The Under-Prepared Student


This case focuses on a professors responsibility to students who may come to class without the expected level of preparation.


Part 1

Part 2

Part 1

After the third week of fall classes, Jim Shipmann, a junior majoring in chemistry, goes to the office hours of the professor who is teaching his class, Quantitative Analysis 340.

"Hi, Dr. Franklin. I am having a lot of trouble trying to figure out Problem 3 in the homework for this week. I basically understand how to do the problem, but I can't get the answer in the back of the book, " Jim says. Franklin answers, "Let me see what you have, and we can work through an example together." After spending 45 minutes with Jim, it becomes clear to Franklin that Jim has some fundamental problems with algebra that are interfering with his mastering the chemistry involving complex equilibria.

After the meeting, Franklin checks Jim's records to see whether he has completed the required prerequisite calculus classes normally taken by chemistry majors in their first two years. To his surprise, Jim took the normal four-semester sequence and received above average grades.

The following week, Jim comes to Franklin's office hours with more questions. His difficulties hinge on basic algebra problems that are interfering with his fully understanding the relevant chemistry. After the second marathon meeting with Jim, Franklin realizes that although he probably will be able to pass the class despite his lack of math skills, Jim certainly will not come out of the course with the level of understanding that would be expected of a chemistry major. Furthermore, Franklin has not been able to help other students who have come by during the office hours, waited, and then left without asking their questions because he has spent so much time working with Jim.

Discussion Questions

1. What are Franklin's responsibilities to Jim and the other students in the course?

2. What are possible courses of action that Franklin could take to address Jim's situation?

3. Does it matter whether or not Jim is a chemistry major?

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Part 2

After considering Jim's situation for a couple of days, Franklin decides to talk with his colleague, Dr. Sarah Winters, about what he should do regarding Jim's lack of basic math skill. "I have a student in my class who is working hard," Franklin says, "but he has little understanding of basic algebra. He will probably pass the course, but he will not understand the chemistry we are learning, I am thinking about suggesting that he drop the class and take a remedial math course." After discussing the possibilities, Franklin and Winters agree that Jim must be told that he is lacking some fundamental math skills. They come up with three alternate plans to remedy the deficiency. Franklin then requests a meeting with Jim.

Franklin opens by saying, "Jim, the reason I asked you to come for this meeting is that we need to discuss a problem that I think you have with math. I think you have the potential to be a great chemist, but you seem to be having some trouble with basic algebra manipulations that is really interfering with your chemistry". Franklin goes on to tell Jim that there are at least three reasonable scenarios that could take care of the problem: 1) Jim could drop the quantitative analysis class and take another math course, and then re-enroll in 340 the following term. 2) Jim could get an algebra book and teach himself math. 3) Jim could hire a tutor to help him with algebra.

Franklin says, "It is your decision. I will help you however I can. My suggestion is that you go to the library and see what you can find that would serve as a crash course in algebra. This will be a lot of extra work for you, but it will really pay off for the second half of the semester. There are still two weeks left before the final course drop day. Think about it, and let's talk again next week."

Discussion Questions

4. Does Franklin have an obligation to tell Jim that he has a fundamental gap in his understanding of math?

5. Whose responsibility is it to teach Jim, a junior in college, basic algebra? Should Franklin offer to teach Jim basic algebra?

6. Is it appropriate for Franklin to talk to Winters about Jim's situation? Should Franklin tell Winters the name of the student they are discussing?

7. Should expectations for understanding differ for students who are chemistry majors rather than nonmajors (i.e., is simply passing the class sufficient)?


Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 6, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 2002.

. . The Under-Prepared Student. Online Ethics Center. DOI:.

In general, Dr. Franklin has the same responsibilities to all of his students, including making himself available to them during his office hours. Of course, if a large number of students show up at the same time, he will be unable to accommodate all of them unless he can meet with them in a large group, or a manageable set of smaller groups. If that has not been prearranged (as, say, a group study session), it is unlikely that it will work. So, it may happen on occasion that the attention Franklin needs to give some of his students will result in limiting others' access to him during a given office hour period. Apparently, that is what happened the first time he talked with Jim.

The first meeting with Jim alerted Franklin to serious shortcomings in Jim's understanding of algebra. However, rather than ask Jim what his math background was, thereby alerting Jim that he might not be sufficiently prepared for the course, Franklin "checks Jim's records" (presumably without Jim's knowledge). Especially since Jim's academic transcript is not a public document, it would have been preferable for Franklin to ask Jim directly about his math background. This strategy might have prepared Jim to begin asking himself whether he should continue in the course, a decision he faced later, but only days before the deadline for dropping classes.

Perhaps encouraged by the fact that he was willing to help him for 45 minutes the previous week, Jim returned to Franklin's office the next week with more questions. Given the conclusion he had already drawn about Jim's math skills, if there were others waiting to see Franklin, he might have arranged for another time to meet with Jim. Although one cannot always predict how long a session with a student will last, Franklin might have suspected that another long session with Jim was likely. However, by the end of this second session he should have realized that Jim was a special case that should no longer be allowed to dominate his regular office hours at the expense of his other students.

Certainly by the end of this second session, Franklin should be counseling Jim rather than simply trying to help him solve chemistry problems that require math skills that Jim lacks. Franklin could recommend that Jim seek some math tutoring. Although he should advise Jim about what sorts of math skills he will need, it is not Franklin's responsibility to provide that tutoring himself. (Should he decide to do so anyway, it should not be at the expense of his other students; he should arrange to meet with Jim outside his regular office hours.)

As stated at the outset, in general Franklin has the same responsibilities to all of his students. However, he may have special responsibilities regarding chemistry majors in his class. As a teacher of Quantitative Analysis, he may have a "gatekeeping" role regarding the major itself. No matter how much interest he might have in helping Jim make it through his course successfully, he may also have some responsibility in assessing Jim's ability to complete the major. But, whether or not he has this "gatekeeping"; function, Franklin is in a position to advise students about "what it takes" to be a good student in chemistry. Taking a few minutes to discuss his math deficiencies will alert Jim to the seriousness of this problem for both the Quantitative Analysis course and successfully completing the major.

Unsure about what to do, Franklin talks about Jim's case with his colleague, Dr. Winters. That is a reasonable thing to do. There is no need to mention Jim's name. In fact, Jim is probably not alone in having deficient math skills in the Quantitative Analysis class, even if he is the only one who has come to Franklin for help. Furthermore, it is likely that there will be such students in the future; it is good to develop strategies to help them when their needs become apparent. The alternate plans that Franklin and Winters come up with seem reasonable and responsible. However, it is not clear why Franklin tells Jim that he has the "potential to be a great chemist." Given the essential role of algebraic manipulation in understanding chemistry, this comment seems premature and possibly falsely reassuring.

Author: Michael S. Pritchard, Western Michigan University.

This case is not intended to focus on the policies and procedures of viewing student records. Different institutions undoubtedly have specific policies about obtaining this kind of information while maintaining student privacy. Faculty and students should be aware of those policies and follow them.

Rather, the case is intended to focus on professors' responsibilities for helping their students deal with deficiencies in understanding and knowledge. Each course has a specific body of information that is intended to be transmitted to the student. If a chemistry professor noticed that a student had a problem understanding physics, he would send that student to the physics department. If he discovered a deficiency in computer programming, no one would expect him to do anything more than send the student to the computer science department for further study.

Teaching responsibilities become less clear when a student in a chemistry course does not understand mathematical tools that are utilized in the course. It is easy to say that Dr. Franklin should teach Jim the necessary math to complete the course assignments, but that would be done at a cost to the other students in the class, the graduate students Franklin is advising, and the other departmental responsibilities he carries. The huge amounts of time he has already spent with Jim have prevented other students from having their questions answered. This type of situation also arises for graduate student instructors who have teaching responsibilities on top of their own course work and research responsibilities.

It is important for Jim to be made aware of his deficiencies. School is the time when Jim will have the most resources available to learn the material that he needs to master in order to earn a meaningful degree. Institutions have many sources of help in the form of resource centers, tutoring and help sessions, learning centers, etc. Professors and graduate students should be aware of these resources to enable students to receive the help they need. Rather than simply ignoring Jim's lack of understanding, Franklin identified a specific deficiency, helped generate reasonable solutions and ultimately left the student in a position to decide how to proceed to solve the problem.

It is also essential to help students who need special attention without compromising them within the department by gossiping about their problems and difficulties. Other faculty members in the department are likely to encounter students in other courses or asked to write recommendations for them. Discussions about students must be responsible and respectful.