One thing that I should be used to by now—though I’m not—is the number of students unwilling to accept that they have failed a course.
Admittedly, there are times when a mistake has been made. A grade is entered incorrectly, assignments have gone missing. And in those cases, students certainly should ask questions. In rare cases, the grading itself may even be unfair, and, in such cases, students are justified in launching an appeal.
But most grades in the F range result from neither clerical errors, nor errors in judgement. In most cases, the student either didn’t do the work, or the work was not up to the standard.
And yet, after the grades go in, I routinely get emails and visits from students wondering what they can do to pass a course, nevertheless.
Of course, there are always things that they could do: unfinished assignments can be turned in, make up tests can be written and so on. Indeed, students often suggest such things.
But such suggestions place an undue burden on professors because, in the world of academia, time is precious. Though it may sound cold, I don’t have time to keep teaching a course that I’ve already finished teaching. I have other courses to prepare for and teach, meetings to attend, and research to conduct. It’s not that I have better things to do, but I have other things to do, and it’s unreasonable to ask me to put aside my other obligations to help you paper over your mistakes.
Situations like this are frustrating for all involved because they often come down to the very different ways that students and professors see courses.
For the student, the problem is the grade. It’s too low, and so it must be raised. Consequently, the student often approaches the professor with the air of a negotiator trying to close a deal.
But from my position as a professor, the grade itself is not the issue. The grade is a reflection of work that has or has not been done, and the quality of the work completed. If you’ve finished the course, but your work has not been satisfactory, then you’ve failed. For a student to ask what he can do to pass a course that’s over, is a bit like a last-place sprinter asking what she can do to win the race after it has already been run.
The final card that students typically play is to suggest that their lives will somehow be ruined if a grade is not changed. They will lose their scholarships, be unable to graduate, unable to stay in their program, unable to make the honour roll, unable to gain professional accreditation and so on.
This, to me, is the most maddening aspect of the whole struggle, partly, because I, like many profs, consider it unethical to ask for a grade change for any reason besides academic merit. But more because the student has refused to see the relationship between their work in the course and the grade they’ve received. The reason you might lose your scholarship is because the scholarship provider wants you to maintain a certain level of achievement and you haven’t met it. If your program requires this course, there’s a reason for it, and if you can’t pass this course, you might not—hard as it may be to face—deserve the degree you are seeking.
If you honestly believe that your work deserves a passing grade and that your failing grade is due to an error somewhere along the line, by all means speak up. But if you didn’t do the work, or didn’t do it very well, own up to that fact. Failing a course is not the same as failing at life.
Ask how you can do better next time. Don’t ask how you can pass a course you’ve already failed.