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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

December 17, 2009

Failing- and failing to fail

One of the more persistent and widespread beliefs about Japanese universities is that all students pass their classes as a matter of course. Students who sleep or don't hand in any work are still given the green light to pass through the system. Apparently, administrative pressure and/or teacher apathy are the root causes. Hmmm.

I say this with some hesitancy because I haven't meant any teachers who actually admit to being in this situation so, while I'm certainly not saying that it doesn't happen, the extent of the behavior might well be overstated- something of an educational urban legend. In this way, it's similar to the widespread NJ notion that Japanese English teachers primarily teach grammar-translation lessons (which I've blogged about previously and with the same caveat that I've not actually met any Japanese teachers who admit to doing so). In short, it seems to be only second-hand 'common knowledge'. Most university teachers I've met have shown an almost defiant willingness to fail the laggards.

Now please realize I'm not talking about high schools here. I have heard regularly from very trustworthy sources that auto-passing is indeed a common practice in high schools. To some extent, this is understandable. If high schools fail students it looks as if they have failed to motivate or educate them properly (putting emphasis here on the phrase 'looks as if'). After all, student stewardship is a big part of a high-school teacher's role. This will therefore look bad on their records and any stats or data used to woo the public for recruiting purposes- which is, of course, a special concern for private high schools in particular. So, in order not to give off the appearance of creating 'failures' high school grades or standards might well be gerrymandered.

But universities? First, universities have almost nothing to gain from automatically passing students. After all, public perceptions of quality is based primarily upon entry standards. The fact that a student may take six years to do four years' work is unlikely to enter any meaningful record that would influence public perception of the institution (and it might even enhance the university's reputation for being tough).

Not only that, but by having students do an extra year or two means more revenue- not a small concern these days. And then there are the professors themselves- they will not in any way cause damage to their standing or reputations by failing students. There is also no 'teacher's room' or all-uni meetings where pressure to pass students (for what purpose I do not know) would be applied. And office administrators do not and cannot lord it over professors on such matters.

Most university professors I've met in Japan (both J and NJ) are in fact quite at home with the idea of failing students who do not meet expectations. It's no skin off their noses (although the big disadvantage may be that the laggards might be back in your class next year). At the university level, it is understood that professors are no longer responsible for motivating these young adults (it's university after all) and therefore generally do not feel that they have been derelict in their duties should a student get a failing grade.

Personally, I have never felt any pressure whatsoever here at Miyazaki University to automatically pass students. In fact, when some dicey pass/fail situations have come into play in the past administrators have been more than supportive of the failing option. I teach part-time at a nearby liberal arts university as well and they too have a similar policy (with the exception of soon-to-graduate students who have already secured jobs).

In the MU faculty of medicine (my home base) we have a year-fail ratio of about 15-20%. By 'year-fail' I mean that students fail three courses within a certain year and thereby have to repeat that year (although they will be obliged only to take the classes they fail and electives). Moreover, in their first two years, if a students fails ANY required course (and Communication English is numbered among these) they will be duly dropped a year (this can be traumatic for many students as they tend to build quite strong bonds with year-mates). Over six years in this medical school about 90% of students will fail some individual class at some time. I fail a few each year myself. I allow that this should be the norm when you are educating future doctors. medicine, of all faculties, should not be a walk-through.

So how do students fail? Well, attendance policies for one thing. More than three non-medical absences means an automatic zero. A total score of under 60% is the other criterion. No one in the administration will question how or why a student got under 60% (the professor's word is all that matters- it is unthinkable that any administrators, aside from the head professor's committee- the Kyouju kai, would interfere in this process).

There is a small catch though- and a good one I think. When preliminary grades are entered into the system, those with a grade of 30-59% must be offered a chance at some type of re-test (in the case of incorrigibly bad students a 29% score will conveniently offer no further re-testing opportunities). On the whole though, re-tests are a good thing. After all, the idea of education is to help the student learn the skill, complete the tasks, master the knowledge and if that means they get their asses in gear a little late- well, at least they will have fulfilled the basic requirements. (Of course if the re-test consists of little more than the pithy 'writing a report' the re-testing system is meanngless)

And here's where testing, content, and methodology come into play. If a student sleeps through all the classes, contributes nothing, and studies nothing, there should be no way that they can achieve the necessary 60%, even with a re-test. This is not so much a moral policy as a logical one. What I mean is that the course should NOT measured only by a singular final test based on discrete knowledge (akin to, in many ways, some entrance exams). Since education (especially that at the tertiary level) should be a process- a process that involves carrying out tasks and the development of specialized skills, students should be graded on the completion of these tasks and skill areas; things that are learned and practiced only in that class and cannot possibly be attained by a last-minute cramming of the textbook.

In other words, a returnee student who does nothing but easily fill in a discrete point English test form at the end of the semtster would end up get a passing 60% for doing nothing. This would indicate that there is something wrong with the class content, methodology and grading policy (pretty much the three strikes as to what constitutes a good class). In my 1st year English Communication classes I can categorically state that it would be impossible for such a student to get 60% because the medical discourse and related skills I teach- and they subsequently practice in process-based tasks- are NOT something they will have encountered in high school or by living/studying abroad.

As for sleeping students, that is a matter of the individual professor's responsibility and/or policy. I keep mine awake because the classes are task-based, not receptive 'lectures'. Pair and groupwork forces them into action. If they did sleep for any length of time, they simply would not know what to do and this would lead to- at the very least- two or three nasty re-tests. The students learn this very quickly (sometimes the hard way) and therefore avoid both lazy absences and sleeping.

Teachers who measure the course with a single year (or semester) ending test will likely not have this luxury. Students will know (from their seniors) that all they have to do is get the basic attendance, study the textbook just before the big exam, and focus on a few points that will be tested (all university students can get hold of old exams). Basically this serves a recipe not only for sloppy students attitudes but is pretty much a blueprint for meaningless education. If teachers prepare tests/grades this way they are basically shooting themselves in the foot. (Again, I don't know of anyone who actually admits to doing this)

But, if passing is incumbent upon actively participating in class-related tasks, learning something new and unique to the particular class, or manifesting a new skill (or best, all three of the above) then students will involve themselves accordingly. Not only that, but professors will feel that this makes their classes meaningful, that they are involved in the process of education, and not merely 'completing a course'.

In which case passing actually means something; and failing is a real option.

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Hi Mike

Agree completely on the failing issue -I've worked at five universities and not one has raised an eyebrow over students being failed. I always make sure I have clear records of why though, as the students often question my reasoning and it helps to be able to show them an excel file of exactly which classes they missed/tests they failed during the year.

I have never had a student continue their protest after seeing my excel sheets ;)

Clearly explaining things at the beginning of term, carrying out regular assessment, and sticking to the conditions laid out results in satisfying and stress-free marking.

All the best


My sentiments exactly Ben. If you can clearly show the students how you came about failing them then there is not much they can do. I have my students make name cards at the beginning of the year (I think this is pretty common practice in university English classes), and inside the name card I have a table which shows the students their week-by-week progress. This way students are always clear on where they stand, thus leaving little room for argument come marking time.

I do have to say that if a student is borderline failing I generally will give them the nod and pass them, especially if they've displayed a fair amount of effort in the semester. These subjective decisions are sometimes more difficult to justify but I feel confident in my ability to fairly judge who deserves to fail and who doesn't.


I have been told to pass more students in the sophomore class, in order to be nice to the teachers for next year. Currently half of them are failing. Absences and people not handing in homework are a problem.

Basically I think the course is too hard for some of the students. The curriculum should be revised. My school has lowered its standards in who is admitted.

i found this to be a good read and appreciate your insight, though i was disappointed that you drew conclusions based on your own logic, rather than by trying to discover what japanese logic is in this case. in my school everyone i've discussed the issue with finds the arithmetic used to generate a final grade from 1 to 5 but which renders a score less than 3 statistically impossible most logical.

i have a second-hand tale to report. a friend of mine also teaches at university and is never pressured not to fail his students, yet he finds that the few who do fail his course always seem to graduate anyway. perhaps the rule is not that you can't fail in a japanese university, but that you can't fail to graduate? my guess it that is likely a case of this dodgy arithmetic, perhaps making the final test score a small percentage of the final grade, or by giving additional points just for taking a re-test. i can easily picture a japanese university official saying "yes i know he failed the test and almost every aspect of your course, but then he took a re-test which he studied hard for and so he's now qualified."

Hi Ben.

I'm not so sure that what you've described equals 'Japanese logic' on the matter of grading, or even if there even is a definable 'Japanese' approach-- I work with 95% Japanese teachers and their approaches to grading appear pretty idiosyncratic.

But some Japanese teachers I know do take an approch similar to mine. That is, thy take the course passing number (usually 60%) as meaning "did the minimum to gain a course credit", and not referring to any actual test score or scores accrued in the class. In other words, the final course grade is a teacher's subjective description of the student's accomplishments as a whole, and not a mathematical compilation of discrete test scores.

This is a very insightful piece with relevant information. I would add however that there are students who take English with strong background and might feel under-challenged; they are literally bored. They might also be lacking motivation for working in a group setting. However, they ace their exams. This type of students require a keen eye from the teacher to not confuse them with the lazy or simply uninterested ones. A passing grade for those few is well deserved even if they don't meet all the criteria listed in your piece.

While I think it's true that the problem is overstated, I have second-hand knowledge (ie I know people to whom it has happened) where failing students caused problems. In one case I recall, it was individual students who seemed to have got the administration on their side to give them a highly dubious second chance (a single designed to be passable test to compensate for doing nothing the whole course), in another case it was too high a failure rate for a course. But I think these direct confrontations are not the whole story.

I wonder, given the myth of the difficulty of failing, how many teachers, particularly part-time ones, make it a self-fulfilling prophesy: only failing if they have got cast iron and simple evidence of non-compliance with course requirements (which effectively means insufficient attendance). In my experience, gleaned from teacher lounge chat, this is a particular problem where part-time teachers are left to their own devices without a co-ordinated programme.

Failing a student can be a cost to the part-time teacher. The procedure for challenging a fail can be time-consuming. Sad to say, but it takes a conscientious part-time teacher, whose work may be spread across four or five institutions, to decide that a couple of wrong-side-of-the-borderline students out of the three hundred or more she or he taught that semester is worth the bother, especially when they are probably the kind of student that the teacher would be glad not to see again, and they've got their eye on the break from teaching that their lesson intensity and job insecurity has earned them. This is all the more true if the university has not provided them with clear support and guidance.

While there is the logic that universities lose nothing (and may gain) financially by failing students, there is also the issue that universities are competing for a substantially smaller number of students than before. In this change in the demand/supply balance, I worry that some universities may feel pressured to provide what parents may believe they are paying for - graduation in four years with no hitches. So subtle encouragements and hints not to fail anyone unless they're taking the p*** may have their foundation in financial logic, although it'll not be phrased like that. My general feeling is that universities are following one of two strategies during the current demographic squeeze - trying to process the maximum number of students, versus trying to maintain the quality. In the former case if my supposition is correct, there is more change of pressure not to fail.

One nitpick: coming from a British university background (both as a student and lecturer), I'd like to challenge the desirability of the situation where "the professor's word is all that matters". I'd move the apostrophe so that it read professors'. As well as having clear course goals, double grading, even on a sample basis, strengthens the quality of the grading system. Fear of failing is overcome where we all fail together. Transitively, that is.

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