The most important question 

It’s the end of the semester and things are getting a little crazy on campus.  It seems that finals week always brings out odd requests, tales of hardship and hopes for opportunities of redemption.  Some students ask for an incomplete grade to continue working on class materials.  Others will request extra credit assignments to boost their grades.  A few desperate students will beg their instructors to overlook a semester full of missed classes or tardies with a last ditch attempt to pull out the proverbial fourth quarter comeback.  This is that time of year.

When I first started teaching, I always had trouble weighing the requests.  I originally took a hard stance and just said “no” to every student, regardless of the situation.  While I consistently applied my “Just say no!” strategy, I realized that wasn’t actually being fair to students in need.  Let’s face it.  While those of us who work in higher education like to think of ourselves completely as academics and scholars, we’re really in the people business.  We work with students and they sometimes need empathy and support.  With this in mind, I’ve come up with the most important question that guides all of my decision-making when considering any instructional course of action.

What is in the best of interest of the student?

It may not be that groundbreaking or revolutionary but the question firmly places our focus on students’ needs.  Before anyone suggests that it means giving passing grades to all students or reducing expectations, I don’t apply the question that liberally.  Like me provide a few examples.  During a recent winter session, I had a student who was struggling financially.  She was taking an online class and had some of her utilities shut off during the course.  Considering her economic situation, I chose to give her an incomplete at the end of the semester so she could have a little more time to make up her work.  I felt the economic impact of an F would not be in her best interest.  She was a bright student and ultimately received a B+ in the class.  The incomplete was absolutely in her best interest.

But let’s look at a different situation.  I worked with a student a few semesters ago who was absolutely in the wrong program.  Although he was an intelligent young man, he wasn’t passionate about his major and his performance in class was lackluster.  I gave him the grade he earned (an F), even though he had requested some leniency.  In his situation, he was forced to consider whether his chosen major was right for him.  The failing grade motivated him to switch directions and find a program in which he was more passionate.  In this situation, the failure was absolutely in his best interest.

More recently, I had a student who I believe was dealing with some mental health issues.  She missed a bunch of classes and always had some drawn out excuse for her absences.  Despite her requests for an incomplete, I graded her on the work she submitted and gave the student an F.  It wasn’t an easy decision.  I hoped that the failing grade would provide some opportunity for a family intervention or maybe motivate her to seek help on her own.   Since it was relatively recent, I’m still waiting to see how this last scenario plays out.  The student was upset and said I was being unfair.  But I know that my heart was in the right place.  I made the decision with her interest in mind, whether she recognizes it or not.

2 thoughts on “The most important question 

  1. Thank you for sharing this. “What is in the best interest of my students? ” is a terrific guiding question. As a preservice teacher about to embark on my student teaching semester in the fall, I will use this as a reflection question. The answer to this question can be the difference between a successful lesson or a flop.

  2. Pingback: Top Posts from 2015 – Part 1 |

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