Next week is the last week of classes at my university, so we are now in what I call the “time of great desperation.” This is the time when some of the failing students realize that they are failing and are hence in desperate need of something that will allow them to pass.
While some students do decide to make a last, desperate attempt to do passing work, others fall back on time worn gambits in the hopes that they will pay off. I’ll be discussing a few of the gambits that have been played this week.
A rather weak gambit is the “I didn’t know” tactic. This is played when a student asserts that s/he was unaware of some critical information such as a due date, a test date, how to do the assignment and so on. I counter this by providing all the relevant dates on the syllabus, by including a syllabus entry stating that students are responsible for knowing such information, by announcing dates every class, and by providing highly detailed guides to the papers. Students sometimes still attempt this gambit, but all this does is show that they did not go to class and did not get the required material for the course.
Another gambit is the “it’s too hard” tactic. A student will typically play this when his or her paper is late and use it in a bid for more time. The way to defend against this is to make sure that the paper, assignment, project or whatever is suitable for the course level.This can a challenge for new professors, especially if they did not w0rk as TAs during graduate school. Fortunately, help can be had from experienced professors who can provide suggestions and examples. For example, I have paper topics and guides at my web site for philosophy classes. Naturally, experience will also help a great deal here as you learn what can reasonably be expected of your students.
In my case, I have been a professor since 1993 and have fine-tuned my papers so that they are well-matched to the classes. That is, I consistently get a bell curve of grades. As such, when a student plays this gambit, I reply that the papers have been fine tuned for the classes. I do add that I am happy to listen to suggestions and, of course, am available to provide assistance. I also point out that the majority of other students who have taken the class were able to complete the paper with a passing grade and hence it hardly seems that the paper is too hard.
As noted above, students often play this gambit when the paper is late in the hopes of getting an extension. For example, I had a student email me on 4/15/2009 saying that he was having trouble with the paper because it was too hard. The paper deadline was 4/10/2009. While he had spoken with me briefly during my office hours, he had not even attempted a draft of the paper. I used my standard reply to this sort of tactic: the time to seek help when you are having difficulty on a paper is before the deadline, not after.
A student who seeks help way before the deadline is probably really looking for help. A student who says the paper is difficult after the deadline is most likely just fishing for an undeserved extension.
Some students also employ this tactic in the hopes of substituting some other work for the paper in question. Shockingly enough, the suggested substitution is always supposed to be something much easier. I counter this by pointing out the obvious: in order for the students to be treated fairly, the students have to do the same sort of work. If one student gets an easy assignment, that would be like having a track race in which one runner gets to use low hurdles while everyone else is expected to jump the high hurdles.
That said, it is important to be sympathetic to and supportive of students who honestly find the work difficult. Students have different abilities and a good professor takes that into account. If a student approaches me for help because they really do find the paper difficult, then I help them to the best of my ability. In this case, the student isn’t playing a gambit-s/he is asking me to do my job-to teach her/him.
In the above discussion, I have just mentioned cases involving a very few students (usually just one). Now, if you have many students expressing concern about the difficulty of a paper, assignment or project, then it is well worth re-evaluating the paper, assignment or project. It might turn out that the concern is groundless (people naturally tend to complain about anything that is not really easy). However, the students’ might be correct-it might be unfairly difficult. In that case, you should modify the paper, project or assignment and work with the students to make sure that they have the proper chance to get the grades they deserve.