As yet another semester winds down, I am busy dealing with various problems. None of these are my own problems-rather, they are problems brought to me by certain students. These are the usual end of the semester problems: papers that were never written, assignments that were never completed, tests that were not taken, failing grades and such.
Fortunately, most of my students are doing just fine (passing) and are not causing me any problems. However, the few students with problems manage to make up for the majority of problem free students. Interestingly, most professors face this same sort of situation: most of our problems come from a small number of students.
A friend of mine noticed this quite some time ago and coined what we came to call the Peters’ Principle. This principle states: 90% of a professor’s problems will be caused by 10% of the students. Amazingly, this seems to always be the case. While I have not done an exact statistical analysis, I have found that the numbers always match up quite closely. So, for example, my typical class of 35 people will have 3-4 students who generate 90% of the academic headaches I have to deal with.
I have, over the years, tried to engineer my classes to counter the most common problems. However, the Peters’ Principle seems to be an unbreakable constant: no matter what I do, I still end up with the Troublesome 10% and their problems.
For example, my Introduction to Philosophy class has a paper that makes up a significant chunk of the overall class grade. In the past, I found that some people simply did not do the paper or got around to it a week or three after the deadline. To counter this, I now require a draft that is due weeks before the final paper deadline. I also emphasize how important the paper is in terms of the class grade and even announce the due date and deadline date every class (verbally and by writing the dates on the board). Further, I provide a long paper guide (longer than the actual paper) that walks the students through the paper step by step. This is on top of going over the paper carefully in class.
Logically, you would think that these steps would reduce questions like “what is the paper on?”, “when is the paper due?” and “how much is the paper worth?” You would also think that this would eliminate the corresponding excuses: “I didn’t know what to write on”, “I didn’t know when the paper was due”, “I didn’t know there was a paper”, and “I thought the paper was optional.”
Amazingly, I have found that all of my efforts have resulted in very little noticeable reduction in such problems. My hypothesis is that most of the Troublesome 10% either miss out on the information (by not attending class, not listening, or not reading) or simply decide to ignore it. There are other possibilities as well. For example, some people seem to think that they can cut some sort of deal rather than doing the paper on time. Naturally, I have a “no deal” policy and do my best to make that clear. I’ve also heard that some people are neurologically hard wired to be incapable of learning from past mistakes. Perhaps they make up some of the Troublesome 10%.
Fortunately, my efforts have not been entirely in vain. The other students generally find the paper guide useful and appreciate being kept informed about when the paper is due. Further, these efforts have a psychological benefit for me: I can, in good conscience, believe that I have gone above and beyond what is required of me as a professor. As such, when one of the 10% folks tells me, for example, that s/he had no idea that there was a paper for the class, I feel not even the slightest twinge of sympathy or guilt.
Naturally, I have sympathy for students who run into real problems and work with them to ensure that they can either complete the semester or receive an incomplete. Doing right by such students is part of being a good professor. As is trying to keep the 10% folks from draining my will to teach.
My practical advice to new professors is to do what they can to trouble-proof their classes. As noted above, this generally does not reduced the problems the 10% will bring you. But, you will have an established way to deal with them and a defense against any unwarranted sympathy or guilt.
Here are some general suggestions:
- Have a syllabus that clearly presents all the requirements and policies for your class. It also helps to have a FAQ page on your website. Even if the students do not read it, they are still bound by it. Try to avoid being a tyrant or a jerk, though.
- Be clear about when work is due or tests/projects/etc. are scheduled and announce the dates each class (I write them on the board). Also be clear about your policy on late work and missed exams. Some people will not pay attention, but they will have no real excuse.
- Be sure that all papers and assignments are clearly defined so students know what is expected of them in terms of the goals, methods and grading. I have several examples on my class web site. Just go to one of my class pages and scroll down for the course packs or the PDF files for the papers.
- Be consistent with the students and do not cut individual deals. If students learn that you cut deals, they will all want special deals-or will complain to someone above you about such deal cutting.
- Be firm and unyielding on your policies. If you are unwilling to enforce a policy, do not have it as a policy.
- Be sympathetic to students who face genuine problems and work with them.
- Always be calm and professional-even when told shameless lies or when someone attempts to bribe you.
- Realize that no matter what you do, the 10% will always be there.
I suspect that this principle can be generalized. For example, 10% of the world’s people probably generate about 90% of our problems. Obviously, something needs to be done about those people.