Students in the Spin Cycle

A Collection of Student Spin:
Excuses, Justifications, Accusations & Attributions
Employed in the Service of Getting the Grade


This is a collection of some of the best student accounts, excuses, justifications, accusations, and attributions that I've collected over the years; I call it "classroom spin." Some people collect stamps, some people collect butterflies--I collect communication accounts. "Spin" is a topic of study for certain communications classes, so these examples can help students understand what makes spin work. If you examine these, you will notice that they are not so different from the "spin" practiced daily in politics, in the courtroom, and in the corporate world. Some examples are innocent, funny, or silly; some are legitimate accounts to be taken seriously; some of them are deviously clever; many are remarkably effective.

I introduce each with an example, and then attempt to explain "what makes the spin go round" in psychological terms. I may use what seem to be unique terms for some of these tactics; terms are named to remain consistent with my Propaganda Playbook. I have asked some of my colleagues to submit examples of student accounts, and it's striking how similar the tactics are, regardless of location. One gets the sense that there are perhaps a finite number of tactics, but that they may be combined in clever ways to create endless variety.

Student: "Do we have to have class today? All my other classes are taking the day off."
Prof: "How many other classes do you have today?"
Student: "One."

Omission of Data--because "all my other classes" sounds like a lot of them, and Outlier is a Trend--because a single instance is taken to be a general pattern.

Student's email: "The alphabet project in kindergarten.  The newspaper project in 8th grade. The mollusk portfolio in 10th grade.  And just last year, the intimacy presentation in COM X05. These are just a few of the countless group projects that I've worked on in my 16 long years of education.  In each, I did ALL the research, the grunt work, the design, the planning, the artwork, the interviews and the talking. I've always dominated every single group project I've been involved with; I was always the leader, the one who would pick up the slack when others abandoned it.  I didn't mind, though-after all, I was a type A personality driven to earn 100% on each project. Usually, I did. Some may say that in this, the final group project of my education, I wasn't so "involved."  In fact, I was downright invisible in March.  This was partially because I had (and still do have) a triple entente of bronchitis, pleurisy and then walking pneumonia.  But that's only part of it.  After slaving at the foot of group projects for 16 years and always being the leader, I decided to kick back in COM X17 and let the "slackers" sink or swim.  I was sick of doing all the work, fed up with scheduling all the meetings, tired of carrying others' weight and letting them get A's they neither deserved nor earned.  And you know what?  It was wholly worth it.  I helped out, sure, but it was time for somebody else to learn how to lead. Through the whole semester, group members who had been in previous classes with me felt angry-even offended-that I didn't step up and offer to do everything like I'd done for them before.  Too bad, I thought: time for you guys to carry the ball.  I'm sure their evaluations of me will reflect that. But I don't care…because not only did they learn about Internet advertising, they learn how to think independently."  (Submitted by Professor Kasch of Bradley University, Illinois).

Tactics: This appears to be an argument to momentum; or perhaps an argument to karma: that past effort in other classes should apply to the current class. The student is proposing that the target of the grade be shifted from the project to the student herself (a reframe). She's proposing that the professor grade her, based on her general goodness as a person (using herself as her character reference), rather than grade her actual work. Besides, she deserves a break because she carried everyone else in all those past projects (according to her, at least--wonder what her peers would have to say about that). There's the garden-variety appeal to an extended illness. But much more inventive is the clumsy application of the list technique: since more evidence is better, she lists ALL her group projects back to kindergarten! (Wait a second, she says these are just a few of her "countless" group projects-- perhaps there are some pre-kindergarten projects she omitted.) By starting with such a humorously weak argument, it's hard to take any of her subsequent email seriousy. I think she knows this, because as her excuse goes on, she seems none too confident that she deserves a higher grade. Accordingly, the end of her email becomes a self justification rather than a request for a higher grade. She projects: as the slacker, she accuses her peers of slacking. But she saved the best argument till last: she claims to have altruistically helped her peers mature and take responsibility--by "kicking back" and being a slacker! If only the world had more slackers! That would force everyone else to grow up and be more responsible, wouldn't it? Good idea. I'm going to start slacking right now. The world can thank me when it becomes a better place.

Student: "I have an important meeting next Wednesday, so I won't be there for the exam. So I will need to take a make-up." (Contributed by Professor Barker of Delta College, who notes this tactic is especially prevalent with business majors!)

Tactics: Prof. Barker calls this the
Courtesy FYI tactic, where the student forewarns the teacher in order to Preempt a penalty. After the penalty is assessed, it isn't unusual for the student to complain that "I told you I couldn't be there, and I told you ahead of time, too." It's as if an up-front warning of one's intent to violate the rules should negate the penalty. (If you told a policeman you intended to speed before you actually did so, would the policeman let you get away with it?) A nice addition to this tactic is to act shocked after the penalty is assessed, and to claim that one wouldn't have violated the rule if he or she had known about the negative consequences (that are detailed in the syllabus and in school policies). It's safe to claim that one wouldn't have done it after the fact, because that sort of statement can never be verified!

Student: "I have to support my family with my job, so I work a lot. I'm also taking a full load so I can graduate quickly and get back to my career. I'm going to need you to cut me some slack in this class."

Tactics: This account does a lot in just a few sentences.
Appeal--to victim status and to family values, while casting the requestor in the light of the responsible father; Salience Shift--away from fairness and equality in the classroom, and toward a victim's appeal for special consideration; away from the student's chosen decision to load up his schedule, and toward the pressure this choice will generate. Ignore the Rules--nearly every university policy states that all students must achieve the same standards for the same grades, regardless of personal commitments; and Preemption--because the tactic is deployed early to put the professor on notice. The requestor can later claim, "Hey, I was honest and up-front with the professor about my problems." Experienced professors become wary of students who issue blanket accounts on the first day of class--because these accounts often function as setup moves to subsequent justifications, just as opening moves in a chess game set up strategies that will be engaged later.

Student: "Because of the 'D' I received in your class, my overall GPA is below the 2.0 university minimum, and I can't graduate. Could you change my grade to a 'C'?" (Submitted by Professor Sagarin of Illinois, who receives this accusation and request several times a year.)

Decontextualizing--the grade in question is only one of the many low grades that contribute to a low GPA. This statement implies that the teacher caused the student's failure by giving this single low grade, much as claiming it was only the last straw that broke the camel's back--never mind about all the other straws!

Student: "I had a relative in the Twin Towers during the 9/11 terrorist attack. He got out OK and is fine, but the experience has shaken me so badly that I did poorly on my recent assignment, and I think I deserve the chance to make up the points. My other professors are allowing me to make up points."

Appeal to Accident, Claim of Psychological Victimization (which may or may not be true, but it's exceedingly difficult to verify), Transfer (from personal life to school), Conformity (to other professors--notice the plural form, it's more effective), Salience Shift (away from fairness and equality in the classroom, toward a victim's appeal for special consideration). Come to think of it--isn't it just downright unpatriotic to not make an allowance for anything that may be associated with a national tragedy?

Student: "I missed the second test because I was confused about when it would be given. You delayed the first test by one class period, so I wasn't sure about the second one--I thought you had delayed it too." A similar version encountered recently went like this [speaking to the prof]: "Since you had a guest lecturer teach the class a week before the test, I couldn't imagine you'd actually give the test a week later."

Tactics: Claiming Confusion is a popular tactic. It's almost an acknowledgment of fault, which makes it a nonconfrontational tactic that's unlikely to damage the student-teacher relationship. It also Trivializes the error--everybody makes little mistakes now and again. Students often like to combine this tactic with an attribution that the reason for the confusion is an unclear or inconsistent professor or policy. Having delayed the first test, the professor has stupidly left himself open to questions about the timing of all subsequent deadlines--has the entire schedule been shifted back a class period? Even if not, can it be assumed--if it suits one's purpose? (One exasperated professor I know calls this "intentional stupidity" because she suspects that students actively look for ways to misunderstand policies. Is that so unusual? Attorneys look for conflicts, ambiguities, and loopholes in the law--they intentionally attempt to "misunderstand" the rules in similar ways.) The second example squarely puts the fault of an inconvenient test on the prof's shoulders...something unusual occurred in the class, which should throw everything off subsequently--the ambiguity woudn't have occurred if you hadn't arranged for a guest lecturer. Implied is the idea that "If you had been consistent, the test wouldn't have caught me unprepared." Spotlighting Inconsistency is a classic spin tactic, and can be used in many ways against a communicator. Inconsistencies and irregularities, no matter how small, are like cracks in a wall that can be attacked and enlarged at a later date. What's interesting about this tactic is that it simultaneously argues that "My irregularity is of no consequence but your irregularity really screwed things up."

Student: "I won't be able to attend the test next week; I'm attending a memorial service for my sister who was killed in an accident."
Prof: "I'm so sorry--did this just happen?"
Student: "No, it happened three years ago."

Tactics: This account is unassailable, in my opinion. What professor would not want to accommodate a grieving brother? The length of time between the death and the memorial service is immaterial. Appeals to Family Crisis are frequent in college. Sadly, many times they are exactly what the student says they are--for example, the college years correlate with advancing years for students' grandparents. Sometimes, these appeals are a ruse--such as the Arizona student who lost three grandmothers at regular intervals in one semester (he wasn't aware that the main office was collecting all his excuses to separate professors throughout the semester). Another example is the Army private who claimed his brother had died, in order to get a home leave. The private's commander called the parents to offer his condolances and to arrange home leave--and was shocked to find himself talking to the "dead" brother. I heard a case recently where a woman's car was stolen. She wanted the police to be "sufficiently motivated" to find it, so she claimed her child was in the car when it was stolen (which was a lie), so an Amber Alert would be issued and an intense and expensive nationwide search would be put out for her car. Wow, now that's really unethical! When the appeal is a ruse, it's sometimes effective because there's a strong norm in our society to support the grief stricken--not to suspiciously question them. But those who use the Appeal to Family Crisis unethically are the ones who are responsible for university policies requiring written evidence of a family crisis. Too bad, because the cheaters make it harder on the truly grief-stricken.

Graduate Student: "Receiving a B- is almost like failing a class. I have never gotten such a low grade in the classes in my specialty area. I don't think it is fair to hold me to the same standards as grad students for whom your class is within their specialty." (Submitted by Professor Barrett of Pennsylvania.)

Tactics: They first sentence is simple Hyperbole (exaggeration), but the account gets more interesting as it continues. The student makes an inappropriate Appeal to Base Rate information, as if the grade for the class in question is supposed to reflect the student's general performance. The assumption is made that grades outside the student's normal performance range are in error. (Are unusually high grades also protested?) Finally, the student implies that the professor should violate the norm of equal treatment of the other students for the sake of...equivalent rewards. Equality Appeals are extraordinarily flexible, and may be used by either side in the same debate. This is one reason they are invoked so frequently! Here, inequality of ability is cited as a reason for the professor to create equality of outcome. (Don't be shocked at this argument, it is a central tenant of political correctness.) High-scoring students in this same class would insist on equality of grading criteria from the professor, reflecting their increased training, effort, and skill. Low-scoring students wonder what's the harm in everyone getting 'A's; high-scoring students wonder what's the point of achieving, if everyone gets 'A's. So...what's the purpose of education: to nurture self-esteem, or to encourage achievement? Some readers will claim this to be a false dichotomy (the argument goes that "without self-esteem, achievement won't occur") but the role of self-esteem in causing achievement has come under increasing assault in educational circles. It may be the pursuit of self-esteem that motivates achievement. Personally speaking, from the vantage point of middle age, I have learned much more from my failures than from my successes.

Student: "I know I got a D on the final exam but would you please give me an A on it instead? How about an A-? See, I am using the Door-in-the-Face technique so I must know something about psychology." (Submitted by Professor Guadagno of California).

Tactics: This is a Meta-tactic--perhaps used humorously in this case (given the extremity of the request). By "meta-tactic," I mean that the student consciously refers to the tactic as such. This is probably one of the worst ways to attempt to persuade, as the student all but admits she is attempting to manipulate the professor, consistent with the matieral taught in class (which is a form of Consistency appeal on the part of the professor). The persuader should never call attention to the persuasive attempt, or enumerate tactics used.

Student: "None of my experimental credit showed up as extra credit on your gradesheet in the class I took from you last semester, and I should really have an 'A' instead of an 'A-.' Can you make that change for me?"
Prof: "I can only assign extra credit if your name and credits are passed along to me by the manager of the experimental credits program. Why do you suppose none of your experimental credits showed up on the list they gave me?"
Student: "I don't know. Yours was the only class I took last semester that accepted credits, so I don't know why they wouldn't have assigned them to your class."
Prof: "But they weren't assigned to my class. You weren't even on the list."
Student: "I have no idea how this whole thing works. It's very confusing. I did the experimental credits but I don't know why they didn't show up on the list they gave to you."
Prof: "The experimental credits program sent around several memos telling students they had to assign their credits to a particular class, or they would not be counted. It's an automated system, and the assignment is necessary. We talked about this in class, and it was mentioned in the class syllabus, too. Is it possible you overlooked assigning those credits to my class?"
Student (sheepishly): "Yeah. I don't think I assigned them to your class."

Tactics: Feigned Confusion and Victim of Complexity. It turned out that the student knew exactly why her experimental credits weren't showing up--she had ignored multiple requests to assign her credits to my class. She was a bright student, so confusion was not the best card for her to play--it wasn't believable. I suspected she was covering something, and it turned out she was. On the other hand, the automated system for assigning credits wasn't as simple as flipping a switch, so the complexity of the system allowed her an opening: attributing the fault to a confusing and unfair system that stripped her of her hard-earned credits (for a trivial mistake on her part). In my experience, generalized and non-specific statements of confusion are a warning sign. Most students who are motivated enough to approach the professor about an important issue are well-versed on the issue at stake. Sometimes the proported confusion is followed by an unwillingness to discuss details; other times the student overwhelms the conversation with irrelevant detail intended to distract from the issue and to help forward the claim of a confusing process or system. Only patient questioning can get to the bottom of the issue, and sometimes the issue isn't worth the effort--another benefit to the student! Busy professors tend to be compliant professors, and smart students know that harried professors look for the easy way out of complicated situations.

Copyright © 2003 by Kelton Rhoads, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.