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OP-ED: Failing students need support, not blame

Jill Richardson

Students don’t fail because they are lazy. They fail because something is wrong in their lives — and right now, so much is wrong.

As the semester ends, I fear many of my students will fail my class. Most will pass, thanks to their hard work and a generous grade curve, but I’ve never had this many students failing or dropping the course before.

The Washington Post reports that an unprecedented number of students are failing classes, but asks whether standard A-F grading, as opposed to a simple Pass/Fail, is fair during a pandemic. I think the question is bigger than that.

My questions are: What should our role be as teachers? And what prepares students best for future success in life?

As a student myself, I mostly accepted the system as it was. I accepted that my grades were a legitimate assessment of my work.

That changed as soon as I began teaching. I could see that my students’ grades depended on the capability of my teaching and how high I set the bar, as well as on their own work.

I see teaching and learning as an interaction between teacher and student. I get written feedback from every student after every class because I want the class to work for them, and I check in on students immediately when they start to fall behind. I don’t scold them. I ask, “How are you doing? What can I do to help?”

Low grades are not a sign of lazy students. Low grades are not a sign of unintelligent students. In my experience, low grades mean something is wrong. Often the problem is mental health. Sometimes the problem is something temporary but difficult in the student’s life, like a death in the family.

If the entire class does poorly together, on the other hand, it means I messed up as the teacher.

I view part of my job as helping students learn how to learn. I help them navigate the university to get the resources they need and reflect on what works best for them and what doesn’t. I normalize struggling and making mistakes, because it’s part of learning — something that’s even more true now.

When I ask my students this semester about how they’re doing, they describe working harder while comprehending and retaining less. They describe a lack of motivation. These are signs of mental health problems — no doubt a normal response to an abnormal situation. This can’t be fixed by asking students to work harder.

How is it ethical to give students a “normal” amount of work and grade them the same as usual on it? We are not in normal times, and we shouldn’t pretend like we are.

Debating the merits of A-F grades compared to Pass/Fail misses that the problem isn’t giving students grades. The problem is holding them to unrealistic standards during a pandemic.

The message teachers got when we went online last semester was: “Your class is NOT the highest priority of students’ OR your life right now. Release yourself from high expectations right now, because that’s the best way to help your students learn.”

That’s still true — and it will remain true until the pandemic ends. The best we can do, for now, is to meet the students where they are and help them learn what they are capable of learning under these conditions, without penalizing them for being unable to do more.

Long term, we should take lessons from this time. Students don’t fail because they are lazy. They fail because something is wrong in their lives. We should stop punishing and blaming them and adopt a more supportive approach instead.


OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is pursuing a PhD in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This op-ed was distributed by OtherWords.org.