Monday, November 20, 2006

Dishonest, but Fair

Today I ran into a personal/professional/moral dilemma...I was approached by a student wanting to know what his attendance record is. In this particular class, the syllabus says that if you miss more than 2 days, then you will be penalized 1% on your final grade for every day that you miss. This student had 3 absences...we're not sure if that's going to get him 1% or 3% off the final grade (syllabus wording is ambiguous).

Attendance is taken by a "sign-in sheet" that gets passed around student to student on randomly selected days. I found the sign in sheet for one of the days that he had missed, and there was a blank spot where students had just skipped writing their was definately big enough to fit his name in there without looking suspicious. Then, there's the electronic record to worry about...I had already sent an electronic copy containing this absence to the other TA.

Now, I think I need to say that this student missed these classes because he does not think that the teacher does a particularly good job of explaining things in class. (I happen to agree, but that's beside the point). He told me that he spent the days he missed in his room reading the book, making flashcards, studying, etc. I believe him because he has scored the second highest grade on both of the tests in the class to date. He started going to every class after he realized how the attendance policy would affect his grade (should have read the syllabus in the fist place, I know). Now, he tells me about the way that the second test was curved (class average about 64). The curving system seems to favor those with lower grades without also boosting those students who scored in the top echelon.

At this point, I feel like helping the guy out. In fact, if it hadn't been for the electronic copy of the attendance sheet that I sent to the other TA, I very well may have fudged the records in this kid's favor. But I had to go ask the other TA what he thinks. He said that he thinks it's dishonest. He's right. BUT I feel that the change may have been justified in the name of fairness. I know that this student is one of the ones who puts in the most effort (it shows in his class participation, conduct, and most of all--test grades). Furthermore, there are days that don't have an attendance list/sign-in-sheet passed around. So, it is possible for students to have missed many days and not get penalized for those days. Kind of sucks if the only days that you did miss were on sign-in days. Then again, this student told me that he had missed 5 class periods.

Turns out that our solution is that he studies hard for the final and gets a great grade on it. He might come in for tutoring in the computer lab just to make sure that he's on pace to get that good final grade. He's also asking for clarification on whether it will be 1% or 3% off the final grade.

I think that it is possible to be dishonest, but fair. Unfair but dishonest. Which is valued more? "Life's not fair" seems to express a common sentiment on the subject, but I don't think that came about by comparing fairness with the honest aspects of life. I think that it is possible to make decisions for situations like these on an individual basis.

As it turns out, I was unsure about the Pareto-impact this decision would have on the class as a whole. If records were not fudged, then that is a Pareto-efficient outcome, as nobody is worse off than they were before. If records were fudged, then it is Pareto-efficient only if it would affect this student's grade in a way that didn't impact the curve, because if the curve got shifted up because of him, then other students would get lower grades and that would not be Pareto-efficient. That would all depend on how the curve works, and it's safe to say that nobody knows how the final curve will be derived.

Let me know what you think.
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