Students and Prayer
© 18 Dec 2014 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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Reflections on “‍change my grade, I pray you.‍”


I am, by career and inclination, an instructor. This includes the necessity of assigning grades. Grades are peculiar in that they are both entirely within my control (A+ or F, no one double checks me) and have significant impact on my students lives. Hence I often have student ask me to change their grade; or, to use more Shakespearian verbiage, they pray me change it. I am likewise entreated for help, as in “‍help me get my code to work‍” on a regular basis throughout the semester.

Each entreaty is different, but they can be categorized in a few kinds.

Fix it

Them: “‍My code doesn’t work.‍”

Me: “‍In what way doesn’t it work?‍”

Them: “‍It just doesn’t.‍”

Me: “‍What part of it is going wrong?‍”

Them: “‍I don’t know.‍”

Me: “‍Have you tried ______?‍”

Them: “‍No.‍” And then they hand me their computer.

Prayers of this kind are rooted in laziness, though not always of a thoroughly negative kind. Sometimes the students are simply weary, having hit their head against the same brick wall for so long that what they really need is a rest. My goal as a teacher is very difficult to obtain with these students: I can remove the obstacle or not, but they are unlikely to learn.

I’m confused

Them: “‍My code doesn’t work.‍”

Me: “‍In what way doesn’t it work?‍”

Them: “‍When I do X it does Y instead of Z.‍”

Me: “‍What happens when you do W?‍”

Them: “‍I don’t know, let me check. Why W, by the way?‍”

I like these questions. The students may be totally lost, but at least they are thinking. Even if they are so wrong that doing X doesn’t even make sense, they are still engaged and as we talk together they learn.

I suspect that many of these students are frustrated for a time when instead of my fixing the problem they know I find other problems for them to fix. But they generally buck up and move forward.

I’m confused by …

Them: “‍I realize from trying to do this assignment that I don’t understand X as well as I thought I did. Can you explain it again?‍”

This might be my favorite type of question of all. The student has not only thought about their problem but also analyzed themselves and made a guess at what they might be lacking. They aren’t always correct in what they misunderstand, but when students come in this way they generally grasp what I say, postulate what comes next, and generally do their best to take ownership of their own education. They often earn higher scores than the students who thought they understood it all.

Bless me

Them: “‍I have 89.8%; can’t you round up to 90% so I get an A?‍”

Me: “‍Was some part of your grade incorrect?‍”

Them: “‍It’s so close to an A.‍”

Me: “‍Was it unfair?‍”

Them: “‍It’s just 0.2%.‍”

See Fix it for my thoughts on this kind of prayer.

Grant me a …

Them: “‍I have X, Y, and Z going on; could I have an extension on this deadline?‍”

These prayers are nice (when they aren’t Bless me in disguise). They student wants to do the work, recognizes limitations, has come up with a way to remove those limitations without removing the work, and asks me to put that change into practice. They are a lot of work, and I sometimes turn them down because I only have so many hours in which to handle things out-of-flow, but when I can I grant them.

Oh, Help!

One of my colleagues once said “‍In a class of 100 students, somebody’s dog really did eat their homework.‍” With 500 students, I have a student have something truly heartbreaking happen every week 500 students × 7 days = 3500 days of student life ≈ 10 years. On average, someone has the worst day of their decade happen every single week. ; and, since I control a lot of their day-to-day duties, they often tell me about it.

One of the things that has not stopped surprising me is that, after a student tells me about the death of a close friend or a debilitating illness or other even worse events, they are often surprised that I am willing to grant them additional time and resources to help them cope. There is something about hardship that often makes the sufferer think that it is somehow their fault, or at least their duty to bear up and act as if it never happened. The prayers I want to grant the most are the only ones that students actually expect me to decline.

Sometimes after a day of talking with students I pause to reflect on the parallel with my prayers to God. When I supplicate divinity, how does he see my prayers? I was going to draw some of those parallels explicitly in this post, but I think it I might leave that for each reader to do without my aid.

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