“But I don’t want to take the exam again!”

Red flag going up: am I really “allowed” to post this!? Here is a very personal reflection connected to work. Oops.

Thursday afternoon. I know that as soon as I click on “publish”, over a hundred students will see their results from the most recent exam. I also know that my inbox will be flooded with emails within the next 24 hours, from students who will question their grades? Why? Because it’s that group of students. We have the exact same examinations every single term with other student groups, but my colleagues and I know that it is only this particular student group who react negatively whenever they get results they don’t want. Of course, the students who get high grades never contact us afterwards. They have nothing to complain about, I guess. We only get emails from students who didn’t pass the exam. Perhaps I am a little harsh now, but that is how we perceive things to be. So I publish, and I take a deep breath.

Oh, and there it is. Not even ten minutes have passed, and the first complaint has reached my inbox. It’s an email from a student who wants to know why they didn’t pass the exam, even though the comment attached to the grade politely and specifically says why, in length. But the student writes that they don’t want to take the exam again. Can’t they just fix what was missing or incorrect and hand the same text in again? No, they can’t. The next examination will have different questions to discuss – that is what is decided for this particular examination.

Another email reachers my inbox. The subject line contains the word “examination” and four exclamation marks. Oh, ok. Then I know it is going to be another email from that student group. I click on it, and read the content. The student wants me to call them “ASAP”, to discuss the result. Well, it’s the end of my work day and tomorrow’s schedule is filled with Zoom meetings. I write a quick reply to the student, asking what their questions are and explaining that I won’t be able to call them, but I am happy to reply by email if they have specific questions. Only two minutes pass before I get a reply. No, the student doesn’t want to email me their questions, they want me to call them to discuss the grade. What do I reply? The grade won’t be changed even if I talk to the student, and the comment I have written in the assessment is lengthy and explanatory. Judging by the time passed between publishing the results and the time it should take the student to read the assessment comment properly, I am not sure the student has read everything in detail. It should be obvious in my comments why the student did not pass the exam, so what are the exact questions from the student? If they want to object to the grade, they have to formally fill out a form and send it to the course administrator, who in turn will make sure the form is sent to the person formally in charge of re-assessments for the course. This has been communicated to all students, as this is university level and how things work. What has also been communicated to all students is the learning objectives for the examination, the course literature, the fact that teachers co-assess all papers that receive the grade F, and that we will give formative assessment comments to help students in their continued learning process. Throughout the course, we have workshops, seminars and drop-in meetings where students can meet teachers and ask questions and discuss the course content. We are available, so to speak, and we continously try to find ways to facilitate learning and reflection.

The third complaint is a long one. The student explains how several people in their family have read the student’s text, and all of them agree that it should be a pass. They (these people in the students’ family, presumably) don’t agree with the assessment comments. Ok, thank you. What am I supposed to do with that information? The fourth complaint I receive is from a student who says that during their 4 years of university studies, they have never failed an exam, and they “really question” whether their text is so poorly written that it should be an F. How come they have passed all the exams previous to this course, they ask me in their email? Well, I am sorry, but I cannot answer that question. I/we have only graded the exams in this course, not previous courses for the student. Also, two university teachers have read the student’s text. Since we know that this particular group tends to react this way, we always discuss all texts that have been graded “F” (in Sweden, U), so that we are in agreement. That means that at least two teachers have read every text that receives that particular grade. We have communicated this process to the students at the beginning of the course, and through messages throughout the course – we are always in agreement before publishing results. Still, we get these messages questioning the grading process and the grades.

We have continuous discussions in our team about this particular student group. Why do they always seem to complain about things instead of using feedback and feed forward as an opportunity for learning (and/or self reflection)? Why is it that this particular student group, compared to other student groups who take the exact same course, always send such unpleasant emails? Why do they always ask for special treatment; object to grades, question our ability to assess their papers, etc? They are, after all, going to be future teachers, so it is important to be able to communicate politely and to have dialogues with other people – that is even to a certain extent part of the course goals in the course they’ve just taken! Other students often use our assessment comments for learning and they write appreciative emails to us, thanking us for our clear, formative feedback. They use course evaluations to praise us for showing them good examples of giving feedback and feed forward, and the attend drop-in-meetings in Zoom to have dialogues with us teachers about assignments and literature. They show a genuine interest in learning more about learning theories and methods for teachings, and we have so many interesting, rewarding conversations with them about the bridge between theory and practice. But that’s not necessarily what happens in this other student group. There are definitely individuals in that group who engage in very negative conversations and criticism (they even create secret Facebook groups to discuss negative criticism), and these negative comments always seem to reach us when the students have received a failing grade on one of their examinations. Before that, they seem very happy, and don’t voice any concerns about the course, the teachers, or the learning processes.

In the past weeks we have had interesting discussions in my PBL group about group work, motivation and approaches to teaching and learning. I added thoughts from Carol Dweck’s mindset theory, where I stressed the importance of working with what Dweck would call a growth mindset. Apart from various literature and articles, there are also many videos to be found online that describe Dweck’s mindset theory. Here is a link to one of her TED talks: https://www.ted.com/talks/carol_dweck_the_power_of_believing_that_you_can_improve#t-17917

The growth mindset theory has an approach where intelligence is not seen as something static, but something that is developed. The word “yet” can illustrate the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. If I for example say that I am not good at solving mathematical equations, someone could add the word “yet” to my statement. Then it would change to “I am not good at solving mathematical equations yet”, and that little word in the end would symbolise that learning is a process we go through, and different people may need different methods and different periods of time to achieve goals and learn new skills. With an applied growth mindset, we are always on our way to achieving goals – we haven’t failed, but we are learning how to succeed. In our PBL group, we keep “crocheting” and weaving patterns, and whenever I feel we are drifting all sorts of directions in our creative discussions, I keep thinking we are just not there yet. But we will get there (and we always do)! I am, together with my colleagues, constantly thinking about how we can help our students (especially in certain groups) apply a growth mindset to their own learning processes. We even talk about Dwecks’ theory with them, but they only seem to be able to relate the theoretical framework to their students, not to themselves. And the emails keep coming.

I have never written this openly – or informally – about my students or my university work. It is a little scary. Am I really supposed to open up like this? What would happen if my students somehow found this blog and read my reflections? What would my inbox look like than? Goodness gracious – I don’t even want to speculate. Perhaps it is not “professional” to write personally about my thoughts and feelings regarding work related things, but some people say I can, even that I should. We’ll see what the consequences are. I’m prepared (I think), but I will do some assessment work for a few hours now and turn off my inbox notifications for a while!

2 comments

  1. I believe it is important to release emotions from social processes like this since they tend to eat us from within. It should be scary, because it is a move that require thorough thought and with no clear cut answers. You balance your reflection on a fine line of frustration and an eagerness to find ways to deal with it. In my world an invite to discuss this phenomenon, not single students, is a very constructive way of trying to deal with it and to allow for contrasting views to help illuminating ways of interpretation and action. Your post allows people outside the close collegial space to share experiences and ideas. I think it is important. We shall not be afraid to take the discussion, nor use our administrative powers to quiet it down. Conclusion: I learnt some really important things from your post – one was: scary yes, worries yes, quiet no.

  2. I read this, captivated. It sounds like you are following best practices – beyond! I have so much curiosity about which group of students you are talking about. I have also wondered about these differences in student culture. I manage a few program areas, and in one, we often get grade appeals. What is it about these students – who are also training for a helping profession – that they refuse to accept a poor mark? Sometimes it makes me wonder if they are fit for their chosen profession…
    This particular program area is new for me. While I know they work hard to make expectations clear, these instructors are not trained educators and students sometimes are successful in their grade appeals because of unclear criteria, rubric issues, etc (the vast majority of the time, the work is re-marked by another, and the grade does not change significantly).
    At a recent meeting, one instructor even said she’d bump a mark up a few percent just to avoid a fight… I cringed, but it made me see how these instructors need more support in working to best practices in assessment.
    I didn’t mean to write this much! I’m so interested to understand more about your particular situation… who are these students?

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