Wishful Thinking at the End of the Term
Around this time of the semester, you may have a student or two reemerge after many missed classes (or assignments) to inquire about how they might still pass your course. Sometimes when students get a little bit behind, they get embarrassed or discouraged and stop attending altogether. Then, they get very behind. You may have already received some panicked requests from those who are just now realizing that they’re not doing as well in your course as they’d intended. They may hope to salvage their grades with an outstanding, or even impossible, final performance; or they may make one of these common requests:
- Extra credit. Sometimes extra credit is built into a course, but these end-of-term requests are usually for extra credit beyond what already exists, and often beyond what would be reasonable or fair to the other students.
- Make-up work. Students who fall significantly behind during the semester may hope that we will allow them to complete substantial amounts of coursework in a flurry of activity during the last week or so. Because their prior educational experiences may have emphasized performance over learning, they may believe that if they can jump through enough hoops at the end, they will be able to earn a passing grade.
- Make-up attendance. When students notice they have missed too many classes, they may ask to “make it up.” Not realizing that important learning has happened during the sessions they missed, they may just hope that you will come up with some equivalent work they can do.
Of course, there are times when students experience a serious illness or personal tragedy, and in those cases, we need to be empathetic and flexible. The Chronicle recently reportedthat many students have been feeling stressed out and disconnected in response to events beyond their control, and we are right to be concerned about their mental health. We can refer to this guidance to help them get support with different kinds of challenges.
Sometimes, though, these end-of-semester requests indicate a mismatch between students’ perception of the course and ours. When you get such requests, it’s important not to take them personally. Although it may feel like students are being dismissive or entitled, it’s more likely these requests stem from a combination of students’ youth, inexperience, wishful thinking, misconceptions from high school, and most importantly, our cultural emphasis on grades over learning. From previous experience, students may even believe that they will do well as long as the teacher likes them.
If you do get a plea for mercy, you don’t have to respond right away. Your initial emotional reaction—whether you feel indignant or pressured to acquiesce—might shape your reply. Instead, it’s helpful to refocus on your course design, and to bring the conversation with the student back to their learning. Students may not yet see how the work they do in and out of class is meant to develop their knowledge and skills over time.
As you make your decision about how to respond to the student’s request, you can consider some questions like these: Is it actually possible for a student to accomplish the course goals by doing additional work now? Would make-up assignments create too much extra burden for you at a busy time of the semester? How can you be supportive while still treating students fairly?
Some faculty may choose to hand consideration of the request back to the student. They remind the student of the learning goals (and related work) they have not yet accomplished, and ask them whether they think it could be made up and, if so, how. It might be possible for a student to propose a feasible plan for accomplishing the course goals on a tight timeline, and, then again, it might not. The student can find out by trying to carry out their plan, by having an honest conversation with their professor about whether it’s realistic, or a combination of the two.
We can also reduce the number of these requests by designing courses that give students frequent and consistent feedback on their progress throughout the semester. We can reach out to students early if they seem to have disappeared or fallen behind. We can also help them learn to assess their own progress, a skill they may not have developed in high school. It’s also helpful to base students’ course grades on a variety of types of work, so there are multiple ways they can demonstrate their learning, and distribute the assignments so that students must complete their coursework over time.
If you’d like help responding to students’ requests, or designing courses in which students receive frequent feedback and develop effective metacognitive strategies, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to working with you!