Failing Student Work How To Do it Gently

Failing Student Work: How To Do it Gently

Sometimes student work simply won’t earn a passing grade.

There are many reasons for this outcome.
Perhaps the student has:

  • Not answered the assignment question
  • Presented an unconvincing argument
  • Plagiarised published work or another student’s assignment
  • Gone way over (or under) the word count, or
  • Not included sources to back key points.

As online educators, we see many problems with student assignments.
And if assessable student work is not up to standard, unfortunately it will fail…

That’s a given, and part of upholding academic standards and the integrity of the qualification.

But in an online learning environment, student failure must be handled delicately.
The self-directed and often isolated nature of the study experience means that online students can react very badly to failure.

It can lead to demotivation, leaving negative feedback about the course (and you) and wider disengagement.
In extreme cases, a failed student assignment can lead directly to the student giving up, and dropping out of the course altogether.


failing student work - dropping out (1)


How can we reduce the chances of that happening?

We can break the news of failure gently, and handle the process sensitively.
This approach empowers rather than debilitates the student, and helps them to learn from the experience – and ultimately stay in the course to achieve their learning goals.

So how do we do that?

Here are 7 techniques that can help soften the news that a piece of student work has failed.

How to Fail Student Work Without Offending the Learner

1.  Use the classic ‘feedback sandwich’ approach

The feedback sandwich is a classic because it’s simple and effective.
It involves starting with a positive comment, then describing the issues with the student work, and ending again on a positive note.

By ‘bookending’ the problems in the student work with praise and positivity, you not only make the critical part of the feedback less overwhelming.

You also make the criticism easier to hear – because the news is not all bad.
There are some good parts of the student work too, and you’ve highlighted them clearly.


failing student work - feedback sandwich

2.  Be clear and detailed about the issues and what needs to change

When student work fails, it’s common for learners to express resentment.
They can be angry and disappointed.
They can feel as if they’re being attacked, and so they might respond with defensive and even rude comments.

You can reduce the likelihood of this happening by being very clear about what the issues are with the student work.
If you’ve provided specific and detailed explanations of the problems, it will be easier for the student to follow your reasoning.

Ideally, after they’ve cooled down, they will accept that your comments are valid (and address them if a resubmission is possible).

But this calm and productive state can’t be achieved with feedback that’s vague.
If the student needs more clarification, you risk getting into a heated exchange that has no productive outcome.

So make your feedback crystal clear and highly specific.

3.  Use the assignment instructions to structure the feedback

An effective way to present targeted and clear feedback is to paste in the assignment instructions as part of your summary.

It can work well to paste in the assignment instructions in a font color that contrasts with your feedback.
Then you can use the instructions as a template for what needed to be done – and include tailored comments on each part of the instructions to make it clear which parts of the student work don’t address those stated requirements.

4.  Critique the assignment, not the person

This is a central principle of giving useful feedback.

By directing your comments to the student work – and NOT the student – you reduce the chance of the learner taking your remarks personally.

So make it clear that your comments relate to the work itself.

For example, say this: “Your discussion needed to cover this…”
Rather than this: “YOU should have covered this…”

If the criticism is not personal, it’s much easier to hear.


failing student work - focus on the work not the student

5.  Use simple, objective language that is factual rather than judgemental

When student work is going to fail, chances are that as the marker you’re feeling frustrated and impatient.
That can lead to using language that reflects your irritation.

But it only takes a small tweak to change the tone from annoyed to constructive.

For example:

Say this: It’s essential to follow the assignment instructions closely.
Rather than this: Your discussion goes way off track and hardly ever addresses the question.

Say this: Adhering to the word limits is part of the requirements of the assignment.
Rather than this: You are way over the word limit, and this is undisciplined and unfocused.

The differences in these examples are clear.
Making comments in an irritated tone will offend the student.

But keeping your language objective and factually focused is more likely to help the student to calmly take your comments on board.

6.  Explain resubmission options and your organisation’s re-marking policy

It’s important to make it clear that the student is not being punished, or singled out for negative attention.
Their work is being graded according to a standardised process.

So explain the process itself: is there an option for a resubmission?
If so, how does it work and when should the work be resubmitted?

Does the student want to appeal to the Programme Manager about their assignment?
Then put them in touch with the relevant person (and brief the Programme Manager about the background first so they are prepared when the student makes contact).

By outlining the students’ rights and options when their work fails, you show respect for the student, and underline the transparency of the process itself.


failing student work - resubmission options


7.  Give some perspective on the wider picture

Many students are not sure how a failing grade in one paper will affect their overall result in the course.

They may be unsure about the weighting of the failing assignment.
They may not know what the minimum grade they need to achieve overall is.

So take a moment to give them some perspective on how this piece of student work fits into the bigger picture of their overall result.

Do they still have 3 more assignments to complete in the course, for example?
Is there a chunk of potential marks available though completing forum discussions?

If they still have a chance to pass the paper, explain how this could pan out.

That makes it easier to see that one failing grade has probably not ruined their chances of successfully completing the course.

Failing Student Work Can Lead to Positive Outcomes

When student work fails, the learner is understandably disappointed, and often upset.
But if you handle the process sensitively using the above techniques, you can help students move past that initial negative reaction.

If they understand that the grading process has been objective and fair, and they know what to do to fix their work for next time, the long term outcome is more likely be positive.

You’ve provided the caring and professional guidance that’s required.
And the students have learned what they need to do in future to achieve the results they want.

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