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Getting Students to Take Responsibility (or How to Keep Your Cool and Stand Your Ground)

The event recounted below occurred several years ago in my 2nd (or was it my 3rd?) semester teaching Social Statistics (Soc 205) at QC.


“I can’t believe you failed me!”

These were the dreaded words I heard from a student moments after she got her first exam back. I was in the process of distributing the graded exams to the students sitting in the back of the class when I heard this declaration coming from the front of the room.

To say I was livid would be an understatement. (In hindsight, I wish I could have been a student in the room at that precise moment so I could see my face.) I finished giving out the exams while processing what she had said and figuring out how I was going to respond. I knew I couldn’t ignore it and felt like I had to handle it immediately before I could go over the exam.

The woman in question had not shown an aptitude for the course material. My impression of her was that she worked hard and that she studied a lot for this exam but she ultimately did not do well. But that’s not what bothered me. She did not take responsibility for her own work. Instead of accepting that SHE did not do well, she placed the blame on ME since I was the one that GAVE her the grade.

I also felt she was undermining my authority in front of the class. If I let her “get away” with this one comment, what else would others feel empowered to “get away with”? Would I “lose” the class with more than 2/3 of the semester left?

I made my way to the front of the room and the tension started rising as I sat on the desk gathering my thoughts. Everyone in the room sensed that a stand-off was looming. After several seconds of silence (it probably felt like minutes), I made an announcement to the class that I have continued – in some form – every semester after I give back the first exam/major assignment/etc:

I am not here to “give” you grades. My job is to teach you the material, assess your work, and determine if you’ve learned the material through the use of exams and other assignments. The review session we had, before the exam, outlined what you needed to know and how to prepare. There were no surprises and any grade received is a grade that was earned.

I am not in the habit of giving anyone anything. I evaluate your work and assign a grade that measures your performance. It’s a reflection of your work for those questions on that given night. My job is to be fair to the collective. I use the same procedure to grade everyone’s work. In the end, values are assigned for that effort. If anyone is unhappy with their grade, I am willing to talk about it on a case-by-case basis but a grade will NEVER be “given” in my classes.

I made it a point to look at everyone as I spoke. Not once did I make any eye contact with this particular student. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t. She didn’t look up once during my moment on the soapbox. I asked the class if they had any questions and no one raised their hand. I went back to my plan of reviewing all questions and it was business as usual for the rest of the night.

I was prepared (and willing) to speak to this woman after class to address the comment but didn’t want to come off as combative by approaching her to initiate that conversation. Turns out I didn’t have to wait long as she came up to me at the end of class and apologized for the outburst. She explained that she was stressed out preparing for this exam and that there were other things going on in her personal life. She was disappointed with the grade and acknowledged that she shouldn’t have said what she said. I accepted her apology and told her I would do what I could to help her for the next exam.

As I walked back to my office that night, it occurred to me that I still wasn’t satisfied with her apology. I wasn’t planning to hold that outburst over her head or ask to speak to her further about that incident. Yet, I couldn’t shake that something about our exchange bothered me. It wasn’t until weeks later that I realized what it was. She never owned her failure. She just found another excuse. It wasn’t that I gave her a bad grade but the circumstances around her that didn’t let her do well.

Long story shorter… she ended up missing the second exam and never came back to class. (She dropped a few days before the withdrawal deadline).  Despite how furious I was that night, I’m grateful to have had her in my class. I learned a valuable lesson about myself (managing my emotions despite the rage I felt at the moment), about teaching (maintaining discipline without disrespecting my students), and about rolling with the punches (getting back to the task at hand). These were lessons I had to learn on the fly that night. Things could have gone disastrously that night had I not made the conscious decision to keep my cool. Ultimately, nothing would have been gained by engaging this student in a public airing of grievances in front of the class.

Near the end of the semester, there was another student – one of the better ones –  who told me that she tried helping that woman after that first exam. It was a frustrating experience for her. This student found that woman to be – in her words – “unteachable”. She consistently sabotaged herself anytime she didn’t understand a topic, a definition, or a formula. I don’t like saying anyone is “unteachable” but I do acknowledge that there are some topics that come naturally to some. Stats course material simply didn’t click for this woman.

Now if only I could find out how the other students felt about the situation and how it was handled…… (hmmmmm…)

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3 comments to Getting Students to Take Responsibility (or How to Keep Your Cool and Stand Your Ground)

  • I love the quote. I declare the same idea when I go over the syllabus with them in the first week. The grades are earned by the students, not given by the professors. So their grades start from 0 the first time we meet and may grow to 100 at the end of the semester.

  • Rowena – I’ve considered giving that speech on Week 1/Day 1 but I still prefer doing it later in the semester. At that point, they’ve had some time with me and that first exam is the first chance to see how they’ve being evaluated. That seems like the best time to bring it up… though I like that idea of starting with a “0” with the potential to grow to a “100”. I might add it to my Day One routine. =)

  • I agree with you Alan – the speech is one which I give every semester – AND explain to the students the first day of class – but as you indicate, very few students are willing to “own” their responsibility in the process. I’ve started having the students “self-evaluate” to try and get them to be more conscious of their own role in earning a grade. Maybe I’ll post about that at some point. I do think it helps.