Keeping high standards when you are a sucker for a sob story

Yesterday Apostrophobia wrote about one of her regular courses that is designed to be challenging and build problem solving skills.  She talked about the journey students take as they go through the course particularly one student who saw the value of the course and went the extra mile to not only pass, but to master the content. I think that as teachers we know the courses that are difficult for students.  My course is one that is difficult.  It is physical science, the foundation science course for the rest of my high school’s science curriculum.  I know that it is challenging and I try to put “safety nets” into the course, which allow students to fall, but not crash into the ground.

I grade my course in three areas homework, tests and labs.  Homework has the least impact at only 5% of the grade and is really there as an incentive to complete the practice necessary to succeed in tests and labs.  There are no safety nets for homework.  It is 5 % of the grade and if you do none of it you can still get an A so I don’t bother with safety nets here.  The safety nets are for tests and Labs.

The test average is 45% of my student’s grade and I give a test at the end of every topic, which corresponds to 3-4 tests per marking period.  These are your standard tests that hit the objectives of the topic and tend to be a combination of multiple choice and problems.  The horror you say, almost all questions multiple choice … shame on me… but it is practical. I teach 120 students and have a 1-2 day turn around on test grading.  1 minute per test is 2 hours of work and who can grade a test in 1 minute? My safety net for tests is that any student can retake the test and earn up to an A, not an A+.  In order to retake the test a student must do modified test corrections and also demonstrate that they now have the ability to perform any skills that are associated with the topic, for example predict the structure of a covalent compound. Modified test corrections entail writing out the question and answer, stating which lesson the question was taught in and explaining how this information is connected to the whole of the chapter, basically making a concept map of all the information in the entire chapter.  They need to turn these in by a deadline and if they do, they may retake a test on the same topic, but all the questions are now open ended. (I can grade a small number of open ended tests in a reasonable amount of time.)  The grade of the retest overrides the original no matter what higher or lower, but it is also possible to retake the test a 3rd time.

This concept of allowing retesting horrifies some of my colleagues. They say that some students will take advantage.  They will treat the original test as practice and see how they do and only study for the retest. My response to this is 1) the criteria to retake the test is extensive and is way more work than studying in the first place 2) who in their right mind will blow off a multiple choice test for an open ended test?

In all honesty I do see a few students who try to take advantage, but once they have an email from me to their folks about the possibility of retesting and see the amount of work necessary to retest most decide that it is better to prepare well in the first place.  The safety net then is allowed to do what it was meant to do.  It informs students about their weak knowledge and directs them to the original lesson that taught it and how that lesson/information connects to the whole topic.

Lab reports are 40% of my grade.  These grades stem from guided inquiry where a student applies information that they learned in class to more open inquiry where a student is given a question and has to design and conduct an experiment to answer the question as well as report on the results of that experiment.  For a number of my students there is a gap between what is expected of them and what they give me.  This gap can be a laziness gap, but is more often a skill gap where a student does not know exactly what is expected of them.  Often I am given rambling answers that do not actually address the question or if it does answer the question it is buried in nonsense words that have nothing to do with the topic.  Another issue I find is students do not cite data from the lab in support of their answer.  How do they know the answer they are given is true if they do not cite data? In these cases I imagine myself their boss.  If an employee gave me a project that was not up to standard I would not give them a failing grade and move on. I would have to stall the client while they got their act together and fixed their mistakes.   So in my class a student who fails to earn a B on a lab report is given the opportunity to reanswer the questions, with notes from me, or to rewrite a lab report. I, of course, hold on to any lab that earned over a B to reduce the temptation to cheat.

I recently had a conversation with a student whosaid that he was struggling with labs.  He worked really hard on the questions, but still did poorly.  He redid the lab, but was having a crisis of confidence.  I told him that he was more than welcome to ask for me to read over his answers outside of class and I’d give him notes, as long as it was before the due date.  He also had the ability to ask others to read over his questions and give him feedback.  I told him that if his folks did not understand what he was saying the answer is most likely wrong. School is hard it is supposed to be hard.  That is how you learn.  My job as a teacher is to make it just hard enough for you to stretch yourself, but not so hard that you give up.

Retesting and redoing a lab is my answer to this balance between vigor and circumstance and it all stems from my weakness.

I am a sucker.

Give me puppy dog eyes and a sob story and I am willing to go easy on anyone, but that is a disservice.  I am not doing my students a favor by going easy on them.  I am just delaying the point at which they will confront their weakness.  Maybe that is next year or maybe it is in college when the stakes are higher or maybe it is when they get a job.  In any case I feel that it is better to stick to my guns and keep to my high standards than to allow obviously inferior work pass muster.  The only way in good conscious that I can keep rigorous high standards is to allow anyone who did not meet the basic requirements the opportunity to get another shot at the goal.   Opportunity is the word.  I do not give them a higher grade.  I give them the opportunity to earn a higher grade.

Note: There are always exceptions.  This year the girl who was diagnosed with a brain aneurism, the boy whose brother died and the girl who had a concussion so bad that it should have been called a traumatic brain injury all got passes on a number of assignments. They all have lessons of greater importance to learn than I can teach them, so they get a pass this year on balancing equations.

Featured image by Paul Bonhomme 1.February.2012

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Jennifer teaches science in a public school in Pennsylvania. She lives there with her husband and two dogs.

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