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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
I'm currently struggling with the excruciating task of evaluating term papers for a senior (4th year) course I teach. The course is about the molecular and cellular mechanisms of animal development (i.e. this is not an English course, and writing is not the subject), but each student has to submit a final paper, which is worth a substantial fraction of their final grade. These are fairly substantial papers (averaging about a dozen typewritten pages, plus a few pages of references), and I give them the option of submitting drafts early for feedback (only 2 out of 24 students took advantage of this, and both of them were pretty good even as drafts).

What astounds me is the number of 4th year undergraduate students who are apparently incapable of constructing a grammatically correct english sentence, know nothing about standard citation format (let alone when to cite a review paper vs. a primary literature paper), or the use of punctuation. (I should also add that several of the students submitted excellent papers, with very few problems in the writing).

What is going to happen is that, when I fail these students, they will complain to the dean/vice president/president of the university, because this will prevent them from graduating. But I cannot, in good conscience, pass this level of work.

My question is: should students who have paid 4 years of tuition, when they clearly should've been failed in first year, sue the university to recover the cost of the 3 years worth of tuition they have been unfairly charged?
 

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I'm currently struggling with the excruciating task of evaluating term papers for a senior (4th year) course I teach. The course is about the molecular and cellular mechanisms of animal development (i.e. this is not an English course, and writing is not the subject), but each student has to submit a final paper, which is worth a substantial fraction of their final grade. These are fairly substantial papers (averaging about a dozen typewritten pages, plus a few pages of references), and I give them the option of submitting drafts early for feedback (only 2 out of 24 students took advantage of this, and both of them were pretty good even as drafts).

What astounds me is the number of 4th year undergraduate students who are apparently incapable of constructing a grammatically correct english sentence, know nothing about standard citation format (let alone when to cite a review paper vs. a primary literature paper), or the use of punctuation. (I should also add that several of the students submitted excellent papers, with very few problems in the writing).

What is going to happen is that, when I fail these students, they will complain to the dean/vice president/president of the university, because this will prevent them from graduating. But I cannot, in good conscience, pass this level of work.

My question is: should students who have paid 4 years of tuition, when they clearly should've been failed in first year, sue the university to recover the cost of the 3 years worth of tuition they have been unfairly charged?
Memorial University has been faced with this problem, yours truly included. MUN's policy is that we have to state at the onset of the course what is required in a final exam. Thus, if a well written final is required, utilizing proper grammar, spelling, punctuation, and APA style, if this is stated at the onset of the course, we are allowed to go with this standard.

I too give my final question at the onset of the course, as well as letting my students submit questions about the final and even an outline and first draft of their first page or so to me prior to final submission. My standards are high, and the few students who did fail their exam, and the course, had their papers reread by a committee and the committee upheld my initial grade.

I am not sure how you could prove that a student should have failed in year one. Still, I can see a law suit someday re this matter. It is happening in the US, from high school grads, university grads, and even graduate school grads. We shall see.

Paix, mon ami.
 

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Discussion Starter · #3 ·
It really aggravates me to see students getting into my 4th year classes lacking these very basic communication skills. I'm not teaching this stuff, but it is required to pass my course, so it feels very unfair to both me and the students to have them fail my course due to their lacking skills they should've mastered in first year (or high school).

These student are not failing because they can't do the thinking I require of them; I can't tell if their thinking is any good because I can't understand what they've written half the time.

If they fail my course, and therefore do not earn a degree, they have every right to be angry. But when they fail my 4th year course due to their lack of 1st year writing skills, it seems outrageously obvious that the university has been bilking them out of tuition without teaching them anything.

These students have been getting passed along at every stage so that the university can continue to collect tuition. When they get to the end of their degree, either they'll run into an old professor who no longer cares and just passes them, or a very young professor who is too afraid of not getting tenure to fail them, or someone like me who still thinks a baccalaureate degree should mean something, who therefore fails them. So either they wind up with a degree that means nothing (further eroding the meaning of a degree), or without even a degraded degree, because the faculty responsible for maintaining standards at the first and second year level have succumbed to the pressure to pass everyone and ensure 'student retention.'
 

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It really aggravates me to see students getting into my 4th year classes lacking these very basic communication skills. I'm not teaching this stuff, but it is required to pass my course, so it feels very unfair to both me and the students to have them fail my course due to their lacking skills they should've mastered in first year (or high school).

These student are not failing because they can't do the thinking I require of them; I can't tell if their thinking is any good because I can't understand what they've written half the time.

If they fail my course, and therefore do not earn a degree, they have every right to be angry. But when they fail my 4th year course due to their lack of 1st year writing skills, it seems outrageously obvious that the university has been bilking them out of tuition without teaching them anything.

These students have been getting passed along at every stage so that the university can continue to collect tuition. When they get to the end of their degree, either they'll run into an old professor who no longer cares and just passes them, or a very young professor who is too afraid of not getting tenure to fail them, or someone like me who still thinks a baccalaureate degree should mean something, who fails them. So either they wind up with a degree that means nothing (further eroding the meaning of a degree), or without even a degraded degree, because the faculty responsible for maintaining standards at the first and second year level have succumbed to the pressure to pass everyone and ensure 'student retention.'
Sadly, I am sure that this lack of writing ability goes back further than freshman year university. Schools just pass students along and then they become too old to hold back, so they are passed along even further.

MUN loses more students due to their failing math and failing first year English courses.
 

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I'm not sure what grounds there is for suing the university, unless it is the university itself that's encouraging passing along poorly prepared students. Or some other systemic problem that's causing individual professors to keep passing students along. Which is to say, is it the university or individual professors who should have failed them and didn't?

I would fail them, personally.

If you are, however, looking for a graceful way out, could you fail them but then allow them the summer (or something) to rework these papers and submit them for regrading?
 

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It would be really difficult in these cases to prove you were suing because you're incompetent in demonstrating abilities required by the core curriculum--since it's fairly easy to fake that. You might get a portion of your tuition back for showing that failing work consistently received a passing grade.
 

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Discussion Starter · #7 ·
is it the university or individual professors who should have failed them and didn't?
It's a systemic problem. If a professor fails an unusually large proportion of their class, they'll hear about it from higher up (which is probably as it should be), but if they can justify their grading, it won't really cause them much difficulty. What will cause them a lot of difficulty is if students feel that they're unreasonably tough (and remember that, especially first year students coming out of high school have been getting A's for simply attending class, and B's for not attending, but showing up for exams), they'll give these professors negative student evaluations.

Student evaluations are often the *only* measure of teaching effectiveness used when a professor is considered for tenure. So giving out easy marks improves your chance of getting tenure.

Furthermore, university administrations are always worried about 'student retention.' Students that fail drop out and don't pay tuition. In contrast, students that pass, even with a C, will carry on with their degree programme, and continue to pay tuition.

So faculty who insist on high standards will get grief from the students and the administration. Therefore standards tend to erode.

Eventually I wind up with students who can't write in my 4th year class.

I would fail them, personally.
That is my inclination as well. But I certainly sympathize with them, in that they have been completely ripped off by the university system, and I agree that they should get their money back.

If you are, however, looking for a graceful way out, could you fail them but then allow them the summer (or something) to rework these papers and submit them for regrading?
Yes. I've already started doing this with some of the less egregious cases. I certainly have nothing against the students, and I know some of them have worked very hard on their papers. It's just that no one has ever given them any corrective feedback on their writing (marking papers takes *a lot of time* so most professors use multiple choice exams, especially in the large-enrollment introductory courses). But I really don't feel like it should be my place to teach these kids English; I'm not even a very good writer myself. I have enough difficulty teaching them molecular biology.
 

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Discussion Starter · #8 ·
showing that failing work consistently received a passing grade.
Yes, this would be the key. And I really think that it's going to take some gutsy person who has been awarded a degree to decline it, and take their papers to a neutral 3rd party to show that they were consistently passed on the basis of work that should've been failed. Then the university should be sued for academic malpractice.

One or two public humiliations of universities like this, and I think we'd see 'academic rigour' being touted as a virtue in undergraduate programs pretty quickly.

Anyway, I probably shouldn't post more about this today... these papers are really getting to me. :mad:
 

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I'm currently struggling with the excruciating task of evaluating term papers for a senior (4th year) course I teach. The course is about the molecular and cellular mechanisms of animal development (i.e. this is not an English course, and writing is not the subject), but each student has to submit a final paper, which is worth a substantial fraction of their final grade. These are fairly substantial papers (averaging about a dozen typewritten pages, plus a few pages of references), and I give them the option of submitting drafts early for feedback (only 2 out of 24 students took advantage of this, and both of them were pretty good even as drafts).

What astounds me is the number of 4th year undergraduate students who are apparently incapable of constructing a grammatically correct english sentence, know nothing about standard citation format (let alone when to cite a review paper vs. a primary literature paper), or the use of punctuation. (I should also add that several of the students submitted excellent papers, with very few problems in the writing).

What is going to happen is that, when I fail these students, they will complain to the dean/vice president/president of the university, because this will prevent them from graduating. But I cannot, in good conscience, pass this level of work.

My question is: should students who have paid 4 years of tuition, when they clearly should've been failed in first year, sue the university to recover the cost of the 3 years worth of tuition they have been unfairly charged?
They could if they wanted to but I don't see how they could ever win such a suit as it would require actual evidence which may be hard to come by 3 years after the fact i.e. samples of writing.

Additionally I don't see how the University could be held to be culpable or accountable for the standard of grading by individual professors when it comes to writing skills. If anything I would think that such a litigation would be more likely to be successful if it was filed against the secondary school, school board as in this case the school board is responsible for making sure that individual teachers follow the curriculum.
 

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"It's a systemic problem. If a professor fails an unusually large proportion of their class, they'll hear about it from higher up (which is probably as it should be), but if they can justify their grading, it won't really cause them much difficulty. What will cause them a lot of difficulty is if students feel that they're unreasonably tough (and remember that, especially first year students coming out of high school have been getting A's for simply attending class, and B's for not attending, but showing up for exams), they'll give these professors negative student evaluations." I was once called before the Registrar's Office to defend my grades. Of 42 grades, there were 11 grades of C and 31 grades of B. No grades of A, D or F. I thought that I was going to be called upon to justfiy why no A's ................ but rather, I was asked how come no D's or F's. Seems as if I was replacing a prof who had just retired and he always gave out A's to F's based on a curve. However, I graded based upon the basis of everyone could get as high a grade as they were able to attain. I was untenured at the time, but I stood my ground and defended why I had no F's, D's or A's. I must have proven my point, since this was 34 years ago and I am still teaching at MUN.
 

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That is my inclination as well. But I certainly sympathize with them, in that they have been completely ripped off by the university system, and I agree that they should get their money back.
It quite likely goes beyond university.

I had my 15 year old nephew helping out in the office one day. To keep him busy, I had him write a very simple business letter. I was fully expecting that he'd write it and I'd have to re-write it (i.e., scribble corrections over it and then make him decipher and re-type those corrections.) To my surprise, his first attempt was perfectly acceptable. All he needed to learn was the format of a business letter, but the actual writing was fine.

I know university graduates who cannot manage the same. And thinking about it, it shouldn't be unreasonable to expect a high school student to be able to write a basic letter.

So I suspect the lack of preparedness or inability to write goes back quite a ways.
 

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It quite likely goes beyond university.

I had my 15 year old nephew helping out in the office one day. To keep him busy, I had him write a very simple business letter. I was fully expecting that he'd write it and I'd have to re-write it (i.e., scribble corrections over it and then make him decipher and re-type those corrections.) To my surprise, his first attempt was perfectly acceptable. All he needed to learn was the format of a business letter, but the actual writing was fine.

I know university graduates who cannot manage the same. And thinking about it, it shouldn't be unreasonable to expect a high school student to be able to write a basic letter.

So I suspect the lack of preparedness or inability to write goes back quite a ways.
My point exactly, Sonal, or, in the case of your nephew, the ability to write goes way back as well.

In that this is my area of expertise, I urge my students to truly consider early identification of needs in terms of reading/writing, and then proactive intervention to help prevent this problem from getting out of hand.
 

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My point exactly, Sonal, or, in the case of your nephew, the ability to write goes way back as well.

In that this is my area of expertise, I urge my students to truly consider early identification of needs in terms of reading/writing, and then proactive intervention to help prevent this problem from getting out of hand.
I have to say, it made me feel much better about the future to see that yes, there are high school students who can string together coherent sentences.

Dr.G, how much of the time do you suppose that it's an actual inability to write well, versus unwillingness?
 

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I have to say, it made me feel much better about the future to see that yes, there are high school students who can string together coherent sentences.

Dr.G, how much of the time do you suppose that it's an actual inability to write well, versus unwillingness?
Good question, Sonal. This links in with the old question of being "illiterate" vs "aliterate" -- thus, being unable to read vs being unwilling to read even though you are able to read. Studies have shown that there are more people who cannot write effectively than those who cannot read effectively. Still, in both cases, if you are able to read and write, but choose not to use these abilities, then that is another matter entirely.

Paix, mon amie.
 

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You know, it just occurred to me. I have a friend who is a biochemist, who's taken some time away from lab research to rethink what she wants to do with her life. To make ends meet, she's picked up some work freelance editing biochem papers. She was surprised that no one had cornered that market yet... perhaps it's just a very, very big market?
 

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My question is: should students who have paid 4 years of tuition, when they clearly should've been failed in first year, sue the university to recover the cost of the 3 years worth of tuition they have been unfairly charged?
I would fail them without a second thought on the basis that their papers were not of sufficient quality. Presumably these students are destined for jobs in the real world. What value is their understanding of the science, if they lack the ability to communicate it? I agree it is a systemic and wide-spread problem. Companies are rife with employees who simply cannot write a simple letter or report. I see this daily and it is getting worse all the time.

But I certainly sympathize with them, in that they have been completely ripped off by the university system, and I agree that they should get their money back./QUOTE]
I don't feel sorry for them at all. It may sound cliche, but university isn't a place you go to be taught. It's a place you go to learn. The onus is on the students to improve their communication skills as needed to be able to write a meaningful and useable paper. i'm quite certain someone will eventually sue a university over it. I think, however, that when instructors have to start considering potential lawsuits as part of the grading process, it's time to find other employment.
 

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Well, one solution could be right at school-level, when kids make grammar and spelling mistakes, stop tolerating it as "creativity" or "the English language evolves" or "well, as long as the message is communicated who cares about form etc." and start insisting on good grammar, good spelling, punctuation and sentence construction - even when the subject is Science or Maths or History or Geography or Sociology or whatever.

Cheers
 

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Well, one solution could be right at school-level, when kids make grammar and spelling mistakes, stop tolerating it as "creativity" or "the English language evolves" or "well, as long as the message is communicated who cares about form etc." and start insisting on good grammar, good spelling, punctuation and sentence construction - even when the subject is Science or Maths or History or Geography or Sociology or whatever.

Cheers
An interesting idea. They are going in the opposite direction at Cambridge University --

I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdgnieg.
It is an elxampe of the phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid. Aoccdrnig
to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer inwaht oredr
the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist
and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and
you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid
deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig
huh? yaeh and I awlyas thought slpeling was ipmorantt!
 

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Well, one solution could be right at school-level, when kids make grammar and spelling mistakes, stop tolerating it as "creativity" or "the English language evolves" or "well, as long as the message is communicated who cares about form etc." and start insisting on good grammar, good spelling, punctuation and sentence construction - even when the subject is Science or Maths or History or Geography or Sociology or whatever.

Cheers
Luckily, computer word processing programs have a spell checking function --

"Eye halve a spelling chequer It came with my pea sea It plainly marques
four my revue Miss steaks eye kin knot sea. Eye strike a key and type a
word And weight four it two say Weather eye am wrong oar write It shows
me strait a weigh. As soon as a mist ache is maid It nose bee fore two
long And eye can put the error rite Its rare lea ever wrong. Eye have
run this poem threw it I am shore your pleased two no Its letter perfect
awl the weigh My chequer tolled me sew."
 
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