Feedback on being a better professor (ridiculously long) (Read 327 times)

Queen of 3rd Place

    OK so I just got tenure last year and still on the steep part of the learning curve. Looking for wisdom and I respect quite a lot of you.


    This is an email exchange I just had with a student in my Freshman Bio class. They all want to be MDs and I'm saving the world from many of them. My concern is that I got a little hot under the collar, probably because during finals week my fuse gets shorter and shorter as students look for last-minute ways to raise their grades. Still, that's no excuse. There is an openly snarky comment made by me right in the first paragraph, because, based on her writing in class, I suspect she did not compose this email without significant assistance.


    Student email to me:



    Thank you for a wonderful class and semester, I truly learned a great deal and enjoyed the class! 

    On the final grade sheet I noticed that you awarded me 1284.5 out of 1430 total possible points, or 89.8%. Unfortunately, I do not think this reflects my effort or aptitude in this course this semester. I have several concerns that I would like to discuss with you. This is a time sensitive matter because the grades are due Monday morning, however you have asked us to contact you to clear up any errors prior to this deadline. I have waited outside your office this afternoon,  but do not have your phone number to be able to get in touch with you. Please let me know by e-mail when would be your earliest convenience to discuss these matters.

    Essay questions on the exam are subject to a great deal of subjectivity as was the 45 out of 50 points you awarded me for the research hypothesis assignment. Two of the essay questions on the final exam appeared in a different form than was included on the mid-terms they originally appeared in. You said in class that topics would be selected from previous mid-terms. Form B had more advanced essay questions than Form A, and some entirely new ones, not included in the study list. I also wrote the research hypothesis assignment in consultation with a published medical researcher, who helped me shape my experimental ideas. I find it unrepresentative of the scientific merit of my work or my work ethic that I was not awarded the 5 remaining points on the assignment. 

    For my in class power point presentation, I interviewed a practicing Medical Doctor as part of my background research to write the presentation. I read and cited over 10 peer-reviewed publications. This is more than any of my classmates. I spoke clearly and concisely about Bipolar Affective Disorder. I don't think it is representative to award me only 88 out of 100 possible points. I feel that much of the scientific merit of what was presented was not reflected in the points awarded. The presentation deserved at least 2.5 more points, making it an A grade.


    I received an A grade on the 2nd exam of the semester for which several other students were discovered as participating in academic dishonesty. As a result, the multiple choice section of the exam, on which I scored higher than most was thrown out. Even though I had not partaken in academic dishonesty. This is not just. Individuals should not suffer because of the academic dishonesty of others. I would like to petition you to reward the integrity of students who were not involved in the dishonesty and find a way to ensure that they do not suffer because of the misdeeds of others. I hoped that this would sway your discretion in favor of students who have borderline raw scores.

    Students in my lab section have been consistently soliciting questions from the earlier lab section. Therefore, my group has had an unfair advantage. Our curves are more stringent, and our exams have been altered and made more difficult as a result. I never participated in academic dishonesty and therefore have been penalized due to other people's dishonesty. This is another irregularity that I think requires immediate administrative addressing. The number of A's in my lab section is one, and there are 17 B's. This does not fit a normal distribution. I think it is very important to standardize the work of teachers and different sections against normalized values to help rectify irregularities such as the ones mentioned above. 


    On the matter of teacher discretion, I think that the above comments give ample evidence that I have a work ethic and aptitude which qualifies me for an A grade in your class. The fact that my raw score is as borderline as is mathematically possible, allows you the opportunity to exercise your wise teacher discretion. The margin of error to achieve the next highest grade is 2.5 points for me or, 0.2%. This is naturally a subjective judgement call, left up to teacher discretion.

    I would appreciate an urgent appointment to discuss this, and find a resolution to this misunderstanding. 

    Thank you for all your kind consideration. Warm regards,




    My response:



    I appreciate your comments. It is particularly interesting to me that you have an interest in statistics, as that is one of my interests as well! I am happy to meet with you on Monday at your convenience to discuss your case, and I would love if you could share with me your ideas about how to normalize my grading across sections. As grades are due before noon on Monday, we will need to meet in the morning, preferably prior to 10 am. 


    Meanwhile, allow me to address your comments in order:


    1) Examinations. In my subjective grading I always err in favor of the student, I believe I am more lenient than most instructors in this regard. I believe that the final essay exams, versions A and B, were of similar complexity and, more importantly, you were given the topics for the essays! Furthermore, I offered students the opportunity to submit their essays to me prior to the exam for feedback. You did not take advantage of the opportunity for feedback.


    For the objective exams, 50% of the questions were from old exams, to which you had free access during my office hours or by appointment. For the remainder of the objective questions there was a thorough study guide! I'm astonished that you would complain that there was not an exact match between the study guide and the exam. Your A on the essay final certainly reflects your hard work, but, frankly, it also reflects that you knew in advance what most of the material would be.  It is of note that, despite the availability of these study guides throughout the semester, you achieved just over 83% average on your exams, hardly an extraordinary number. Five individuals in your lab section performed better on exams. Interestingly, when you didn't have an explicit study guide, as was the case for the pop quizzes, you had only a C average; seven of the students in your section performed better on quizzes than you did. 


    2) Zoo report. Shaping your hypotheses on your report in consultation with a "published medical researcher" is cheating, period. The point was for you to use your own creativity and try to come up with a valid hypothesis on your own.


    3) Presentation. The presentation was graded not just on content, but on the logical flow and timing of your talk as well as the quality of your visual aids. Again, as it was a subjective act of grading, I erred in favor of the student, adding 10 points to my subjective opinion. So while you would argue for 90.5 points, my subjective opinion was that you deserved 78 points. Awarding you 88 points is more than generous.


    4) Throwing out exams. Throwing out an exam could in no way hurt you, since most of the points in the class are easy points, you simply had to do the work. For example, you earned more than 99% of the possible points available on the labs and journal club assignments. You earned 93% on the field trip reports and the presentation. There were 730 points from those two categories (plus 10 points of extra credit). Only 700 points, less than 50% of the total, was from pop quizzes and examinations. Your performance on exams and quizzes was inadequate for you to earn an A.


    5) Curves and changes in lab exams between sections. You refer to a curve in your lab section being "more stringent", however, there is no curve, so this comment is moot. Your final lab exam was changed because of the flow of information between sections, but it was not more difficult. In fact, the extra credit points were vastly more easy. My assertion is supported by the fact that the average in your lab section on the lab final was slightly higher compared to the average for the morning lab section.


    6) On being close to an A. I announced in class the first day that points cut-offs were not soft. One could use similar logic to lower a grade.


    If you like, I will share your comments with the Chair of Math, Science and Engineering as well as with the Dean (my boss).



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    Ex runner

    Imminent Catastrophe

      Sorry, I have nothing to add. I'm just a fake "perfesser".

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        Great response!



        Students haven't changed in the last 20 yrs, just do it by email now. I'm laughing because the beginning sounded like a student I had in a class who complained that I was not evaluating her fairly (this was on statistics stuff - fairly straight forward if they came to class, read the book, and did the homework). She let me know she had a 4.0 through x number of credits. She - and several others who chose not to attend class - left blank several of the questions on the final - questions that other students had no problem with. (This was in a community college converting to 4 yr but locally not known for academics - rather the opposite. This is evidence. I only taught sporadic classes there as an adjunct or whatever it was called)

        "So many people get stuck in the routine of life that their dreams waste away. This is about living the dream." - Cave Dog

        Feeling the growl again

          Good Lord.  How unfair of you to give them an essay question based on the material in the class which they had not seen before, word-for-word.  Shocked


          Tell her that if she had put for as much effort studying for the exam as she did writing that email, she would have gotten another point or two and earned her A.  That, and to get off your lawn.


          My sister is also a prof.  The stories she tells are similar to this (and worse) and I'd laugh if she didn't have to deal with these people.  Perhaps my undergrad school skewed my worldview, but it seems the entitlement mentality and inability to think beyond simple memorization has increased.


          My organic chem prof was one of my favorites.  He stated that you could memorize the textbook and you would get 50% on his exams...the other 50% required understanding the underlying concepts and applying them to new situations.  He was right, and the average on his exams was about 60%.  However if you really did understand the material, getting 90%+ was not all that hard.  I don't recall him being bombarded with these types of messages.  I do recall long hours in group study sessions.


          If you are being pressed on the inflate the grades of people who don't deserve it but want it because they are trying to be an MD or something similar, I applaud you standing your ground.  Better to weed them out now.  I taught biochem to students of a professional medical degree.  We caught a student cheating red-handing...we were suspicious and photocopied her exams, and after handing them back she would copy the essay answer we posted onto the back, word-for-word, and try to claim we had just missed seeing it and only graded the nonsensical gibberish she'd written in the appropriate spot.  For legal reasons (ie, afraid of lawsuit) the university decided not to punish her despite the ironclad evidence, and one of the dumbest students I have ever encountered is now a practicing professional treating patients today.


          Better to weed them out early.

          "If you want to be a bad a$s, then do what a bad a$s does.  There's your pep talk for today.  Go Run." -- Slo_Hand


          I am spaniel - Crusher of Treadmills


            Ok, I read both letters and will respond.  First off, I am a Dental student who has taken most of the pre-reqs of Biology - Chemistry - Math - O chem and Biochem etc...  I am older than most traditional students but I think is irrelevant.  First off, There was extra credit offered... ( Many of my classes did not offer this and basically the professors laughed at people asking for it.) Second , you had a detailed study guide which most but not ALL my professors offer.  I think these two factors alone should stop this person from crying about a few points.  Bottom line, Biology in college is the first heavy science course most med students take.  They expect it to be a high school breeze WHICH IT TOTALLY FALSE!!!  I had almost a 4.0 GPA going into my core biology and I ended up with a C+ and stunned.  I did not study properly or research enough.  I complained to my Prof as well, but there was no argument. It was obvious I didn't do enough work. My problem was I didn't EXPECT THIS MUCH WORK.....

            Honestly it sounds like this person is crying at the end of the semester because their precious GPA is going to be blemished.  There were several chances for this person to ask questions about the grades or beg for points after getting the grades, however this student waited until they saw the final grade THEN started whining.

            I think you should stick to your guns and be tough.  Science is not easy and I had to bust my butt to get decent grades in my harder science courses.  If they are having problems in Bio 1 , they are going to die in O-chem and Zoology etc... I am still a student and have no bias really, I just think there are no excuses for hard work. If this student was so concerned about an A, they should have been at your office door on day 1 discussing on how to better their grade instead of waiting 2-3 days before final grades are due.  My 2 cents Smile

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            Feeling the growl again

                If they are having problems in Bio 1 , they are going to die in O-chem 


              Heh,  Heheh.  Heheheh.


              Good post.

              "If you want to be a bad a$s, then do what a bad a$s does.  There's your pep talk for today.  Go Run." -- Slo_Hand


              I am spaniel - Crusher of Treadmills


              Half Fanatic 12680

                I feel your pain. I am also a college professor and go through this kind of thing every semester. I must say that you provided a very complete response; I am not sure that I would have had the patience. I think the important thing is to make sure that your policies are clear (and they certainly are), stick to them, and explain the grading patiently when questioned. You can't be any more fair than that even if students are not satisfied with the grades they earn (notice I say the "grades they earn," not the "grades you give them" -- very important to emphasize that you aren't giving away anything; grades are a reflection of their effort and achievement). One thing you might consider to avoid some of this grief in the future is to give students a specific time period (like 2 weeks) to appeal any grade and be clear that after that time period, you will not revisit any grade. This is a very reasonable policy and helps to avoid the last minute grade-grubbing.


                My most unbelievable student was one who complained to the dean that she was unfairly treated because after she had been caught faking a doctor's note (she stole stationary from the doctor and faked the signature!) to cover for when she missed her field work assignment, she claimed that her work was "unfairly scrutinized" for the rest of  the semester which created "stress" for her. Of course I am going to check the work of a student who has already been caught cheating! And I thought I had done her a favor by deducting points from her grade and giving her a stern warning instead of failing her for the course which is an acceptable sanction for academic dishonesty.

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                  That's a really nice email from the student. It's maybe a little wordy, though. I might have shortened it to:  That's not fair!



                  Your response was good, especially the part about you offering to share her concerns with the Chair and the Dean.

                  Queen of 3rd Place

                    Thanks all, you're the best imaginary friends ever. I was really concerned that I was overly harsh.

                    She sent me another email tonight, not much new in it. In the spirit of giving her a shot,I went to campus and reviewed her essay final, on which I gave her 45/50. To be honest, it's barely B work. Since we're a community college and since grading essays is subjective, I give everyone the benefit of the doubt. So I told her as much, that I was done with our correspondence, and referred her to the chair.


                    Summer vacation just started, I'm gonna kick it off with a beer right now.

                    Ex runner


                      Thanks all, you're the best imaginary friends ever. I was really concerned that I was overly harsh.

                      She sent me another email tonight, not much new in it. In the spirit of giving her a shot,I went to campus and reviewed her essay final, on which I gave her 45/50. To be honest, it's barely B work. Since we're a community college and since grading essays is subjective, I give everyone the benefit of the doubt. So I told her as much, that I was done with our correspondence, and referred her to the chair.


                      Summer vacation just started, I'm gonna kick it off with a beer right now.


                      I had a physics high school teacher who said you could challenge his grading in exams. Many times, he'd give points back when he agreed. On the flip side, he reserved the right to lower the score if upon review, he determined you did worse than he originally thought. And he was a fair (but tough) teacher.


                      perhaps you could incorporate a similar technique in the future?


                      Fight The Future

                        Congratulations on getting tenure!!! Only about a thousand times better than qualifying for Boston.

                        Sorry about the incredibly annoying premeds. Let me assure you, they will get even more annoying. Have you considered teaching the pre-grad school biology class instead? A much nicer and more interested crowd.

                        I agree you need to establish up front that your grading is firm. I used to be involved in teaching one of the med school classes until I couldn't stand the complainers anymore. One thing that helped (only a little) was to hand out a course description on the first day that clearly states that no grading changes will be made. If they don't like that, they can drop the course right then. As for the cheating, that's completely astounding to me, but I know it does happen.

                        Hang in there, there are some students who appreciate the work that you do. Ignore the others.

                        One day at a time

                          You gave her way more response than she deserved! Good grief.  My dad has been an engineering professor since 1965 (he's 76 and gasp, thinking about going half-time next year).  He has told me so many stories!  One thing he does is that if a student asks for a test to be regraded, he goes through it with a fine-tooth comb.   The student is as likely to get a lower score as a higher one.  (MTA:  just saw zonykel's similar comment!)


                          My only suggestion would be not to spend as much time responding in the future.  It's a time-sink.  The student will NEVER think you're right.  Her arguments will only get more strident.  I am learning this as an online site moderator.  When I try to explain my actions, the person almost always gets more incensed and threatens to complain to the site administrator.  It's a very interesting lesson in human nature.  Ack!  I feel your pain.


                            Great response, especially since she didn't deserve that much of one!


                            I'm a "Non-Trad" student and I'm annoyed by the professors that DON'T stick to their policies.  A few semesters ago I had one that stated in the beginning of class that there would be NO extra credit work.  When other students brought up extra credit stuff after the mid-term, she said "absolutely not".  A couple weeks before the final she reminded all of us that there would be NO extra credit work.  I took my final and immediately left for a ski trip (Big Sky Montana).  Do you guys think I took ANY notes or my books with me?  Of course not, why would I... When I logged on to see if the final grades had been posted, that .......... clown .... offered an extra credit online quiz - the DAY AFTER THE FINAL EXAM... but it was only open for 12 flippin hours.  Even without my notes, I would have gotten enough points to make the difference for the less than half of a point that I missed the A by.


                            Am I annoyed that I missed the A?  No, not really... I knew it was going to be close because of the lousy group I was in for our group projects.  Those kids thought it was ok to call me at 10:30pm the night before the project was due for advice on their portions - because they were just starting.  (I cc'd them on all my "review" submissions to the professor and the feedback that I got from her).  I'm annoyed that she stated in writing and verbally MANY times during the semester that there would be NO extra credit work and then she sent out a quiz the DAY AFTER WE TOOK THE FINAL.  WTF?!?!?!

                              I am a (assistant) professor too and it's definitely that time of the year!  I actually just finished responded to a student who calculated his grade as an 88.75, begging for an A-.  Lucky for him, he did the math wrong and actually earned a 90!


                              I've decided next year to include tough language in my syllabi about grade changes.  Really it's for fairness' sake - one student might catch me on a day when I'm feeling kind, another might catch me when I'm in a bad mood.  So no exceptions!  I'm also going to require that any requests for re-grading (like your student is asking for) be made in person.  And make it known that if I do re-evaluate a piece of work, the new grade may in fact be LOWER than their original one!


                              The best excuse I've gotten this year was from a student begging for his grade to be bumped - he couldn't study for the final because he had to attend a funeral.  And as proof, he included a picture of the coffin!!!

                              Queen of 3rd Place

                                My only suggestion would be not to spend as much time responding in the future.  It's a time-sink.  The student will NEVER think you're right.  Her arguments will only get more strident. 


                                Good advice!  A lot of you seem to think the same thing. I have a lot of changes in mind for next spring when I do this class again.


                                Time to get outside and enjoy summer break!

                                Ex runner