Friday, November 9, 2012

Loopholes, Rational Behavior, and Learning

Tuesday was the last day that students could either late drop a course or change their grading option to Pass/Fail.  As expected, a handful of students wanted to late drop.  Less expected were their various reasons for doing so.  In about half of the cases, they were in danger of failing and had realized that they didn't have the time to raise their grade in the Rome class while still doing well in their other classes.  This happens.  But then there was the woman who had not taken either midterm nor had she attended a single class.  I didn't know this when she appeared in my office and so, making small chat as I signed the form, I said that I was sorry that the class didn't work out for her.  "I'm just so busy this semester and it wasn't very convenient for me."  This comment was odd enough that I looked up her grade record and discovered that apparently she was too busy to ever show up or even drop the class early enough in the semester that she might have received some of her tuition money back.  Of course, some students do this so that they can claim to be full-time students for various reasons--I suspect that was what was going on with her.

The other 50% of the late drop forms were for students who were earning Bs or high Cs--that is, for students who would clearly pass the class and, in most cases, would have a good shot at earning at least a B.  In some cases, they might even have ended up with an A (but it would have taken a focused effort and commitment to the class).  Several of these students were either Business Honors students or students hoping to transfer into the Business program.  It concerns me that UT enables this sort of gaming of the system.  Certainly, it makes sense for a program to have GPA requirements.  But it is absurd for students to be unwilling to take a B in a class because they feel that it might jeopardize their future as a business student.  This is a terrible way to educate students; and goes a long way to explaining why students don't graduate in four years.  But, as with all things, the students have learned how to game a system that allows them to do that.

I also was made aware of an unfortunate loophole in my current course.  When I redesigned the class, I took out the comprehensive final, in part because I was working on the assumption that most students would be engaging weekly in discussions and it would be enough to test them over each section.  This was a terrible mistake for many reasons and I compounded it by allowing them to count their lowest of the first three midterms 5% (this was a way to avoid make-up exams but also to help students who did poorly on one exam but fine on the others).  These same students who won't do assigned work for a class apparently spend hours figuring out how to get out of work.  Just about everyone who has an A average on the first two exams is completely blowing off a third of the course.  They will pay for this somewhat on the fourth midterm and final writing assignment, but not as much as they should.  As well,  Because I did not directly say in the syllabus that all students had to complete the final writing assignment with a passing grade to earn a pass in the class, I have two students who figured out that they could pass the class without doing any work after the second midterm (they are both earning low As). 

All of these loopholes will disappear in the spring version; and I suppose I should not be surprised to see some students making these choices when the course design permits it.  In a class about ethics, though, it somehow feels like a double-whammy: first, I was a fool for assuming that college students would care about learning; second, I was a fool for creating this loophole.  When I think about the time I spent on the course re-design, and decisions I made that changed the syllabus from my traditional lecture class, I realize that I was operating under the assumption that the students would actually want to learn.  To be fair, many of them do.  And most that don't aren't in a position to simply stop working.  Still, it makes me sick that someone can pass the class without doing crucial assignments and demonstrating the course objectives.  That's entirely my fault and thanks to Texas laws about syllabuses as contracts, there's nothing I can do except fix it in the spring and, in the future, not assume that my students share my values around learning and education.

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