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THE 69% DILEMMA

by Esther Robbins, Chair of Language Studies Department

Just as Fahrenheit 451 represents a significant number to most middle aged sci-fi readers out there, 69.9 percent is a significant, albeit troubling, number for all college instructors. Just what do we do with the student who is nearly passing a course? We all face this quandary at the end of each semester. Perhaps the kinder instructors start wavering at 68 percent or even 67 percent. There are even those of us who look at "honest" "Cs" of 70 percent or even 71 percent and ask ourselves if these students really deserve to pass. How we all make our decisions, and live with them is not often openly discussed, and certainly not until we are faced with turning in grades.

Now is actually a better time to consider how we will separate the "Cs" from the "Ds." Now, at the beginning of the semester, it is an intellectual question. The scores are hypothetical and are not associated with students whose particular faces either bring us cheer or desolation. We can establish firmly in our minds what we will do when confronted with the pass or fail dilemma at the end of the semester.

Several questions are useful to contemplate. Number one, can the student in question handle the next course's material? If the answer is "No," then having the student repeat the course is the right thing to do. If the answer to this question is "Yes," then why is her/his score so low? Was it a matter of attendance? If so, why? Was there a story of family emergency (that you feel comfortable believing), or was this just a form of "senioritis?" Has your student behaved irresponsibly during the semester? Would a failure serve as a life-lesson? A failure in a college course is a much more inexpensive price to pay than the loss of a promotion or of a job itself. Would you, by failing the student and sending the message that poor performance does indeed have consequences, instill a sense of responsibility that will stand the student in good stead later in life?

The second issue to look at is whether you can discern a pattern in the student's grades and learning throughout the semester. We all feel, and for good reason, differently about a student who has early on demonstrated intelligence and ability, only to later slack off as compared to the student who started off struggling, perhaps attended office hours regularly, and improved, but only enough to reach the awkward 69 70 percent grade range. What do you know about the path that your student took on the way to this final score?

Lastly, will your student benefit more from failing or passing? At first, this may seem a silly question. You may, however, have gained a knowledge of your student throughout the semester that will help you to know if a failure will discourage the student to a point of dropping out of school, or if it will be just the kick in the pants that will jolt the student into a more serious approach in future semesters. Conversely, could the student, if allowed to pass by the "skin of her teeth" gain the same benefit in terms of future academic motivation if you were to have a chat with her and explain just how close to failure she had come and what would be required in the future? Obviously, there is no one absolute right or wrong decision in these cases. As instructors, we must use our best judgment and intuition. We must always make our best decision, and work hard to avoid favoritism or prejudice. Students who have irked us with a myriad of slightly off the mark questions throughout the semester deserve our fairest and kindest judgments, as do all of our students.

One final caution, although you can see that I do favor a case by case scenario, we all must guard against treating students who have come out with final course grades of 68 percent to 69 percent differently. Students do chat with each other, and we need to avoid situations where we must explain why student A was passed while student B was failed even though they both had scores of 69 percent. While your teacher judgment, knowledge of the student's personal situation, as well as the pattern of grades achieved may all be a valid and worthwhile part of your decision making process, we need to back it all up numerically. Therefore, a "gray area" is needed as part of the grade calculation. This need only be worth a few points out of the entire grade. It can be the "class participation" section or the "attendance" or "lab work" sections. As long as you have the flexibility to give either, for example, a 75 percent or an 82 percent in such an area and so offer a hand up (or down), you can back up your results numerically. In other words, the student with a 69 percent who should, in your opinion, pass the class, needs to have a solid 70 percent on your final calculation sheet. Likewise, if a student is not passing a class, you will have less trouble defending your decision to the student if her score is 68 percent or 69 percent rather than 69.9 percent. Do my recommendations seem dishonest? If this does not sit well with you, you can always go strictly by the numbers. If you are an instructor who feels this way, then 69.9 percent will receive a "D" and there will be no exceptions made. My experience, however, has reinforced my impression that all is not cut and dry, and that a bit of professional, well-considered, well-intentioned flexibility is invaluable when deciding these delicate grades. Good Luck everyone.

 

The Instructional Area Newsletter, Volume 17, No. 1

Fall 2001