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I just received one assignment (by email) from a student. Out of 6 questions, "I don't know" is the answer to 4 of them.

There is also a comment at the end of the assignment which suggests

  1. my lectures are not helpful for solving problems
  2. I am assuming students already know many of the things that I am talking about, so things are very confusing in class

I replied that I will improve my lectures and go over basic things more clearly. And I also offered one-to-one tutoring to help him catch up. (Though I had a feeling that he will not take it up--he didn't ask any questions previously through email and he did not come to office hours)

Now the problem is, I announced that assignments are graded by completion. His assignment certainly is far from complete. But I feel that if giving him 0 will further antagonize and discourage the student.

Also, traditionally, assignments are not mandatory but only serve as bonus points in final evaluation. So less than half of the students will actually do the assignment. It seems that answering two questions are already better than most other students.

How would you deal with such an assignment?

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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps this question is more suited to Academia SE, since the situation is not uniquely about mathematics education? $\endgroup$ – Brahadeesh Feb 8 at 11:26
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    $\begingroup$ If you grade assignments by completion, tell him you will give him a chance to finish before grading. However, it should be pointed out that he has a responsibility to ask questions in class and not just criticize everything you are doing. If he wants to learn and not just criticize, tell him you are willing to answer questions in and out of class. $\endgroup$ – Amy B Feb 8 at 14:36
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    $\begingroup$ "I don't know" isn't a complete answer to a question. I would have no issue marking those as "incomplete", because they clearly are. $\endgroup$ – Selkie Feb 8 at 17:04
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    $\begingroup$ "I don't know" isn't any kind of answer; it's passive-aggressive whining. If your lectures aren't sufficient for the student, throwing up their hands and claiming they have no way of learning the material (rather than attending office hours or seeking additional help on their own initiative) is ridiculous behavior for a college student. $\endgroup$ – chepner Feb 8 at 19:53
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    $\begingroup$ Recommend not letting students walk over you like this, re: "I replied that I will improve my lectures" in response to a single complaining student. You will be eaten alive. $\endgroup$ – Daniel R. Collins Feb 9 at 1:46
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You need to slam him on the grade. That is what he earned. Don't be so easily manipulated by his comments on your teaching.

Also I would not have sent an email apology. Just offered to meet with him to discuss his concerns. But still slammed him on the assignment.

If you let these kids walk over you, you'll never survive. You're in charge. Doesn't mean your teaching is great (or not). But don't be a wimp. That doesn't help regardless.

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    $\begingroup$ Email is a trail. OTOH, the core of the issue is absence of national curricula in the U.S. (is this happening in the U.S.?) so one can never know what the students learned, and if they did not learn something, did it happen because they slacked off or because their school considered it unimportant. $\endgroup$ – Rusty Core Feb 8 at 16:34
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    $\begingroup$ I want to down vote this because in many constituencies this could lead to trouble. But I can't say that the answer isn't useful, or even that it's wrong; I just don't agree with the "slamming" part. Go ahead and stick with your policy (in the US, the syllabus does apparently have some legal weight, I guess?), but doesn't have to be mean-spirited. (Assuming that is what your answer is implying; I may be reading too much into the word 'slam'.) $\endgroup$ – kcrisman Feb 10 at 1:56
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    $\begingroup$ @kcrisman I'm also unhappy about the assumption that it's meant as manipulation—see CL40's answer. $\endgroup$ – timtfj Feb 10 at 12:17
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    $\begingroup$ @kcrisman I think you're reading too much into "slam". The way I see it the answerer just means giving him the grade he deserves for not even trying. He's not saying to be mean or aggressive towards the student. $\endgroup$ – Clonkex Feb 10 at 22:52
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    $\begingroup$ @Clonkex you may be right, which is why I put the parenthetical comment. Really, the bottom line is that without knowing/meeting the student, it can be really hard to ascertain what is going on "really" - is the homework a cry for help or bratty entitlement? Often email/text only doesn't go very far to determine that. $\endgroup$ – kcrisman Feb 11 at 15:01
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I am not a mathematics educator but I feel the need to chime in from the student side of this. I have taken numerous hard math classes during my BSc, and I have had my fair share of feeling hopeless, lost, and frustrated. You didn't indicate which math class you teach, and to be honest it is irrelevant.

Unlike the other answers I don't feel like this is necessarily an attempt to control you.

Point (1) sounds like something I commonly heard from fellow students who struggled not because the professor didn't try to help, but because they are taught "the solution is the goal". They get quickly discouraged, and at points frustrated enough to write smarmy marks and protest. Perhaps to address this point you could talk to the class about an anonymous assignment that said these things. Talk to them about how its more important to show how they arrived at their solution and open up the floor for a few minutes to let people tell you what they think. A quick way to find your flaws is to do this. Many complaints will be down right ignorable (this class is too hard, you're not good enough, etc) but occasionally a student will call out a character flaw worth addressing. Maybe you're not making something clear enough? Generally students don't protest unless they truly feel hopeless. A few classes will do this (mathematical statistics, proof-based math courses, etc) so it would be useful to figure out why at least. He could have came to your office to complain directly and start a dialog with you - so he gets a 0 if only to demonstrate snark wont be tolerated.

Point (2) is sort of addressed inside of point (1). You're an undergraduate educator. The student has arrived at your class having either:

  1. Taken an entrance exam demonstrating the minimum level of competence for the course
  2. Passed pre-requisites satisfactorily showing competence in the material

At any rate, people forget. There is a great book I'm sure you've heard of called How To Solve It by Polya. In the book he talks about how if a student cannot grasp the harder stuff you need to prod them with questioning until you find out what they do know and build them up from there. If you're unwilling or unable to do this, then you need to look at your department. Students struggling this much generally are being passed by easier professors or lax examiners. A certain level of struggle is acceptable, but I have been in classes that felt hopeless for that exact reason - the professor was unwilling to help us learn what we didn't know quickly, and the department pre-requisites didn't prepare us for the class at all. Many of us nearly failed, and the professor smugly proclaimed we were all incompetent. It's not a good experience being that lost, and it's worth digging into the root cause so you can address it directly either at the department level, or assisting the class with their shortcomings. Either way, there are mature ways to deal with this at the student level so he gets a 0 regardless of what you choose to do.

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    $\begingroup$ On entrance exams and pre-req's: They don't have as much meaning as we would hope. An internal study at my institution found that our entrance exam has a very weak correlation with student outcomes, less than a number of other factors. Students can, and do, slip into harder courses that they are unprepared for. Further, students can have developed (almost paradoxical) holes in their knowledge; they might be fine with calculus and struggle with fractions. $\endgroup$ – Adam Feb 9 at 16:04
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    $\begingroup$ Also, at many institutions (particularly in the US, I suppose) you may not even have "The student has arrived at your class having either:" You just have a student. Ta-dah! Now you have to teach. $\endgroup$ – kcrisman Feb 10 at 1:51
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    $\begingroup$ In line with other comments above, consider this perspective (in U.S.): Most undergraduate college students are attending community colleges. Most community colleges are open-admissions. That is: They do not have any entrance exams or prerequisites at the freshman level. $\endgroup$ – Daniel R. Collins Feb 10 at 5:49
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    $\begingroup$ @CL40 Note that with "first part of the calculus series, college algebra, etc." you are actually describing the (start of) upper-level math at community colleges. Many students take 3-4 classes before being ready for college algebra/precalculus. $\endgroup$ – Nick C Feb 10 at 20:11
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    $\begingroup$ @Nick C: Many students take 3-4 classes before being ready for college algebra/precalculus --- That was my thought also, and for U.S. post-secondary math this has to be considered when little to no context is provided (as is often unintentionally the case here). $\endgroup$ – Dave L Renfro Feb 11 at 10:26
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Now the problem is, I announced that assignments are graded by completion.

I don't see a problem if you were clear about how the assignments will influence the final grade, perhaps something like "The grade on the assignments will be included in the final grade if and only if the grade on the assignments is better than the grade that would have been given without the assignments."

Then I would grade each assignment "normally" which would be a failing grade for at most 33% completion.

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I'm not an educator, though I've been involved in the admin side of university-level education and did a heavily mathematical degree at university.

But I'm wondering about two things.

Does he actually understand how to study maths? I didn't when I was a student. I think I had the idea that I should be able to go to the lecture, understand the material, then go away able to do the assignment, and that a maths textbook could be read like an ordinary book.

Do the prerequisites for the course, as taught, actually provide what's needed? I say "as taught" because the way topics are listed in a course outline might not be a guide to how thoroughly each one is covered in the actual sessions. If something essential for your course isn't being adequately covered in one of the prerequisites, then you could probably do with knowing that—since other students might well be affected too.

As for the grading, I think you jjust give the honest grade for what was handed in (one that would, say, convince an external examiner that you're applying identical criteria to everyone). It's perfectly consistent to both do that and try to find out what caused him to do so badly. Also being clear that it's done objectively might make it easier for the student not to take the grade personally, so he's more open to being helped.

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    $\begingroup$ that a maths textbook could be read like an ordinary book --- I would have thought this would be known from high school math textbooks, and perhaps even before high school. If anything, I found college level textbooks (especially beginning with standard elementary calculus level texts) to be much more written to the reader than high school texts. $\endgroup$ – Dave L Renfro Feb 11 at 10:30
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    $\begingroup$ @DaveLRenfro Indeed, good math or physics books read like, well, normal books: top to bottom, without idiotic pullouts, with no distracting carnival of colors or typefaces, written in clear concise language to the point that nothing important is missing, but removal of a single sentence breaks the flow. Yes, books like this do exist, and indeed they are more likely to be found in higher ed. I haven't found an American elementary/high math program that has good or even half-decent textbooks. So, the fault is not the student's - there are thousands like him - but the secondary ed system's. $\endgroup$ – Rusty Core Feb 12 at 19:18
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Now the problem is, I announced that assignments are graded by completion. His assignment certainly is far from complete. But I feel that if giving him 0 will further antagonize and discourage the student.

It seems to me that his assignment was $\frac13$ complete and he should get $\frac13$ of the maximum grade for the assignment.

I recognise that this seems so simple that I'm probably overlooking something due to being from a different culture to you, but sometimes people overcomplicate things and overlook simple solutions.

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In contradistinction to many of the answers, I say the student may have actually done the assignment. Are these reading questions about the material (e.g. "explain what an integral is")? If the questions are worded in such a way that "I don't know" is a grammatical answer to the question, then this one time you can throw him/her a bone and say "Okay, you get the points. Next time you'll know I mean for a mathematical answer."

If the questions are of the form "Compute 2+2", this doesn't obtain. Even in that case, though, in a smallish class with someone who may really be completely unprepared and unable to recognize how to deal with it, you could again throw a bone and let the student get half points for submitting an actual answer a week late.

The bottom line is to know your constituents and setting. That is hard, or at least I find it hard, and it takes time. But as an educator, it's your job (even if it's not what you are rewarded for). It's possible this student is a brat; it's also possible (or, if you are in the United States, likely) the student has found an inappropriate way to respond to how overwhelming 'real math' with a lot less hand-holding is. Give the student a chance to turn it around.

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  • $\begingroup$ Though if your comment about the assignments being for bonus points only is accurate, forget about the points issue! No amount of extra points will help someone who answers 4/6 "I don't know" when it comes to the exam. But helping this student then is beyond the scope of the question as you ask it. $\endgroup$ – kcrisman Feb 10 at 2:07
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    $\begingroup$ And "I don't know" could mean anything from "I've not even tried" to "I've been staring at this for half an hour and I've reread my notes 5 times and I still can't see how to do it". $\endgroup$ – timtfj Feb 10 at 12:24
  • $\begingroup$ Right. I've certainly seen both of those plus a half-dozen other variants. $\endgroup$ – kcrisman Feb 11 at 15:04

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