Grading in computer science class causes student-faculty dispute

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Although many students face low marks in difficult courses during their academic career, students in Computer Science 360: Machines and Algorithms feel that this required course is affecting their grade averages, and even their ability to graduate, to an excessive degree.

Students in CMPT 360 report that almost half the class has dropped the course and that the remaining students are struggling to maintain a passing grade. Students have raised concerns regarding the professor’s marking style, expectations and willingness to communicate with students. The faculty, students and Computer Science Students’ Society are discussing ways to resolve the situation together.

As the course is a requirement for computer science degrees, many students are worried about their graduation status. Kevin Stanley, department head of computer science, explains that he is not worried about a higher-than-usual failing rate in the class.

“I’m actually not that worried [for upcoming graduates]. We pulled a bunch of historical records, and it doesn’t look like things are any more dire right now than they have been in the past. It may feel that way to students, but I am not concerned,” Stanley said.

Stanley explains that final marks are first sent to the faculty in the department for approval, which allows the department to look back at historical averages for any discrepancies.

“I think a lot of students don’t realize … that grades are approved by either the undergraduate chair or the department head once the professor submits grades. [The grade] doesn’t immediately appear on your transcript,” Stanley said.

Christopher Dutchyn, associate professor in computer science, is instructing CMPT 360 this year. Students in the class say that, during class discussion, Dutchyn was unwilling to consider their suggestions. Students also report spending over 20 hours per assignment and receiving low marks, which they believe did not reflect their effort or knowledge on the subject.

When contacted for an interview, Dutchyn would provide no comment on the situation in the class and forwarded all inquires to Stanley.

Dominic Lawson*, a final-year computer science and math student, believes it is beneficial that Dutchyn pushes students to stay updated on current trends in the computer science field.

“As small rewards in the class, in terms of marks, [Dutchyn] has given extra incentive to do things like learn … new programming languages that are gaining traction … in the work environment,” Lawson said. “So, that’s something where — for the students who want to excel and learn extra things on their own — they would go do this, which I really like.”

Aazim Karim*, a fourth-year computer science student, notes that while Dutchyn does not aim to fail students, his high expectations are unwavering, even when most of the class receives poor marks. In one attempt to address the issues, an online discussion forum was created between the professor and the students, as Karim explains.

“He doesn’t want to see you fail, but he has very high expectations and doesn’t want to drop them,” Karim said. “He doesn’t accept that there is a communication problem or some [other] kind of problem between us. He just assumes that the [students] don’t understand what is going on. It’s pretty clear if you read our class forum that he just thinks that the students are at fault.”

Lyndon Zhuang*, a third-year bioinformatics student who dropped the course, believes that Dutchyn’s expectations are unreasonably high and that the feedback from the professor about assignments was unhelpful.

“He’s really smart, but his expectations are just unreasonable, and I think it’s because he’s not able to put himself in our position and [try] to relate to us at that level,” Zhuang said. “He would make it sound so simple, and he would tell us that it’s easy, but that wasn’t the case, clearly, because everyone was complaining.”

Stanley encourages students who are struggling with a class to speak up and ask for help, starting with having a discussion with the professor in person.

“First, … talk to the professor themselves… If that is less satisfactory, then you can certainly talk to your student representatives [in the] CSSS — they’re great,” Stanley said. “If not those, I will always listen. I may not give you an answer that you like, but myself or the undergraduate chair … are always willing to listen to student concerns.”

Peggy Anderson, a fourth-year computer science student and president of the CSSS, explains that the CSSS is able to speak to professors or the department head on behalf of students if they feel they are being unfairly graded or are having issues with a professor, but students need to speak up first.

“No one can even try to fix anything if they don’t know a problem exists,” Anderson said, in an email to the Sheaf.

Stanley explains that he is actively working with both Dutchyn and the students to resolve the issue in CMPT 360.

“I had a conversation with the faculty member, and we went over the workload expectations and grading schema — and [the] regular things [that] you would review if you wanted to look at how a course is going — and I think, more or less, it addressed some of the concerns.”

*To respect the privacy of the individuals interviewed, their names have been changed.

Teevin Fournier

Graphic: Lesia Karalash / Graphics Editor