Completed an essay worth 30% of our grade over the Xmas period and were given incredibly strict instructions (no sources other than the 10 pages given, 1200 word count, marked 50% language and grammar [german] and 50% content). Got my grade back and got 32% which is my first ever fail of my life. Was slightly discouraged until I learned that nearly the entire group failed or got 42/43/44?

The essay was also given to another branch of the course (politics and computer science) and they all passed with quite high marks (60% upwards). I completed a similar essay for another subject and got 57% and another where I got 65%.

We all feel that we have been unfairly marked, but despite being in the best university in our country, we are too scared to ask anyone in the department. All the colleagues stick together and would definitely take the side of the markers and imply we're all stupid.

My essay wasn't amazing but I definitely don't believe I deserved to fail and others don't either...

So my question is: is there anything we can do to change this?

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    Or maybe grade inflation in the other course. Commented Feb 24, 2018 at 2:21
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    Any answer to this question will involve contacting university staff. If this is not an option for you, then I can't see what you wouldn't hope to accomplish by contacting anyone else - it's the university that sets the grades, and unless you bring it up with them, nothing will change. Commented Feb 24, 2018 at 9:19
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    You say that people in the other branch of the course got consistently higher marks. Was there a single person marking all the essays, or did that branch of the course have a different marker? Is the marker the course lecturer, or an assistant? Detail, detail, detail, please.
    – Ben
    Commented Feb 26, 2018 at 23:40
  • One of my honors freshman writing classes seemed to make it a point to make sure students received poor grades on their first assignment. This was to make it painfully and abundantly clear that what passed for A-level writing in high school was wildly inadequate, and we should work harder to get the grades we'd become accustomed to. So we did. I mention this on the off chance that this assignment and its grading was similar in intent. Commented Feb 27, 2018 at 1:30

2 Answers 2


Talk to your student's union.

They should know whether or not there can be anything done and if yes, what. They should also know if a situation where everyone fails is common (in some universities there are some courses, mostly freshman-courses, where it's common that 90% of students fail) in your country/university.

But prepare yourself for the possibility that nothing happens. In my experience, the situation that two groups/individuals are graded obviously differently, is very common in the university level. In my university, for example, there is no quality control of the courses whatsoever - a course is taught well/ is fair if and only if the instructor wants to teach it well and wants to be fair (and is capable of teaching well and being fair). Fortunately, many academics are "good people" wanting to be a good teacher (without being rewarded) but some don't care at all (which can also makes sense, since they need to focus on publications to survive).

But what can you learn from this situation? You can take some steps to prepare.

1) It's always a good idea to find out what the exact rules are for taking courses in your university. Can you switch the order of the courses? Can you choose instructors? Can you do exams with instructors who held the course some years ago (but you took the course with someone else)?

2) If you can choose instructors, then try to find out something on them. Who teaches well? Who is motivated? Who treats students fair? Who helds female and male students to the same standards? (Unfortunately, not everyone.) What about foreign students? Who grades fairly? To find things like that out, ask your student's union, socialize with other students, read things in facebook groups, maybe become active yourself as a student's representative.. These things will help you a lot. If lists are avaiable on who will teach courses in the future, try to adjust your courses (if possible) such that you get the good instructors. Remember that, of course, your goal should not be to just get the easy-grading instructors, but the ones where you learn much. (But nobody is helped if you learn much but fail the exam because the instructor belongs into the (unfortunately, non-empty) category of people who let everyone but women with very revailing clothes fail).

However, be advised, that unlike popular belief, there are many harsh graders where you don't learn much and their are many easy graders where you learn a lot.


Marking consistency within a course: Students may reasonably expect that their academic work in a course will be marked consistently with other students in the same course. This occurs naturally when there is a single marker, but in cases where there are multiple different markers in the same course, the course lecturer should be giving them adequate instructions to ensure consistency of standard between them, and should review this if there are problems. If you have been marked by a different person than another branch of your course, and you believe you have been held to a higher standard, you should speak to your course lecturer to raise the apparent inconsistency across different markers. On the other hand, if there was a single marker, then the inconsistency in grades across branches of the same course must presumably be due to some deficiency in your class. Speak to the marker and find out what your class is doing wrong that other classes are doing right.

Consistency of standard across different courses: Academics are experts in their subject matter, and they have broad discretion to set the standard within their own courses. Most put in a great deal of thought and effort to set a standard that is appropriate to their cohort of students, taking account of their year level, program, etc. Academics are humans, and sometimes we misjudge the difficulty of the work we set (accidentally making it too hard or too easy), but most academics have been teaching for a long time and have a reasonable sense of the appropriate standard to set in their courses. Universities generally engage in some meta-level analysis of their courses to try to get some consistency of difficulty levels across different courses. At my own university, there is a Course Quality Committee that reviews the distribution of grades in each course and asks academics to provide an explanation if the grades are unusually high or low.

University is not High-School: While you may reasonably expect consistency of grading within a course, and some reasonable attempt at consistency across different courses, there is no principle of tertiary education that precludes an entire class from failing an assessment item. Failing an entire class on an assessment item is not unheard of (I have heard quite a few similar stories) and it can be a useful “wake-up call” to a class if they are not meeting the standard expected in tertiary work. Bear in mind who is the subject-matter expert here, and who are the neophytes. You say that you and your fellow students don’t think you deserved to fail. Fair enough, but peer consensus of novices is not a reliable indicator of professional judgment. You are undergraduate students who are only just starting to learn the subject in question — so you are qualified to make professional judgments on the appropriate work standards how exactly?

Speak to your lecturer, and show an interest in improving your work: Academics are reasonable people who are generally open to explaining their decisions. The matter you have raised is one that is worth speaking to your course lecturer about. Either there has been an inconsistency in the marking (which you may legitimately raise) or there has been an error made in the overall standard (which you legitimately raise) or you and the rest of your class are just not learning sufficiently well to meet the standard of the course (which you should definitely raise). Go to your lecturer with an open mind, and without assuming that the problem is him/her. Raise your concern, but show that you are open to the possibility that you and your class are not meeting the required standard, and ask for advice on how to improve and meet the standard the other classes are meeting. It is highly likely that your lecturer will give you a fair hearing, and give genuine consideration to whether there has been an error in the standard set for the work.

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