Formatting Blues

The following conversation took place earlier this week on my personal Facebook page.

Siobhan: Open memo to a student who shall remain nameless: Going into your final paper, you had an overall average of 59.7%. Did you not feel the stakes were high enough to invest half an hour in formatting your paper properly? Because if you’d done so, you would have passed the course.

And now I find myself in one of those infuriating ethical dilemmas. To pass or not to pass?

Colleague A: Does it benefit the student to take it again? That’s what I always ask myself. Sometimes the answer is a clear yes or no, but sometimes even this does not make it an easy question to answer.

Siobhan: It might or might not. I think it WOULD benefit him to stop goofing around, and failing might impress this upon him.

Colleague B: At a 59.7% final average? PASS.

Siobhan: 59.7 before the final paper. Now, 57.5. To give him a pass, I’d have to raise his grade on the final paper from a 53 to 61.  Note: formatting is worth 10%. He got 0.8/10.

Colleague B: Oooooh I see – now I can feel the ethical dilemma. If 53 is what he deserves on the paper, and if your marking criteria are clear and known to the students, I do not believe you should increase his mark to 61.

Outside Observer C: Yersh. Do you have to make the grades add up to 60? Could you just round up the final mark?

Siobhan: You mean just round it up when I submit the final grades, without changing the details of the grade breakdown? I expect that’s possible, but difficult to justify.  I am considering sending the paper back to him and telling him that if he formats it perfectly before Friday, I will give him a 60% on the paper.

Colleague B: Yes – that is a very good, even better than what I was thinking.

Colleague D: I have high pass rates in my classes because I do stuff like asking for additional work to justify bumping up a mark to a 60. It is futile when the student is riding on a 47 but if it’s mid-50’s or more, I often do it, as (for example) the optional make-up or bonus work I lay out on the last day of class. But hear me out. I, too, ask if it isn’t simply more helpful for a particular student to sit five English classes instead of four. And indeed, sometimes the answer is clearly yes.  So I would support you if you decide to have the boy reformat his work. If he doesn’t learn his lesson, then he will pay for it sooner or later in ways that we will not be around to watch.

Colleague E: I wouldn’t let him fail the course for formatting issues. I vote for “give him till Friday to reformat.” It’s not making you do any extra reading.

Siobhan: Just to be clear: he’s not failing the course for formatting issues, although that hasn’t helped. He’s failing for a whole pile of reasons, but if he’d just bothered to format the damn paper, he would have scraped through. If he’d done a host of other things, then his formatting on this paper wouldn’t have made much of a difference.  I have written a friend at the Learning Centre to see if he’ll work on it with him (to prevent the paper from being passed to a classmate for reformatting.) I’ll see what he says and write the kid in the morning. So. Tiring.

Outside Observer F: Was formatting an outcome of the course?

Siobhan: Yes.  In all my courses, 10% of each of their take-home assignment grades is given for formatting.  We review formatting in detail and they are given links to appropriate formatting guides.

Colleague G: Sometimes my only thought is whether I am willing to impose this student on one of my colleagues (or potentially back onto myself!) teaching a later course… Mind you, the alternative is to impose him/her on me or one of my colleagues as he repeats the current course… Oh, this was not a useful reply for you at all…

Colleague H: This may be dangerous to admit, but I tell my students that I don’t give out final grades that end in 7, 8 or 9. I always round up. My justification for this is that language (and analysis) is not an exact science, and my marking therefore perhaps has a standard deviation of about 3 (hence the 7, 8 and 9 possibilities). This means that anyone with a 57 gets a 60 or an 88 gets a 90. However, if someone has a 56 (or 66 or 76 or 86) they KNOW that they didn’t do that wee bit of extra work (like formatting in MLA style gosh darn it!) to give them the little bump. So that’s my justification…if you think this is horribly wrong, I’m willing to change. It’s just been terrifically helpful in dealing with students and having them understand the less-than-exact science that is grading….and by “you”, I don’t mean Siobhan particularly, just the whole general world of education and pedagogy 🙂

Siobhan: I remember you talking about that policy awhile ago, and I even considered whether I should implement it. However, over the years I have developed very detailed rubrics with precise criteria, and I assign point values to each criterion, and then I simply add up the points. This is not really less subjective, of course, but it does give both me and the student the feeling that the grade is a fairly accurate reflection of their abilities. In order for the grade to be rounded up, I would have to decide that I hadn’t graded fairly for a particular criterion, and change that. If students want to argue their grade, they have to convince me that they did better in one or more specific areas than I gave them credit for, and why. I have still been known to fudge grades one way or the other a bit if I feel a student is borderline, but it always comes down to their mastery of particular criteria. (I say always. Let’s say: almost always.)

Colleague J: If students like this put even a fraction of the time and effort into doing their work that their teachers put into evaluating it and wrestling with the ethical dilemmas it creates, we wouldn’t find ourselves in these situations so frequently.

Colleague G: Yes!  Why on earth do we agonize so much over work that, clearly, has not been agonized over by the student him/herself??

Colleague J: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve marked an essay and been convinced that it took me longer to mark it than it did for the student to write it. For me, such a lack of care prevents these issues from having an ethical dimension; if I pass the student, it is not because I am concerned about doing the wrong thing by letting him/her fail.

Siobhan: To be fair to this guy, I think he really did make some kind of effort (such as he was capable of) on this paper, out of desperation if nothing else. It looks like he made an attempt at some sort of formatting, but without looking at any of his guidelines or using any common sense. (Triple-spaced? Half the paper left-justified and the other right-justified? Identification info in the header? What?) It’s more than he’s ever done before, even if it’s all wrong. His last paper was single-spaced and entirely in italics, with no name or other identification on it anywhere.

That said: I sent him a detailed message yesterday with instructions including “go online and make an appt. with the Learning Centre NOW and email me when you’ve done it.” I included the link. According to the message system, he read the message yesterday. He has not emailed me. Looks like this guy’s toast.

Colleague J: I was going to say let him re-format it and stop spending any more energy thinking about it, but I agree with your latest comment. From your perspective, he’s got to show at least some effort at this stage.

Siobhan: The situation itself is frustrating, but I’m actually finding the conversation about it quite stimulating!


What would you do with such a student?  Give us your thoughts.

Image by Billy Alexander


19 thoughts on “Formatting Blues

  1. By giving the student the opportunity to “revisit” the paper and raise their grade, you have gone above and beyond.

    It does make sense to me to offer that opportunity – although I’d almost like to see it offered throughout the semester.

    I remember a class where we could resubmit each paper one time – making revisions based upon the professor’s comments. A lot more work for the instructor, I suppose, but it offers some real potential for learning and for understanding the process of editing and revising one’s work. The most that you could raise your grade through re-submittal was 10%. I expect it was a good tool for these borderline cases. If the student never bothered to attempt to raise his/her grade throughout the semester, than no need to feel guilty when they are borderline and fail. They will have had multiple chances to raise their own grade and chosen to ignore them.


    1. I agree – and in fact, students do have the opportunity to rewrite their first essay in this course, and they also practice formatting, and are given feedback on it, for every assignment. So this is definitely something this student should have figured out by now. The question I ask myself is: will he learn more from a failing grade in the course, or from being given a last-ditch chance to sit down with someone and have them impress upon him the importance of doing this properly? Not sure.


      1. Perhaps he’ll get something out of it, if nothing more than the impression that he can’t keep getting by with slapped together work. I work in a writing center, so I’ve seen a number of students who were sent by professors much in the same position as you are. Some of them seem to learn something, but too many are difficult to work with, assuming the center is there to fix their papers for them. (We are not!) Students that are sent to the center earlier on in the semester are more likely get something out of it, at least in my experience, and then they are less likely to end up in a borderline situation. I think you still made the right decision, by giving him another chance to fix the formatting and by sending him to the learning center (Maybe he will learn something.), but don’t feel like you need to more. It seems like he’s had plenty of opportunities.


        1. Connie:
          I did in fact send this student to the LC to rewrite his first paper, and I know that he does almost all his work in the study area of the LC, but rarely consults with the tutors! Ah, the mysterious teenage brain.


  2. Wow, I feel bad for every time I got frustrated about how long it took for a teacher to get work back to me!
    My mom’s a highschool teacher – she tells her students at the beginning of the course that they have three do-overs. The key is that they have to have submitted something for that assignment by the due-date, but that if it wasn’t a good grade/grade they liked, they could do it over and re-submit (x amount of time after they found out their grade for the initial submission), and get marked just the same as if it was a first time submission.
    I think your giving him the opportunity to reformat/resubmit is a fair one, though it sounds like he has no intention of taking advantage. Did you make it clear to him that, at present, he isn’t passing the course?


  3. I liked the reformatting idea. Typically, if it’s something like that on the final exam, I’m willing to give the student a second try; however, I’m only willing to do that if I can see evidence of effort somewhere.

    Clearly, if he didn’t email you back, there’s no reason to believe he’s even interested in correcting his work. He was interested in giving it “one last hurrah” so he could say he did everything he could do and the mean, awful teacher just wasn’t willing to help him at all.

    I had a similar conversation with a student yesterday.

    “I tried,” she said.

    “Slapping words on a page doesn’t indicate trying,” I responded. “If you didn’t understand what was required, you should’ve conferenced with me or asked questions. You kept telling me that you knew what you were doing.”

    “Well, I just don’t like to walk home. So working after school wasn’t good for me.”

    “But you want me to believe you made every effort possible on this paper?”

    “Well,” she looked down at the floor. “No. I really didn’t. I just wanted to get it done and turn it in.”

    I guess sometimes it takes a little coaxing to get them to understand what “effort” looks like…


    1. CH: he actually did email me this morning, and I dropped into the LC this afternoon to find him working with his tutor. I can only hope that he gets some sort of lesson out of it all (and that the paper is indeed perfect at the end and so earns the passing grade…)


  4. I would probably give some sort of chance to correct the formatting, but it is a tough call as you and the comments note. Chances for improvement and revision are built into the semester learning process, I presume–they were in my classes. One thing I look to when I consider making a grade bump as is being considered for this student is how such a bump would impact others in class. Should the extra points be added to everyone? How many grades would change? If the “F” student gets the benefit of a bump and extra revision, what about the “B” and “C” students whose case is not so dire? I have not been in the classroom for lots of years, but I do remember that the students with the really low grades were always a surprise to me. Some–when I would commiserate with them about the “D” or “F,” would shrug and say, but I did not work much in this class. One young man was thrilled–he had never stayed in a class until the end to get a grade on all the course work–he saw the semester as a success. Then there are the ones who have never taken advantage of the extra revision options or extra credit, did not complete semester homework, and did not turn in several required essays who would earnestly ask going into the final, “What can I do (by tomorrow!) to bring my grade up?” I miss being in the classroom most days, but these sorts of situations I do not miss. Not sure any of this helps you and the dilemma you are facing. Bottom line: the student earned the 57% and that is not passing.


    1. Patti: Yes, it’s a tough call. In the end, I’ve decided to give him the chance to reformat, as it is a simple thing he can do and he is so very borderline, and I think he might actually learn something in the process. The question of fairness always concerns me, and I’m not certain this is fair, but it is the best of many unsatisfactory solutions, to my mind.


    2. Oooh, yes. That’s a valid point. Not that I’m questioning Siobhan’s ultimate decision, as only she can know all the variables in her case. But, when I went back to undergrad classes as an adult, it was very important to me to get and keep a 4.0. (I didn’t manage that the first time around!) I would have been upset to learn that a failing student had a chance to raise their grade by .3 if the same chance would have moved me from a B to an A, for instance.

      So glad I’m not dealing with these difficult decisions!


      1. That’s why I think the approach of Colleague H might work. It’s not about one student–it’s about the whole class having the opportunity to get the bump–if they just put in that extra effort.


  5. This is college, correct? The grade is the grade. An adult should be doing his best, asking for help from the writing center, professor, or cute girl/boy in the class. I let my freshman in high school redo and treat it as a learning experience. However, by the time they are 18 or 19 they should know to listen to expectations.


    1. I think there’s a place for that philosophy, but it isn’t mine. I don’t believe that grades are measuring sticks – what they measure is too arbitrary and amorphous. Grades should be learning tools, as should everything else in education, whether it’s college or kindergarten. It’s not simple to act according to this philosophy, but I do what I can.


      1. I completely agree with your philosophy and understand your dilemma in grading this student. Like you, I would have given him the opportunity to reformat the paper – both for the reasons that you have stated and because it seems as though he may legitimately have not known how to do this correctly previously. Unfortunately, many of the students that we perceive as lazy or unmotivated have taken on this attitude towards education due to their previous experiences with education and an expectation that they will be unsuccessful regardless of the effort that they put into their work. It seems that giving them this extra opportunity to do the work and prove that they can be successful (even if only marginally in this case) can be one opportunity to help them revise their views on education and learning. Thanks for sharing your stories. I love reading them!


  6. All colleges, and all instructors, work differently. The final determination must be yours alone, but I do see where many of the commenters and your Colleagues A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, and J are coming from.

    You’ve stated several times in your blog that you use detailed rubrics with the point breakdown for the assignment clearly listed. Actually, it was one of your posts that convinced me to do the extra work one summer and create my own rubrics. I use them today in my composition courses and find them to be most helpful during the (sometimes torturous) grading process. I can only imagine they are as helpful to you as they have been to me.

    Because of your use of rubrics–whether they are available before or after the essay is handed back–I see no reason to offer the student anything more then the chance to reformat their essay. The point breakdown is clear and your class discussions would have covered the required materials, as well. However, there is also the fact that the student did not put forth their best effort all semester long and is only just now, after realizing their inevitable failure, attempting to skate by. I get extremely frustrated when my students do this sort of thing (only just last week I had a student beg me–literally–to break the rules “just for me”) but I don’t see the logic behind fudging the grade when the student clearly doesn’t deserve it.

    Colleague H has a good idea, though I wouldn’t bump a student’s grade that much (in my eyes, bumping a student from a 57 to a 60 is giving them a full 30 points, or 3%! Perhaps your grading system is different). I tend to bump grades if they are at 57.7, 57.8, or 57.9, for example. This only bumps the grade a few points, rather than 30 points, and can allow a student to pass–barely. Sometimes it means the different between a B+ and an A- and if the student is deserving of the bump, I give it. However, if I know the student has simply treated the course as a way to kill time, didn’t participate in classroom discussions, not had a rough draft on multiple occasions, and/or complete a large portion of the in-class work, then it is my opinion that they do not deserve the grade bump and receive the grade they earned.

    In the end, though, Colleague G has the right of it! 🙂


  7. I would have let the failing grade stand, although I would have sent a message pointing out that the student could have passed if he had made more of an effort or asked for help.
    I have known teens like this…it isn’t about the class, they just aren’t “ready”, and the readiness may be years away. Letting them slide accomplishes nothing except to send them to the next level, which is even harder to slide through.


  8. Update: Student made a valiant effort to format the paper, including visiting the LC tutor, with only partial success. After much deliberation, I raised his grade on the paper from a 53 to a 59, which allowed him to scrape through the course with a 59.5. I can only hope that he learned SOMETHING from this whole process. Thank you all for contributing your thoughts!


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