Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Make Exceptions, but only when you have a good reason

One of the things that language program directors are called on to do is decide when exceptions to established policies are called for. This happens for a couple main reasons. One is that very few policies or guidelines will fit all possible circumstances and consequently special interpretations of the policies are sometimes needed. Another reason is that cultural norms for many students lead them to expect that most if not all policies are meant to be loose guidelines rather than strictly adhered to formulas. For these students it is natural to ask for exceptions even if there is no logical basis for the request. Also, in many cases maintaining the face of those involved in an issue is more important than how the issue gets resolved. For example, students who failed exams in their English classes in Oman would frequently come to me as Director and request “help.” In that culture, seeking help from authority figures when there is a problem is natural and it is considered a responsibility of the authority figure to respond to emotion-based appeals as seriously as to logic-based appeals. Students would usually either express anger (The teacher hates me and failed me when I didn’t deserve it.) or plead for mercy (You are the Director, so you can change my grade. You must help me.) There was often a request from the student in these cases to have someone else grade their exam again, which was against the policy of the language program. Clearly having the Director or other teachers override teacher assessments would be demoralizing to the teachers and would quickly involve the director in all cases where students didn’t like their exam results. On the other hand, simply saying that it is against the policy of the program to re-grade exams results in further loss of face for the student. Most often what worked best for me in these cases was to acknowledge that the student wanted help and to offer to do something. I would usually say that I would look at the exam paper to make sure that there were no errors in the calculation of the final grade. If I found any errors made in adding up the grade (which did happen, but very rarely) I would approve a grade correction. This allowed the student to feel as if he/she had done something in the face of a shameful exam result. The fact that the director had listened and agreed to do something, even though it almost never resulted in a grade change, went some way toward reducing the loss of face for the student.

How policies are applied or not applied establishes an important parameter of the language program’s culture. In my experience, it is critical for this aspect of the organizational culture to be as consistent as possible. That is, the culture may be quite strict or quite loose or somewhere in between (often this is determined by the larger organizational culture or other constraints), but vacillating between strict and loose applications of policy creates the most problems. This, of course, requires that programs have clearly-formulated policies in the first place. If there is no policy, then every decision is an exception.

A recent example is the decision to require students to bring the original copy of pre-exam materials to a program-wide writing exam in the ELP. This was designed to prevent students from writing out entire essays in advance and bringing them into the timed-writing exam. To make it easier to monitor this, the students received the pre-exam material on colored paper. Students were told clearly that they could only bring the original material, but at the end of the exam proctors noticed one student whose material was not original – it had been copied on a color copier, but not well enough to avoid detection. When questioned about this, the student was very apologetic and said that his original materials had been damaged by rain and that he had copied one of his friend’s materials to use during the exam. We determined that the materials that he did use during the exam didn’t have extensive notes or anything that would have given him a special advantage. In fact, his essay received a failing mark. The question was, what action, if any, should the ELP program take in this case? There is no policy or set of guidelines for this. Should the student be given a warning? Should the exam be disallowed? Should the student be marked down? If so, by how much?

A major consideration at this point is what precedent to set. Students talk to each other and are quick to pick up on inconsistencies in policy application. It might be tempting to say that since the student had failed anyway, it wouldn’t make any difference if we marked him down any further. However, that could actually send a message to other students that there were no negative consequences to violating ELP testing policies like this one. In the end, working with the testing coordinator, we decided to reduce the student’s exam mark by 1 point (out of 10 points). This made no appreciable difference to the student’s final grade but sends a message to students that there will be consequences for violating exam policies.

In this process, I think two important precedents were set that will allow the formation of clearer policy on how to handle issues like this in future. One is that the ELP is fairly strict in applying exam policies. The second is that how much or little a student has benefited as a result of exam policy violations may be used as a factor in determining the extent of the punishment.

Next time: Keep people informed and involved

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