Adventures in Ethics and Science

On my last post, Kristine commented:

My favorite “finals week activity” was defending to two students why they couldn’t take the lab exams three weeks after all of their classmates took it, just because they realized now that they never showed up for class that week. Whew. Ten minutes each, and as emotionally draining as grading 100 exams.

I feel Kristine’s pain. And, I think this raises the larger question of what the problem is that keeps these students from understanding that “course requirements” are things that are required for them to do.

Seriously, given all the time we academics put into planning a course, working out the most appropriate assignments and the best way to space them over the course of the term, enshrining this in a syllabus and, often, a web page, are the students not reading the information in the syllabus?

Student, week 12 or so: Uh, I just realized that I was supposed to be participating in weekly reading discussions.
Me: But it’s in the syllabus — under “Course Requirements”, under the percentage breakdown of the final grade, and under easch week’s listed assignments.
Student: Yeah, I just noticed that. Is there any way for me to make them up?
Me: But the rest of the class is doing the week 12 discussion now.
Student: Can’t I just post to those old discussions?
Me: That wouldn’t be much of a “discussion,” would it?
Student: So there’s no way I can make that up?
Me: Can you build a time machine?

Do students not have a linear sense of time that allows them to make effective plans? Have they not seen the monthly calendars you can get at office supply stores that let you map out your appointments and due dates?

Do they just not care about their coursework?

Perhaps that’s what’s happening with my students who haven’t bothered to do the research assignment that’s worth 15% of their final grade for the course. If they’re taking the course simply to pick up 3 units of credit and to fulfil the upper division general education science requirement, perhaps they’ve decided that all they need is a C and this assignment is unnecessary. Sadly, most of the people who bagged out of the research assignment also bagged out of short papers and class participation, and got less than full marks on the midterm — which is to say, they may be underestimating how many points they’ll need to earn on the final exam (in some cases, more points than are available to earn) in order to pull out a C when 15% of the final grade is a zero.

Possibly, this means that students who can’t be bothered to care about learning something about science aren’t very good at math, either.

Or maybe, the students think course requirements are always negotiable. Given that students seem. more and more, to see themselves as consumers and their teachers as service providers, maybe they think that haggling is just a normal part of the relationship. If they ask, why shouldn’t they get a special deal? It’s not their fault if their classmates didn’t think to skip the lab test and ask for a make-up three weeks later.

Is there some other plausible explanation for this general pattern of behavior that I’m overlooking? Given how much more common it seems to have become, it seems implausible to me that it all results from personal emergencies.


  1. #1 ChemJerk
    December 13, 2006

    “Or maybe, the students think course requirements are always negotiable.”

    I can tell you that many students learn the art of negotiation in high school. Since high school students can get their parents and guidance counselors to hear their side of the story, the reality of the situation is often quickly lost. This ploy is made all the more effective when students and parents take their case to building administrators. The majority of whom (in my experience) are more interested in making problems go away than fairness.

  2. #2 Roger
    December 13, 2006

    I think it is a societal happening rather than just in academia. I see the same sort of thing in job applicants. I run a job ad that says, ‘No Phone Calls’ and I get someone on the phone who says, ‘I saw your ad in the paper and just had a quick question about the job…’ and I ask, ‘Did you see the part about No Phone Calls?’ and they say, ‘Yes but I have a quick question.’ And I reply, ‘We do want you to come in person rather than call’ then hang up. Then, the topper, when few minutes later I get a phone call about how I was rude to the applicant.

  3. #3 a little night musing
    December 13, 2006

    There has been some discussion recently of findings that young adults are still “wiring up” the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain supposedly involved with planning and impulse control. (If I’m recalling this accurately, which given how totally fried I am also at this point in the semester, is not a given.)

    This semester I decided to take that into account and gave my students explicit instruction on time-management strategies and organizational methods and the like, trying to incorporate it into my classes in as natural a way as possible. I also added that information to a page linked to my course webpage.

    The outcome? As usual, the better students got something from it, and maybe one or two learned to avert disaster by picking up some tricks.

    But the vast majority just got a glazed look in their eyes whenever I mentioned these things, went ahead and did what they always do, with (I am sure) the same dismal results.

    So I am in the same quandary. What is going through their minds? Do they not care whether they do well or not? Are they not thinking about it at all?

    Oh, and I forgot to mention the other effect of this little experiment, which is that I am approximately 15% more exhausted at the end of the semester!

    But I think I will leave the advice up and keep mentioning that it is there, for the benefit of the few who are ready to take it in.

    I look forward to the discussion on this question. Hopefully someone has some insights. Someone who has been such a student himself or herself?

    I did once in high school deliberately set about to get the minimum passing grade in a certain course, as a form of protest. But this is not like the behavior of the students you are speaking of – for I was certainly well aware not only of what was required but of exactly how little of it I could do and still pass. You describe students who do not seem to realize the future effect of what they are doing or failing to do. So I can’t draw any conclusion from my experience, except that I do see students in my classes from time to time who seem to have developed to a high extent the art of just barely passing, and it does not bother them much to get low passing grades (even D at times). They seem to have decided that it is not worth their energy to try and get any higher grade than that, and they just don’t care. Enviable, in a kind of horrifying way.

  4. #4 Toaster Sunshine
    December 13, 2006

    I’m a CMB major at the University of Michigan in my 3rd undergrad year. I see exactly what you’re talking about all around me all the time. This semester, I took Intro Biochem by the Keller plan, which has no lectures. One of the course requirements is that we take 12 unit exams, one per week of the semester proper, and us passing them all adds 40% to our grade. Just today, I walked into the Biochem suite to turn in my semester project and people were taking unit exams 7 and 9 on the last day! It was 11am, and they only had until 3pm to take all of them! Sure, there was no penalty for them being late on taking their unit exams, but they still left all of them until the very last minute and now they were complaining about there not being enough time. My fiancee sees the same thing all the time in her comparative literature classes where students don’t bother to read the material that they know they’re going to be tested upon.
    I don’t know why so many students do this kind of thing and I can appreciate how frustrating it must be for our instructors. It’s frustrating for me as well because it reflects poorly upon my generation and, as such, me.

  5. #5 Trevor Covert
    December 13, 2006

    I’m just happy to see that you didn’t give in to this kid and let him make up the discussions. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve seen professors let students make up a good portion of the course material during the last couple weeks of a semester. Didn’t turn in 3/4 of the lab reports? No problem, just get them to me by Friday and I’ll give you full credit. Forgot about the last six homework assignments? It’s okay, just e-mail me your ID and I’ll give you an extension on the Web site.

    Good work, Dr. Free-Ride.

  6. #6 etbnc
    December 13, 2006

    “…students seem. more and more, to see themselves as consumers and their teachers as service providers”

    Unfortunately that doesn’t surprise me. It seems to me that more and more schools willingly market themselves as offering a product for sale. And that doesn’t surprise me, either, when I look at our hyperindustrial culture’s emphasis on producing, selling, and consuming.

  7. #7 Natalie
    December 13, 2006

    Ah yes, it’s the professors that Trevor Covert mentioned that ruins it for the rest of us. That being said, it’s hard to be the big meanie and just say flat-out “no, I’m sorry, it’s too late and you’re basically screwed”. At least when I put it right there in my syllabus I can use it as an out, and then share the stories of my hapless students to other professors at a later date.

  8. #8 Rob Knop
    December 13, 2006

    Toaster Sunshine–

    We used to have a similar structure in the astronomy labs at Vanderbilt, but we have finally realized that most of the students aren’t mature enough to handle it. It was a great structure for some of the best students, but the bulk couldn’t handle it.

    We’d have 9 or 10 labs to do over the semester. Some were in-class telescope-based labs, others were labs that they did on their own time with naked-eye observations or with web-based computer labs. The reason they had labs to do on their own time was that when it was cloudy, we’d cancel lab– so they were getting time back. We didn’t tell them what to do when, we just kept track of how many clear nights they had, and told them what labs they would need to get done. We let them organize their own time.

    The results were predictable. First of all, they’d put off the “on your own time” labs to the very last week, which meant that they would then complain that there was “too much work” in the lab. What’s more, some students would only realize then (despite being explicitly warned) that some of those labs required observations done over the course of several weeks. More than once we were told it was unfair to have a due date because it was cloudy the last two or three days before that due date… how were they supposed to finish the lab?

    It was a nightmare. The students hated the lab, except for the very few organized enough to do it. We’ve gone to a much more structured, “you do this lab this week” kind of thing. It works better, but it’s frusturating because the good students aren’t getting as much on-sky time as they used to (thanks to less flexibility in dealing with weather). Sometimes others will suggest that we move to a model where there are just labs due, and we tell them when they have to do it… but I won’t go back to it. The students can’t handle it.

    Right now, we only have one lab that requires students to do things on their own time– it’s a sunset lab, and the Sun doesn’t always set during lab. Once again, many students don’t bother to start it, don’t bother to do it, and indeed many of them at the end fabricate a whole bunch of data to make it look like they’ve been doing the lab.

    It’s ridiculous. Yeah, perhaps it’s too much to ask students who are in college to be able to manage their own time at that level. But Vanderbilt has an “honor code” which is a joke– I’m learning that I can’t trust students to do anything on their own time without being watched, because a substantial fraction of them will cheat.

  9. #9 Julia
    December 13, 2006

    My favorite example of this student mindset is the young man who came smiling into my office asking why he had gotten a failing grade on his last paper. I explained he had failed to do X, which was explicitly required in instructions that also pointed out that failure to include X meant a failing grade.

    “Did you not read the instructions?” I asked.

    “Oh, yes, I read them.”

    “I also explained this in class. Did you hear me say you had to do X in this paper?”

    Now looking concerned and surpised, he responded, “Well, yes, I heard you say that we had to do X, but I didn’t know you meant that we had to do it.”

  10. #10 grubstreet
    December 14, 2006

    I know from personal experience how hard this is to do at an American university,but it is enormously helpful if you have a *departmental* policy on such matters that is standard, announced redundantly, and, most importantly, followed.

  11. #11 Dave Munger
    December 14, 2006

    My 15-year-old is currently experiencing similar delusions to the ones you describe here, Janet. I was hoping he would “grow out of it” by college, but it sounds like that’s not likely. Yikes!

  12. #12 nerdwithabow
    December 14, 2006



  13. #13 MR
    December 14, 2006

    I’m glad you’re strict about this! As a current graduate student it always pisses me off to no extent when extensions are granted without any basis or participation points are liberally given out. As one of the ‘better’ students (who works her butt off for her grades), I really don’t see how it’s fair that slackers end up with the same grade at the end of the semester when it’s obvious they simply don’t care enough to put in an actual amount of effort.

    So, really. Thanks for your post. Always refer to the syllabus.

  14. #14 a little night musing
    December 14, 2006


    “Did you not read the instructions?” I asked.

    “Oh, yes, I read them.”

    “I also explained this in class. Did you hear me say you had to do X in this paper?”

    Now looking concerned and surpised, he responded, “Well, yes, I heard you say that we had to do X, but I didn’t know you meant that we had to do it.”

    Yes, I’ve had exactly this sort of mind-boggling conversation as well. Usually ending with the line “I didn’t know that meant that we had to do it.”

    Another favorite explanation for not following directions: “I didn’t know that I didn’t understand the directions until I got my paper back [with the grade reduced for not following the directions].” This is in reference to instructions which the student just flat didn’t follow at all, not that s/he took to mean something other than what was intended and then did that wrong thing instead.

    It indicates a very great ability to be completely unaware that anything has been asked of one. I just have to believe that these students have never been held truly accountable for this unawareness at any point in their previous careers (or perhaps, they have had to suffer consequences but blamed them on the meanness of the enforcer).

    And this brings me back to the idea that the usual college age seems to be the last good chance for them to pick up this kind of internal control, and that we should be helping them to do so. But how?

  15. #15 JF
    December 14, 2006

    Julia, that’s priceless.

    Around here, the undergrads pretty much get away with murder. They paid for it, after all. When I was TAing, someone plagiarized and the course chair didn’t want to do anything about it.

    College may well be the last good chance for students to learn that actions have consequences, but I’d be willing to blame parenting a fair bit too. The number of times I’ve seen a parent cave in to wheedling, or fail to carry through on consequences, boggles the mind.

  16. #16 Larry Moran
    December 14, 2006

    Posted on the website, mentioned in class, put up on a slide.

    REQUIRED READING: Chapter 12: pp. 357-381

    First question … do we have to read all of it?

    Second question …. will it be on the exam?

    Third question … what if I didn’t buy the required textbook?

  17. #17 Toaster Sunshine
    December 14, 2006

    I think that a lot of the whining done by students is due to how they were raised. I’m the kind of student who is setting up a physics problem before the instructor is done defining it, or asking the kinds of questions that my instructors and mentors can’t answer (I still want to know if atherosclerosis affects the localization of NFkB expression, so feel free to chip in if you know). However, I see around me all the time students having conversations that go directly from how hard they partied the night before to complaining about how hard their courses are and how much work they have to do and how they just don’t have enough time!. The same kind of students that I overhear complaining about their daddies putting spending limits on their credit cards or not ponying up for the luxury housing that they wanted (“Like, oh my god, don’t you know that my daddy’s a lawyer and he will, like, destroy you!?”).
    Frankly it’s all a bunch of bullshit. They think that because they have always had everything they ever wanted, that the same will go with college. Their parents could bully their high school teachers into giving them good grades if they whined enough about it being unfair. And now they’re here, at what I had thought was a prestigious university, because of their parents’ admissions legacy. So a lot of it comes down to class and priviledge. It scares me to think what is going to happen to this country’s economy when this generation begins to outnumber the one before us in the workforce.

  18. #18 YellowIbis
    December 14, 2006

    I have a feeling you will all enjoy this recent comic.

  19. #19 Liz
    December 14, 2006

    Or maybe, the students think course requirements are always negotiable. Given that students seem. more and more, to see themselves as consumers and their teachers as service providers, maybe they think that haggling is just a normal part of the relationship. If they ask, why shouldn’t they get a special deal? It’s not their fault if their classmates didn’t think to skip the lab test and ask for a make-up three weeks later.

    I commend to you the book Generation Me,

    which explains in detail (using actual data!) why and how college students today get to believe that education is just another good to consume, and how they are entitled to “good grades”.

  20. #20 a little night musing
    December 15, 2006

    YellowIbis: Heh, indeed.

    ToasterSunshine and Liz: Just to clarify (or muddy the waters, or whatever), I am seeing the sort of behavior Janet described amongst my urban, distinctly NON-upper-middle-class, mostly nonwhite students, as well as the more “suburban” students I had at another college here in NYC. So whatever is behind this phenomenon, whether or not it is a sense of entitlement, it’s not (merely) coming from being spoiled economically.

    I do have to say, though, that I do not see this sort of thing amongst my students who are themselves immigrants (about 20-30% of my students at the moment). Second-generation, that’s another story. But this is just my anecdotal evidence, so take it for the little it’s worth.

  21. #21 adamsj
    December 16, 2006

    On the other hand, you have my situation, where I unavoidably missed several classes this year and got well behind on the lab component of the class. On the weekend between the last two classes of the year, I e-mailed my teacher asking what the final deadline for the last of our reports was. My teacher quoted the assignment sheet, which said that I’d missed the deadline, at which point I abandoned working on the assignment. On going to the last class, I discovered that my teacher was accepting late assignments, contrary to what he’d said in the syllabus. Apparently, he’d told the class in person, but not me.

    Perhaps I’m not meant to take this class–it was scheduled in summer, and in spring, and (after I’d made scheduling arrangements to take the class) cancelled both times. It’s already been cancelled for next spring. Unfortunately for me, since I can’t change schools, that means changing fields–assuming I’m still in school after failing this class.

  22. #22 Orielwen
    December 22, 2006

    When I was at school I often failed to bother to do my homework, and got told off and nothing worse happened. But when I got to university, several hundred miles from home, I suddenly realised that now no-one was going to tell me to do my work; no-one was going to chase me if it wasn’t handed in on time; so I was going to have to make myself do it. And I did.

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