Setting Expectations

A new semester means a new round of student requests. Rob Weir knows what to say to students who "need an A."

January 27, 2010

Who says New Englanders don’t have a sense of humor? Here in Massachusetts our "spring" semester begins on January 19. It’s been known to snow on May commencements. Spring semester indeed! But it’s a new semester whether it’s 20 degrees or 70, so that means it’s time to get your syllabuses in order. And it’s also time to think about setting student expectations for the spring. For whatever reasons, spring semester tends to make students — or “consumers” as some administrations like to call them — more demanding than in fall semester. Indulge me in a bit of edu-jargon. It’s always a good idea to "manage student expectations," but in the spring it’s even more critical. If this is your first time through the academic calendar, here are a few comments you might hear. It’s wise to nip them in the bud like a premature New England shoot:

“I need to get an A in this course.”

Unless you discourage it, someone will come to you early on and announce that s/he "needs" to get an A in your class. Variants include: "I have a 4.0 GPA"; "I want to know exactly what I need to do to get at least an A in your class"; "I’ve always gotten an A in (your discipline here) classes"; and "I’m applying to law/med school so I need to make sure this course won’t hurt my GPA."

The best way to address such a statement is try to avoid needing to do so in the first place. Some professors like to use ice-breakers in the first class to build solidarity. If that works for you, who am I to criticize? I’m not comfortable with the touchy-feely stuff, so I prefer to get down to business. However you start, though, make sure you make several things clear when you pass out the syllabus.

First, advise students that your grading criteria are laid out in specific detail on the syllabus. Second, remind them that a B is an honors level grade and they must do honors level work to get a grade that’s at least that high. Third, tell the class that you will evaluate everyone’s work according to the same standards. Fourth, remind students that you can only evaluate products, not effort, perception, or personality.

Even then at least one student is likely to repeat the dreaded "I need to get an A" phrase. In such a case, the best route to go is to smile and tell the student, "I hope that your need will match what you earn, but you should know that this conversation will have no bearing on how I evaluate you. In fact, it would be a very good idea if this topic is never again mentioned." Don’t be surprised if said student drops your course. Don’t worry about that; in fact, count your blessings.

"I need this course to stay in school and I’m willing to work hard."

This, of course, is a desperate version of the need-an-A scenario. Each January the wits at Lake Superior State University present a list of tiresome words and phrases that should be banned from the English language. Allow me to suggest another: "I deserve a good grade because I worked really hard in this course." This sort of "every-child-is-an-honors-child" mawkishness can exit any day now as far as I’m concerned. College professors should set the tone from day one that hard work is the key to success, but it is no guarantee of it. One can work very hard and still not do well.

I make an analogy to home repair. I have no aptitude for it and have spent long hours on projects that were complete and utter failures. Even a mediocre carpenter would have to stretch to award me a gentleman’s C in woodworking. There is no question that I have toiled mightily, but there is also no escaping the fact that my efforts have not paid off. My (non-) handiwork is there for all to see.

As in the "I need an A" scenario, you should label the expectations bar "results," not "efforts." It does not hurt to tell students in the first week that you have demanding standards and that you do not apologize for them. As long as you are clear about what you expect and how you will evaluate, you can hold students to those standards. Those who do not agree with them are free to try their luck elsewhere.

You don’t have to be an ogre about any of this. In an earlier column I spoke of the importance of viewing the syllabus as a contract with students. In that spirit, lay out the tools and methods by which you will evaluate. Refer all students expressing a "need" to your syllabus and explain that it’s really up to them, not you, to decide if those terms are ones they can meet.

"Is this course going to be fun?"

Whenever I hear this one the devil on my right shoulder urges me to reply, "How in the $#@* should I know; it really depends upon your definition of a good time." It’s a better idea to listen to the angel on the left and reply. "I hope so, but I can only assure you that we’ll cover relevant information that’s designed to increase your understanding of the subject."

This is another place to launch a preemptive expectations strike. It's pretty much a lock that something you’ve assigned or plan to cover will be My Private Sahara for some students. In week one I routinely identify a few topics upfront that are more likely to be medicine than chocolate — students may not like the taste, but they’re essential for the brain’s proper functioning. When we actually get to these I congratulate the class for having endured the torment!

“If I miss a few classes, will it hurt me?”

Remember Mad Magazine? It used to have a "Snappy Answer to Stupid Questions" feature. The WWMMD approach would be to come back with, "Of course not. We couldn’t possibly do anything of consequence if you weren’t in class, so just let us know when you’ll be absent and we’ll suspend all mental activity." Yeah, but you can only say that to a student with whom you have a good relationship and who also has a fully developed sense of irony. Don’t go there.

This question is most likely to be asked by athletes trying to figure out if your class fits into their practice and game schedules. The best approach is to be honest. I’ve had basketball players whose schedules were such that they would miss more than half of their Friday discussion groups. I tell them that it would be wise to drop the course and take it in the fall as they would be unlikely to do well. They need not heed my advice, but once it’s dispensed it’s not my responsibility to make special arrangements for them either.

As in most matters, communicate attendance expectations early in the semester and reiterate these in the syllabus. If your college has an official attendance policy, state it and enforce it. If it does not, you are generally free to develop your own. Some professors take the hardball approach of an automatic grade deduction for each absence above a set number. My own preference is to do an end around by having strict assignment deadline policies. I deduct one-half letter grade for each 48 hours or portion thereof between when an assignment is due and when it’s in my hands. Only a documented medical or dean’s excuse trumps this.

“If I screw up, can I do an extra credit project?”

This is Pandora’s Box. Don’t open it unless there’s an extraordinary reason for doing so. (Last fall, for example, many colleges weathered swine flu pandemics that altered business as usual.) Never commit to an advance promise of extra credit unless you make it available to every student and are prepared to spend your semester evaluating it. (If you don’t open this option to all you’ll face justifiable charges of favoritism.)

Another reason to avoid it is that creating an "out" of extra credit has a tendency to bring down the overall quality of assignments. You can reasonably predict that several students will hew to the path of least resistance in the belief that they can reverse a semester of slackerdom with a killer extra credit project. (If they don’t, get your ducks on the pond because chances are good they’ll complain about their grades.)

It’s better to reiterate the notion of the syllabus as a contract, declare your terms to be non-negotiable, and deal with it if you’re declared "mean." Again, you can do this pleasantly. All you have to do is say, simply, "I give exactly the same chance for success. The best thing to do is get the help you need before an assignment is due so you won’t screw up."

In summary, set your expectations high, make them clear, and stick to them. If worst comes to worst you can always quote Henry Higgins from Pygmalion: "The question is not whether I treat you rudely, but whether you have heard me treat anyone else better." But do try to avoid the "rudely" part!

Further Reading:

--Robert Kizlik on managing expectations on a day-to-day basis.

--Illinois State University’s School of Business has a code of expectations that stresses student responsibilities.

--Professor Steven Dutch of the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay has his own tongue-partly-in-cheek list of "no sympathy" lines.

--Faculty Focus has some thoughts on managing the classroom. I disagree with some of these, but you might not.

--Emma McDonald has ideas for secondary school teachers. Some of them work for college professors as well.

--Just for fun, Lake Superior State University’s list of words and phrases that should be banned.


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