Friday, October 28, 2011

What Would You Have Done?

Last week, I encountered a problem with one of my students. I wasn’t sure what I ought to do so I turned to my colleagues here at the Robins School of Business and emailed them a cry for guidance.

To: Fellow Faculty Members

For the first time in (at least) 25 years, I had a student sleep through a test. The test was at 10:30 on Friday and I got an email at 12:30 that he had stayed up late on Thursday studying and just slept through his alarm. He was hysterical, begging for mercy.

If you have ever had this happen, what do you do that makes sense?

Here are the factors:

1 – I absolutely do not want to set a precedent that I cannot live with in the future. I don’t want “I slept through the alarm” to become a common occurrence in my classes.
2 – I don’t want to ruin the young man’s life. He just overslept – he didn’t rob a bank. I’ve overslept.
3 – There were students who showed up for the test and failed (and will probably fail the course). I’m very concerned about being fair to them. I don’t want to penalize “showing up.”
4 – I think he is telling me the truth but I don’t know that for sure.
5 – I give three tests and a final exam. This test will be approximately 22 percent of his overall grade.
6 – Although I do not know that it is relevant information, he made a solid D on the first test.
7 – Although I do not know that it is relevant information, he has missed a few classes along the way this semester.

If you have ever faced this type of situation, what would you do? I’m really curious as to how people handle this kind of problem – other than a public beheading in the Atrium.

I sent out this plea on a Saturday morning and within a very few hours I had received 24 different responses. I was very interested in two things: (1) the thoughtful nature of the responses and (2) the wide variety of suggestions. Everyone understood the situation and had some strong feelings about what was appropriate. How do you treat a student who has messed up? Should the punishment be harsh or nonexistent?

A few days later, I shared the responses with the faculty (anonymously) as well as my own final decision. I am not going to list all 24 responses here (but contact me at if you have an interest in seeing the entire list) but I have picked out several that I thought were fairly representative of the group. And, at the end, I explain what I did and why.

It was not an unbelievable situation.

What would you have done?

Professor A - I have made the mistake of giving some students "a break" and I have regretted the decision. Here is my take. At the age of 20 - 21 some of our students are mature, responsible adults. Others are still in the process of growing up and learning to be responsible. The mature students never ask me to give them a break...they never seem to need one. The immature students ask and then ask again. In your situation I would give the student a zero. Given his performance thus far he will likely fail the class. However, I believe the University will let any student retake a course and the new grade appears on the transcript as well. It is better for this student to learn that actions have serious consequences while he is still in school. Better to fail a class than get fired. You can always tell him that he may not have learned Accounting, but he did learn Accountability.

Professor B - This is difficult. On one hand you don't want to reward the behavior, but it is also harsh to deal out such a stiff penalty. So here is what I normally do in something like this. I would have the student put the exam points toward the final. This is a penalty in that most students don't want to have so much riding on the final. But, if the student can perform on the final they have the opportunity to wipe out the mistake.

We live in an imperfect world and there is probably something wrong with whatever attempt we make to address a problem like this.

Professor C - I tell the students at the beginning of the semester that a missed test is a zero regardless of the situation. However, I did have one student have a family medical emergency and notify me before the exam. When exceptions absolutely must be made, I ask the student if they are willing to distribute the weight of the exam missed across all other assignments and exams. In every case, they have happily agreed. So for these students, I grade them in a way that essentially assumes they were not required to take the exam missed.

However, if this particular student were in my class I would not extend this option to him. If he is a D student that often misses classes and simply slept in, I would think that he needs a wakeup call to be more responsible. I would likely talk to him during my office hours and tell him this while giving him advice on how to improve his performance from here on out and probably require him to check in with me every week to make sure he's on top of his assignments. It is my opinion that allowing him to make up the exam in any way would just be enabling his bad habits to continue.

I would not view this as ruining his life. Rather, this is likely the wakeup call he needs. Better now by failing an exam/class than in the future by losing his job for similar behavior.

Professor D - I give a comprehensive final. If a student misses a test for any reason (this is not an opt out) that percentage goes to the final exam. That way they are tested on the material and I do not have to play judge or truth teller regarding the excuse. There are no "make up tests". In the past this has not proven to be a great option for the students grade wise and I let them know this up front. The policy is on the syllabus and seems to work well with regard to them making every effort to attend. This is especially true for MBA's.

Professor E - I usually offer the student two options: take the exam with a penalty applied to the grade (for example, 10 points off), or put the weight on the final or the other exams already taken.

Professor F - It sounds like he is having personal problems. I would talk with him and maybe make his being able to take the test contingent on him seeing someone in counseling or the Dean's office.

Or let him take the test and let him know you are concerned about him and are going to let the Dean's office know.

I am always dismayed by the number of kids who get transported to the hospital for alcohol overdoses, each week. I guess this is a nationwide problem, but it just reminds me of how vulnerable some of these kids are.

Professor G - If the public beheading really isn't an option, then I would say that points #6 & 7 absolutely are relevant. Were he a stellar student, I would feel more inclined to help. Failing a class will not ruin his life. In fact, it may enhance it. It is part of the educational experience to learn that most of life is about (1) being where you're supposed to be and (2) doing what you're supposed to do. But it's important to determine whether he's the kind of student that will benefit more in the long run from an act of grace or of justice.

With all that said, you could (privately) give him the option of dropping the course or count the final twice. I would never offer a make-up exam.

Okay, here is what I did and I don’t know that I like this resolution at all but it’s done and I’ll stick with it.

If I had gotten the student’s email in time, I would have had him take the test on Friday afternoon with a 15-20 point penalty. However, I didn’t get the message until fairly late on Friday and I’m always a bit concerned about cheating. Once the exam was over, the other students had no reason not to talk about what was on the exam. The student grapevine is amazingly efficient.

If the student had an excused absence (health reasons, athletics, school activity, or the like), I might have given a makeup. However, I hate makeup exams because I find it very difficult to look at one set of answers all by themselves and know what that means. An N of 1 is always a problem. So, I prefer to simply give more weight to the other tests. That increases the risk but there is no penalty.

This was not excused, though. For this student, I would never give a makeup exam because I would have to do more work which makes no sense to me and I’m back to the problem of an N of 1.

I could have increased the weight on the other tests but that might actually be a reward. “I’ll have more time to study for the next test so I’ll just conveniently oversleep for this exam.” I thought there should be a real penalty but how serious should the penalty be for oversleeping?

Here was the major factor for me: I could not see giving him any chance at all of having a higher grade on this material than a student who actually showed up. That just seemed wrong to me. So, I told him that I would give him a grade of one point below the lowest test grade. That turned out to be a relatively high F.

But, and here is the point that I argued with to myself, I told him that I would only count this as half of an exam grade. I thought that was still a severe enough penalty that no one would ever want it. But it wasn’t crushing. I very much agree with what Professor F above says: “it just reminds me of how vulnerable some of these kids are.”

All Time Top Ten

This blog went over a total of 40,000 pageviews about two days ago. I continue to be amazed by that number. However, I find that when a teacher contacts me about my writings, they almost invariably make the statement “Someone told me about your blog on teaching.” So, as always, I want to thank you for passing along the message. My guess is that I would have had about 4 pageviews in the last 22 months without your willingness to tell others. Thanks!!! That’s one of the great things about the Internet, people can spread the word.

As I occasionally do, here are my all time top ten blog entries based on readership. I am not sure they are the most interesting or the most clever or the most innovative. But the most people have read these ten.

1 – What Do We Add? – July 22, 2010
2 – What the Catcher Tells the Pitcher – August 21, 2011
3 – Big Mistakes – March 26, 2011
4 – Introduction – Teaching (Financial Accounting) – January 7, 2010
5 – Need Some Inspiration? – September 13, 2010
6 – What Do You Tell Your Students? – August 19, 2010
7 – The $10 Million Question – January 16, 2011
8 – Lessons From Dilbert – September 28, 2011
9 – 14 Questions to Introduce Present Value – April 10, 2010
10 – An Idea From My Boss – September 2, 2011

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Ten Commandments for Taking a Test

As I have written a number of times on this blog, I like to think of myself as a mentor as well as a teacher. I’m hoping that my students walk away more thoughtful and wise on top of knowing more accounting. I think if all I was doing was teaching accounting and its rules I would have retired years ago.

I gave my first test of the fall semester several weeks ago. I really did want my students to succeed. They are capable people and I’d like to see them make the best possible use of those talents. A good grade on the first test is a wonderful way to get a semester started.

So, during the class immediately preceding this test, I talked with them about my Ten Commandments for Taking a Test. Hopefully, this helped them be (a) properly prepared and (b) able to show me what they really did know.

Of course, what I want is for the test to be fair and properly challenging and for them to prove to me that they have mastered the material and understand how to make use of that knowledge. Here’s what I told them.

To my students: My Ten Commandments for Taking a Test
1 – Read the darn question. I realize you are nervous but you have to read each word and each sentence carefully in order to give me an answer that actually addresses the question that I am asking. Because you are a bit tense, you probably want to get started answering as quickly as possible. It is easy to skim the question and start guessing at what is being asked. I sometimes refer to that as “shotgun reading” where you pick a word from here and a word from there and a word for somewhere else on the page and assume you know what the question really asks. Do not do that. If necessary, put your finger on each word and force yourself to read everything in the question. It is hard to get a question correct if you do not know what the question is asking.

2 – Stay calm. We have three tests this semester and a final examination. Yes, this test is important but you’ll do better if you stay calm. A little tension probably keeps you focused but more than a little tension can make you hyperventilate. Don’t get excited. If you tense a muscle enough, you can hardly move it. To get maximum movement, you have to let it get loose. The brain works the same way. You’ve taken tests since you were in kindergarten or the first grade. You should be an expert at test taking by now. If you have done the work that I’ve asked, you have no reason to lose your calm. I want to see what you know and letting your adrenaline get too pumped up keeps you from showing me what you know.

3 – Think. The questions are not written to see what you have memorized. The questions are written to test your ability to use your understanding. So I expect you to think. I am not training parrots to repeat back to me what I have told them. I expect you to read the question and think about what it is asking and what a reasonable solution would be. If the answer is not immediately obvious (trust me, it won’t be), it is because I expect you to think about it.

4 – Hours = Points. The more time you spend studying for this test, the better. Ten hours is better than five hours. However, the equation Hours = Points is really taking in all the time you have spent since our first class. If you have spent sufficient time on a regular basis since we began this course, you’ve already put in most of the hours that you need. That is what I really want. But, you need to avoid being na├»ve – either as we have covered the material or as you prepare for this test, nothing replaces studying enough hours.

5 – Figure it out. We have covered a lot of material since the semester began. Every question goes back in some way to what we have covered: a rule, an example, a principle, a discussion. The questions are not random (no matter how they look at first glance). I expect you to figure out how each question ties into what we have covered and then figure out how you can use that knowledge to come up with a reasonable resolution. As you and I both know, my three favorite words are “figure it out.”

6 – Good start. The first test is only a small part of your grade – about 20 percent. However, I would love for you to get off to a great start. A good grade on this first test doesn’t ensure a life of wealth and happiness but I do think it tends to make the semester go well. I’ve probably already got your full attention but, if not, I’d urge you one last time to put in a good effort in getting ready. Students almost invariably do better if they do a good job on their first test of the semester. Everything gets easier after that.

7 – Office hours. There is a famous line from the Watergate hearings back in the 1970s. When someone asked one of the attorneys for a witness why he was raising so many objections, he responded "Well, sir, I'm not a potted plant. I'm here as the lawyer. That's my job." So, if you ask, why do I spend 6-8 hours in my office each and every week, the answer is – Well, I’m not there as a potted plant. I’m your teacher. That’s my job. In other words, make good use of me as a resource. I didn’t get into teaching because I didn’t want you to learn. I got into teaching because I genuinely like young people and enjoy seeing them come to learn and understand the material we cover. Some students make great use of my office hours. Others wouldn’t walk into my office if they were bleeding to death. That’s dumb. You (or someone else) is paying a lot of money for your education. I have a lot of office hours. Come in and ask questions. Make use of me. I am not a potted plant. It is my job.

8 – Fair. As you are reading each question, I think it is helpful to realize that I am trying to be fair. There is no reason for me to ask you a question that you cannot figure out. That doesn’t prove anything. If you have done the work that I have asked, I think you have a wonderful shot at getting every question correct. I think that is fair. If you have not done the work that I have asked or if you’ve not been able to learn the material for whatever reason, I think you have a wonderful shot at missing every question. That is the purpose of a test – to allow me to see what you have learned and understand. I will never ask you a question that I don’t think you can answer if you have attended class and done the work. I am not sadistic; I’m just trying to figure out what you know.

9 – The first test is not life or death. Obviously, it is nice if you do well on this first test. But, I don’t want you to put a huge amount of pressure on yourself. Study as much as you can, come by and see me if I can help, stay calm, think about the questions. However, after it is over, walk away and—for the time being—forget about it completely. It is just one test in one course in a long life of education. Some students put so much pressure on themselves that it is hard to keep things in perspective. If you don’t do well on this first test, then you and I can sit down and plot out a good strategy to do better on the next test.

10 – Have confidence. In life, whether you are shooting a basketball or putting a golf ball or taking a test, things go better if you believe in yourself. You are bright folks—you made it through high school, you made it through other courses at this school, you’ve been working in my class for weeks. We've worked hard; you've done well. You are more than bright enough to do well on this test. I believe in you and you should believe in yourself. You have a wonderful mind. That mind is more than capable of answering any question that I might throw at you in this course. Don’t come in expecting the worst. Come in with a belief that you’ve done the work and you have the ability to take on the challenge of this test.

Good luck – absolutely nothing will please me more than giving 100 percent A’s. You CAN do it!!!