect their average as significantly?

    I politely made this request once and the prof freaked out (literally – the dean’s office spent three months trying to cool him down) and tried to bring me up on charges of academic dishonesty. On a related note, he would have been runner up for the golden screw award.

  3. Let’s say you’re teaching first year science to Arts students, and you know that your university requires first year Arts students to pass three credits of science. You KNOW that your students will NEVER do a science course in their lives again. You also know that this course is really a hoop the university has placed out there. You also know that your students have no interest, no aptitude, and no use for your course content. However, you have a few students every semester who show up for every class, do ALL the reading, come for extra help, spend extra time in the lab, are in your office during all your office hours getting extra help, are at your TA’s desk hourly for extra assistance, and STILL only pull off 45% as a final grade. You also know that repeating this course will not likely produce a different outcome. What is there to stand to gain for you failing this student?
    Does the outcome of your Biology 111 (or Geology 101, or whatever) course make this student a more successful Sociology or English major? What does the student gain by failing? These try-hard Sociology/English/History majors aren’t going to do much better next time around. Why not pass them? Is it going to affect your reputation if you were to give them an extra 5%? If it’s not fair to give just her 5 % extra, why not do it across the board? (No student will complain about that, and rarely is there anyone in a class scoring 95 or above, where it wouldn’t be possible).

    Are you, as a Science prof, out there to prove that Science students are smarter than Arts students? (Fortunately, I’ve never encountered this attitude from profs! Most professors are NOT this way inclined!)

    Personally, I would propose that these courses be eliminated, so that students are not required to take courses that do not interest them or relate to their studies. As my opinion hardly factors into university course structures, however, I would suggest that profs be much more lenient on these kinds of situations.
    As mentioned earlier, 50% isn’t very well recognised, anyway, nor is it really worth much. However, to a student who is otherwise pulling an A/B average in his/her major, and has 50% in Earth Science 101, that menial pass is worth GOLD.

    Please understand that I’m in no way suggesting that a Civil Engineering student should be allowed to get away with 49% in Structural Engineering, or that an English major be able to pass with 48% in Shakespeare, but if the engineering student, who averages 80% in ENGINEERING courses scrapes 47% in a Shakespeare class to meet the requirements of first year English AND demonstrates FULL effort, attendance, and assignment completion, I think you’re stuck-up for not giving that student 50%. Knowledge of Shakespeare isn’t going to make that student a better engineer any more than a meagre pass in Physics 101 is going to make a better Sociologist.
    I’m also NOT talking about a student who registers in a class, shows up for two classes, arrives hung-over for the lab exam, hand in the term project a week late, pulling off a generous 44%, shows up half an hour late for the final exam on which he scores 47% by guessing through 65 multiple choice questions, and then begs for a compasionate pass. That student deserves to fail!

    To the student who wanted 40% changed to 49%….. I think you make a good point…. that’s not an unreasonable request, in my opinion. It doesn’t make the prof look bad, doesn’t make the student look smarter, but helps the GPA slightly. My suggestion on that account would be that universities change the way they represent failing grades, so that students may choose to retain the actual grade, or to receive just an “F” lettergrade, without the actual percentage shown on the transcript. (If they scored 49%, they may want to keep it, but if they scored 16%, they’d be better off choosing an “F.” THis doesn’t make the university look bad, doesn’t affect the prof’s credibility, but it does somewhat preserve student dignity…… especially if the student has only ONE of these, on a transcript otherwise consisting of B+/C+ grades.

  4. Bumping a grade from 40% to 49% is dishonest. Sure it doesn’t change your F but it makes your GPA look higher than it should. This is simply another form of grade inflation. If you didn’t earn it then you shouldn’t get it.

  5. @David – agreed! I’m not the smartest person in the world – but I was able to get at least 60s in classes that I wasn’t all that amazing at/interested in by at least attending the classes and paying attention to due dates! I got a D+ in one class – and I didn’t fight it! The class wasn’t my forte and that’s okay. It brought down my overall GPA, but let’s face it – you don’t need ALL your class marks if you apply to school later on. So just make sure you do well in the classes you ARE passionate about.

    If you screw up – you screw up. Learn from it! Don’t blame other people or try and pretend it didn’t happen.

  6. When is 50% not quite 50 enough?

    I was an completely average English major (usually holding a B/B- average in my English classes, with the odd A, and a couple of C+ grades in all my humanities classes).
    My issue was fulfilling the first year science requirement. I did Geography 111 as my science, undoubtedly the “softest” acceptable science available. But I have ZERO science aptitude! I studied SO much for Geography, spent all my extra time in the lab, getting extra help on calculations, etc. Well, I passed the lecture component (with about a 55% average), which accounted for 75% of the grade. The lab, which was made up of weekly lab grades, plus a lab test at the end of the semester, counted for 25% of the grade.
    To pass the course, we had to pass both the lecture AND the lab component. Therein lay my obstacle.
    Through my efforts, I managed to get 90% for the weekly labs, BUT these only counted for 10 marks out of the 25 for the lab. So, to pass the course, I needed to get at least 4/25 on the lab test. Even after much studying, extra help, you name it, I got only 2/25 on that lab test.

    I failed the course, even though in terms of total grades, I had slightly over 50% (53%, or something). Consequently, the university printed 49% on my transcript, as they had to represent it as a fail.

    So, who is dishonest now? They HAPPILY took FOUR percent from my total grade, to represent it as the mandatory fail, but they saw it as “dishonest” to GIVE me an extra TWO marks.

    I had to redo it. After spending the entire summer restudying ALL my materials, reading up about various topics in Geography that were covered in that course, reviewing the labs, memorising formulas, etc, I retook the course the following Spring. I scored in the higher end of the 50s for the lecture component, 80% on the labs (so actually LOWER than before – the lab manual had changed slightly – but I DID get 5/25 on the lab test!!! So I ended up passing the course with something like 54/55%.

    Knowing more about Geography did NOT make me a better English major. It did not (ultimately) make me a better Grade 6 teacher (my career). I NEVER use Geography that I learned in that course in daily life. I STILL have no aptitude for it, and after my abysmal record, even less interest in it than before.

    So, why couldn’t I just have passed the first time around? What would really have been the problem with passing me? Why did I have to go and relearn all that? Would it REALLY have hurt the prof/university to have given me TWO extra marks? (Indeed, I would happily have let them TAKE two marks off my lecture component, as I was passing that).

    However, no amount of begging or pleading could get me the two extra marks on that lab test. Grades couldn’t be shuffled around from one component to the other, either.

    With a pointless component of first year science for arts students, I don’t see why profs have to cling THAT rigidly to the “rules.” Especially not if the university is going to TAKE grades away when it suits them!

    In my case, getting more than 50 wasn’t quite 50 enough!

    Oh, and I wasn’t the only one, either….. there were at least two others in my class who had a similar situation. They, too, ended up having to redo the course. They also didn’t do much better the second time, but, like me, narrowly passed.

  7. P.S….. Dr Pettigrew, if you university routinely takes grades from students in the same way the one I attended did, would you see Melissa’s situation differently? (I’m NOT saying your university does anything like that; I haven’t a clue where or what courses you teach. Nor, actually, do I suggest that adding 12% to anyone’s grade is fair. Hypothetically, though, supposing you were to calculate Melissa’s grade to be 38%, and your university took away 3% from five students per semester, don’t you think it would even it out if you were to give her 12% extra?)

    That would be, of course, providing that your class isn’t a core requirement for her program, or something similar.

  8. I work my butt off to get good grades (in addition to a part time job and extracurriculars) so I think it’s unfair that others would feel entitled to arbitrary grade boosts.

    If I get an 80, am I likely to convince the prof to raise it to an 89 so my average is better? Nope. So why should someone who didn’t even work hard enough to pass be able to get an undeserved bump?

  9. Professors who bump grades really upset me. After 8 years of university my GPA is certainly in the top 5% of my class. It did not, however start out that way.

    When I started my first undergrad I was a science student, a biology major and absolutely no writing ability. Introduction to English Literature was a course the university made us take because they thought we should know how to write and we needed it to graduate. Every science student took it grumbling that writing about english literature was not going to help you write a lab report-the styles are entirely different. I seem to remember getting a shining 45% on the first paper I did in that class. The first time I had failed anything. In fact that week everything returned to me seemed to contain a failing grade or just above. It was devestating.

    Here’s what I didn’t do about it-I didn’t e-mail my professors and beg to be passed. I looked up the professors office hours and sat down to discuss my paper. It certainly didn’t change the 45% on that paper but it taught me how to write one. It’s a skill that both earned me an A on later papers in that class and one that I have found myself thankful for no matter what area of academics I am studying.

    That english literature course I took “because the university said so” was one of the most valuable courses in my university career. I learned far more from that 45% than probably half the A’s I have received. I look back on it now and credit it as one of the best things a professor ever did for me.

    You don’t do students a favor by bumping grades. It just makes a joke out the students who take a failure as a learning experience and put the work and effort into improving the grade the honest way.

  10. In response to Bonnie’s comment directly- many students do complain about professors who give an extra 5% across the board.

  11. Sophie, they didn’t arbitrarily take off 4%, they did that in accordance with a rule that says that you must pass both components of the course. Also marks are non transferrable, just because a person is a whiz in one aspect doesn’t mean that they have reached a minimum expectation in another.

  12. In my TA days we were not allowed to record a mark between 45 and 50 [50 was a pass but a student needed 51 to use it as a pre-req].

    ALL 49’s were to be recorded as 50’s, all 46’s were to be recorded as 45’s. As far as 47’s and 48’s were concerned, we were expected to use out judgement and decide whether the student should pass or fail the course [fortunately I actually had to do this on very few occassions].

  13. As a student, and now lecturer I have a hard time making these calls as well. Honestly – most courses are designed so that the student must work hard all semester (in lab and lecture components) and perform well on the exam. Midterms and weekly assignments are there to give the student a good idea as to how well they are doing. If a student is down in the 40% ranges to begin with (after that first midterm, etc) then the student should know enough to do what Jessi (above) had done. See the professor, TA – whatever, and get their act together. By the end of term, if the student has consistently failed assignments, exams, tests whatever – and is bold enough to ask for extra marks to pass, they obviously haven’t learned anything about the purpose of post-secondary education.

    Many students in their undergraduate programs now behave so entitled, lack resourcefullness and are generally do not approach these problems well in the first place.

    I got a 63% in a third year advanced calculus class that I studied for 20+ hrs per week to fufill my science-breadth credits. I didn’t cry when I got that grade, I jumped up and down and celebrated. Many science students had to retake that course again – because you need to learn discipline, and learn that to get what you want you have to work hard, and kick some academic ass.

    You don’t whine, plead and get a couple extra marks because you “deserve” them.

    From an earlier post – I have never encountered a 40-45% student who attended every class, lecture, lab and got extra help. These students consistently get 55-65% grades.