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Is my approach to discouraging whiners from taking my class acceptable?

Course Queries Syllabus Queries
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Sam Curran

User

( 6 months ago )


I am writing a syllabus for a Calculus for Business class. When I taught the last year, I had some very weak but vocal students whine that the tests were tough (despite other students doing fine), the practice exam was not similar to the actual exam (actually it was, but weak students don't know the material well enough to realize that, and are looking for basically identical exams) and more.

Once one student started whining, more and more students started complaining about things being too difficult. I am very nice, gentle, agreeable person and I was easily bullied. The whining became more vocal throughout. At the end of the semester during an exam I was giving, the whiny student said out loud "no one can do this exam" and disrupted everyone taking the exam.

I have been teaching college for six years and that had never happened. This time I want to tell them in my syllabus that if they find it too difficult, get out of my class.

Here's an excerpt from the draft of my planned syllabus:

Course objectives, goals, policies, etc:

  1. The main goal is to help you learn how to teach yourself math. I will not be able to teach you all the math you need to know, either for this course or for the rest of your life. You will have to teach yourself some of the material by reading the textbook. If you can't learn by reading a textbook, please withdraw.

  2. Whining will not be tolerated. If my course is too demanding, please withdraw.

  3. The goal is for you to do mathematics, not just to "know it". The more math problems you do by yourself, the better. Math eventually becomes fun when you do things yourself.

  4. The purpose of lectures is to help you keep pace with the material, and show some of what you need to learn. (And to address math questions you had). The purpose of lectures is not mainly to teach you the material, although there will of course be some of that.

  5. Students who I suspect have cheated, whine about how difficult the course is, or are disruptive during class may get slightly more difficult exams than other students. If you have a problem with this policy, please withdraw from this class.

My question is, "is this okay?" Point 5 especially - of giving different exams to different students. I do this to deter cheating, but the exams are not substantively different - the same problems, just different numbers. But I'm saying in item 5 that I reserve the right to give significantly different exams to students.

UPDATE 1: dear everyone, thank you for the tremendous feedback. Basically, all responses were critical of my approach, and I accept/agree with them. To summarize, first off, and most obviously #5 will be deleted. secondly, items #1, 2, 3, 4 will also be deleted. Specifically, I wont use the words whining and I won't suggest withdraw either on the syllabus or on the first day of class. Instead, verbally in class I'll try to saying things like math is not a spectator sport, I believe in active learning, and to help you, I will follow the textbook closely. I also won't say I expect them to teach themselves. (A few topics I will leave for them to read out of the textbook, but that is reasonable and there is no point in bringing that to their attention on the first day). In addition, I'll also have to figure out how to be more assertive and maintain high standards etc. without coming off as combative, arrogant, etc. Thanks again for all the input, it is very much appreciated.

UPDATE 2: Patricia Shanahan’s answer (even though I didn’t select it as the accepted answer) really solved the underlying problem I was having with the course, and it was my fault/problem: My expectations were too high for the type of students I have (someone I think I gave a B to last semester studied hard and could do a bunch of the calculus but couldn’t do 1/2 - 1 without a calculator), and that was getting everyone involved frustrated, students and myself. I went into the first day of class (just two days ago) having Patricia’s answer in mind, and I think the session went well and I am optimistic the semester will go well. I also had my typical friendly tone and was all smiles. I believe I came across as welcoming (students felt comfortable asking me math questions) but also firm (I spoke loudly and authoratatively). Students were well behaved and stayed on task. (And to reiterate update 1, I did not include any of the items 1-5 on the syllabus nor did I say them in class). I came out of the class feeling happy and optimistic about how it will go. We’ll see.

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Nicola Aley

User

( 6 months ago )

Frankly, the whole thing seems like a terrible idea - a guaranteed way to sabotage your rapport with your students and ensure complaints on your evaluations. If you're trying to get tenure, this seems like a good way to make sure you don't get it.

I suspect that the "if you don't like it, withdraw" clauses won't have the desired effect of weeding out all the problem students. Rather, they'll weed out everyone except those who have no choice but to take the class (required for their major, can't wait another semester, other sections don't fit their schedule). Neither you nor the remaining desperate students are going to be happy to be stuck with each other.

But I'll comment on #5 specifically. I believe this is unethical, and probably contravenes your university's disciplinary rules. While obviously there is wide variation in how cheating cases are handled, I would say that a common principle is that the student has "due process" rights. You can't unilaterally impose a punishment (and I would say that a more difficult exam is certainly a punishment) based solely on your suspicions. The student has a right to see the evidence against them, defend themselves, and appeal to a higher authority.

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