by Rob Ferguson, Teaching Faculty Member and Co-Chair, Department of Recreation and Tourism Management, Faculty of Management, VIU

Being an educator within post secondary is often a position where interests and values seemingly conflict. For example early on in my teaching career I had evaluated a student’s work at below standard resulting in a fail grade for the course. In my opinion the learning outcomes were sound, the teaching strategies appropriate and the assessment methods rigorous, transparent and fair. I was confident that my previous instructors would beam with pride at the sound constructive alignment within my course design.

However, when the student broke down in tears regarding the consequences of the result in terms of damaged relationships with family, financial woes and a myriad of other disastrous outcomes, I was conflicted. After all nobody can assess student work with 100% accuracy…. can they? There must be some margin of error, some ethically sound wiggle room for me to adjust the catastrophic trajectory I had just set this student on with my harsh grading. What should I do?

I know for a certainty I am not the only one who has had to come to terms with how these sorts of situations should be resolved. Some direction may be found within institutional policy and/or department practice, however there is always scope for a differing interpretation of these at best, and outright subversion at worst.

One could also misappropriate the cause of academic freedom and do whatever ‘felt right’ at that particular moment as some sort of moral imperative and justification. However, I felt my decision here was personal and pivotal in shaping my professional identity as both a defender of high academic standards and a supporter of student success in the fullest sense.

None of us as educators are perfect, and regardless of how detailed the syllabus or specific the marking rubric is, the process is inherently subjective and thus will always fall short of total objectivity and complete accuracy. Therefore, I have found real value in clearly explaining the process of course design to students so they have a better understanding of each step and why certain elements are designed a particular way. This tends to humanize the learning experience for everyone and to create a space for dialogue around process and expectations before any nasty surprises materialize.

An important element in the wider discussion here is the notion that it is not in the best interest of the student to assess their academic performance based upon compassion and human interest alone. I have also learned it is unhealthy and unhelpful to shoulder an extra portion of guilt when, despite all efforts to put an integrated support system in place, a student is not successful in their studies.

A sense of professional responsibility is beneficial, but I would suggest guilt and shame are not. It has been important for me to develop a clear and confident sense of professional identity that is informed by my training, experiences and values. I have then found it useful to periodically ‘check’ my perceptions, motivation, and actions through a serious and deliberate approach to reflective practice. This has helped me to be successful so far in navigating the multiple, and at times conflicting, roles I am called on to perform daily.