THE REGRET CLAUSE

By JIM NICHOLS

It is reasonable to suspect that every occupation includes some unpleasant aspects. No matter what your job, some responsibilities or tasks are in the “do I really have to do that?” category. Most aspects of the job may be fulfilling and rewarding, but there are still a few that are taxing either to our skills or to our interests. These may often be those dealing with other people—colleagues, bosses, or, in the case of instructors, students. 

Dishonesty appears at many levels of life. Governmental and corporate dishonesty seems to surround us these days. It is particularly frustrating to us because, as individuals, we feel incapable of any approaches to remedy it.

Individual dishonesty, however, speaks clearly to our daily lives. Sometimes it affects us and sometimes it affects others for whom we have responsibility. Because of its individual character, there are at least some situations where we can actually counter or challenge individual dishonesty.

Instructors at any level frequently have to deal with student dishonesty. I have yet to meet even one instructor who has positive emotions about confronting students who are cheating in some way.

I am most familiar with instruction at the university level. Students are quite creative and imaginative in devising methods to submit work that satisfies the requirement but did not require them to exert much study effort. Frankly, I am not the first to suggest that some cheating students spend more time and energy trying to circumvent the assignment than they would if they would just complete the assignment by studying.

Educational institutions develop elaborate sets of guidelines identifying for students exactly what constitutes a good faith effort on a project or assignment. The institutions ask instructors to assess whether or not students are putting forth such effort and, if not, to report such incidents. This reporting process passes the suspicion up a chain of command involving various individuals and committees with disciplinary authority. If this sounds like an unpleasant set of activities, you are beginning to understand professors’ distaste for this aspect of their work.

Professors (and other levels of instructor) logically propose that this is not the reason they entered the world of education. They took this job to help students grow and develop and uncover their skills; now they must act as police officers. Fatigue sets in.

In an attempt to avoid this disciplinary chain of accusation and denial, one professor at a large and prestigious university has instituted a “regret clause” in his course syllabus.  Although not without its flaws, it has some remarkably similar aspects to the guidelines of grace that followers of God would recognize.

In this situation, the syllabus distributed at the beginning of the semester tells the students that honesty is expected in the class—total honesty. If the instructor doubts the presence of honesty, the instructor will trigger the disciplinary sequence of events, as distasteful as they might be. The instructor will pull the trigger, however, only after 72 hours. Before that time, a student may come forward and admit the misdeed. Following the admission for a first-time offence, the student will receive a failing grade on the assignment, but the instructor will not continue with further disciplinary actions.

The instructor (and others who have tried this approach) reports that only 1-3 percent of students take advantage of this option. The key, however, is that when a student does exercise the “regret clause” and admits dishonesty, the door is now open for conversation between student and professor. 

Dishonesty on some test or project does not occur on a whim. Humans act because of circumstances. Forcing a student to admit to wrongdoing is, in itself, worthwhile, but it also allows an instructor an opportunity to probe the behavior. It may not be too much to suggest that one ill-conceived decision by a student could lead to some life-guidance that will last. Are there study-skills problems? Are there financial and student employment problems? Is there trouble with the student’s parents? What is going on with your living situation and your roommate? 

What struck me was that the “regret clause” approach sounds a lot like a miniature version of God’s grace. Our admission to God of our errors often does not remove the consequences of the error. There may have been bad results and people injured seriously in some way. However, forgiveness waits just on the other side of admission. Consequences remain, but God’s grace and forgiveness also remain.

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain. 

 

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