Who's To Blame When a Student Fails a Test?

I teach at a preschool and I find every way I can to work with my kids to make sure they take something away from each activity. Why should college be any different?
10/21/2015 11:13 am ET Updated Oct 21, 2016

It all started when I wanted to take an online statistics class. I signed up for it through my local community college because I had had good experiences previously. I had never encountered a professor who was not forthcoming. Until I took statistics with Professor C.

It started out fine. I understood the material (mostly because I had a great tutor) and I did well on my chapter quizzes, so any worries I'd had about not passing quickly dissipated. I spent pretty much every minute I wasn't working studying, reading over chapters, and writing as small as I could on the two 3x5 notecards we were allowed to use on our midterm. If the test was based off quizzes and homework problems, there wouldn't be any cause for concern.

To my dismay, those notecards didn't help; I was shocked to see that only one of the questions looked similar to what we had been given as a homework assignment. I sat there, blank-faced, looking through the pages trying to solve the others. Three hours and eight chapters of testing material later, I left feeling less confident, but still sure I wouldn't fail.

Which is why I was surprised when, the following week, midterm grades were posted. I had gotten a 48%. If I added in the 6% of extra credit, that only brought me up to 54%, which obviously wasn't much better. It brought my grade up from a low F... to a less lower F? To say I was surprised and disappointed is an understatement. I immediately emailed Professor C to schedule a meeting. Like any student who has just been told they failed their midterm, I was secretly hoping she might take pity on me and see that I was making an effort to meet with her (driving an hour from where I lived). The meeting would've gone well if I hadn't been hoping for some kind of resolution.

When I asked if I could keep my test to study from, Professor C said no, which surprised me. What legitimate reason could she possibly have for withholding a valuable piece of study material? It turned out she used the same exact test every single term for that class and was afraid a future student would get ahold of it. It also, she said, helped her to track progress in each new term's students. (How did this help us students though?) I said I was confused why she wouldn't just make a new test, which would allow us to take ours home. Defensively, she said she had "already gone over this" with me and that if I really wanted to come see it again, I could "bring a lawyer." There was no friendly undertone to this statement either, causing me stop and stare at her in utter shock. I couldn't believe she was serious. Frustrated and feeling the heat of anger flush my cheeks, I hurriedly copied down as many questions as I could for my "notes" and then left. That was another thing, though: if I was allowed to copy down questions, why wouldn't she just give everyone their test back and save us the time, hassle, and hand-cramp of writing them all down in her office under her watchful eye?

When I told my parents what had happened, their mouths fell open. Like me, they couldn't understand why making a new test was such an impossible task. They suggested I schedule a meeting with the math dean. A few days later seated across from the dean after explaining what happened, I noted her looks of surprise too. She wrote down what I had to say in a formal complaint and said she would be speaking with Professor C. When she finally got back to me a few days later, she said she had questioned Professor C about using the same tests repeatedly, but Professor C had only said she would "consider" writing new tests. I was surprised at not only this response, but the fact that the dean wouldn't demand a new test be made each term. In response to why the midterm questions hadn't looked familiar, she told me it was "standard" for professors to take exam questions from curriculum already posted online from other universities. This caused me to stop and question exactly who had been teaching me. I had hoped that after meeting with the dean, I would be given a chance for a retest on material I was taught in Professor C's style, not other universities. At the very least, I expected the dean to require Professor C create new tests each term. Neither happened.

It alarms me that professors are not required to write new exams each term, or at least change half of the questions to fit what the professor is teaching and his/her teaching style. It may very well be helpful to track each term's students through the same test, but who is that really helping if the questions are not new and stemming off the professor's own teaching style? The first sign of something needing to change should've been the fact that the class average on the midterm was 58%. Furthermore, upon learning that was the class average, why would a professor not take the steps necessary in order to see that improvements were made on future quizzes and the final exam? If you see one term's students doing poorly on a test, why would you not alter it for future students? That should've been the only thing a professor is worried about. If tracking tests term to term was helping her in any way, Professor C should've done something with the information gathered. Recognizing poor and/or decent grades does nothing if you aren't also doing something to change or encourage better education for your students.

In May, University of Houston Philosophy professor Keith Parsons said he would be addressing his freshmen students with, "It is no part of my job to make you learn. At university, learning is your job -- and yours alone." He wasn't just speaking to the number of students using his class as social hour to send text messages. This statement was addressed equally to all students, studious or no. I find everything about that statement contradictory to what a teacher is supposed to do: teach. I teach at a preschool and I find every way I can to work with my kids to make sure they take something away from each activity. Why should college be any different? It is a great disrespect to those of us pinching pennies trying to further ourselves if the professor is too lazy or oblivious to their part in helping us. In fact, it's flat out unfair. No, you cannot force a student to learn, but the relationship between a professor and their student is two-part. It is up to the professor to find a way to communicate the material and it is also up to them to alter any teaching materials if it is necessary.

I've already done my part to initiate a change from within my community college's math department. As for any future endeavors, no matter the subject, it's safe to say I will be asking two new questions of the professor in the first week of class: 1) do you write the tests yourself and 2) are they new each term? It's just too bad they have to even be taken into consideration.