I am an undergrad in the US taking an upper-level biology course with ~30 students. My professor has been grading some assignments in what I, and other students in the class, realize is quite unfair. For example, we had to post to a discussion online and respond to our classmates' posts. When it was graded, I received a 17 out of 20 total points. Upon looking at the rubric, there was a section for "initiative" - if you were one of the first 10 students to submit the assignment, you received the full points. I submitted my assignment pretty close to the due date, but it was turned in completely on time! I know professors reserve the right to grade how they see is best, but come on... If the assignment is turned in on time, how can the professor be allowed to take points off for not doing it early? This was not stated in the syllabus, and the rubric was provided only after grading was done.

Does this seem like a fair and legitimate way to grade students? Should I look into reporting this to someone higher up at the university? (Who?) I did already provide a course evaluation that raised these concerns.

Some other examples that I believe are not fair to students:

  • She often says that she grades off the "best" student's work. Like for written assignments, she would say that she had to look at all of them, decide whoever's assignment was best, and then grade everyone based on that student's work. This makes everything a huge competition which is very frustrating.
  • We had a poster project where other students and some professors were invited to come in and see them. She had observers put stickers on their "favorite" poster and those who received the most stickers received extra credit. However, many just put their stickers on the ones closest to the door.
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    From the language used, it sounds like the instructor is using Blackboard with Rubric Scoring. Before complaining, you'd best make sure that the rubric was in fact not visible before the submission. That's possible, but is the bottom-most option in the menu the instructor picks to make it at all visible. The top-most (default?) option is to make it visible, via a button, within the assignment before submission. Dec 13, 2018 at 19:15

5 Answers 5


Why not ask your professor what she is trying to achieve with this grading before escalating? There is a clear discrepancy between how you expect to be graded (by common standards) and how your professor is actually doing that.

I understand your frustration, but I would like to add some nuances:

  1. She is rewarding early submissions. She may be doing this to try to teach all of you better time management. It is debatable whether this is the best way of doing that. Given such a system I'd be a bit worried that a not-very-early submission could cause a failing grade.
  2. She is grading off a standard as set by excellent students. In the US, it's very common to grade on a curve which inherently contains a comparison with fellow students. However, the details are typically different.
  3. She is rewarding visibility/popularity. In industry and science, these are also commonly rewarded. One could even go so far as to say that securing a poster position close to the door is part of increasing visibility, although I think that's overly harsh.

All in all, I think your professor has some good ideas but her implementation leaves something to be desired. Also, all of this should be clearly stated in the syllabus. I'd have a conversation with her about this, possibly argue for a higher grade for yourself, but I'd very much consider how much time and effort you want to put into this after that.


I agree with this answer by Designerpot. I would first talk to the professor about it before escalating it. The idea that 2 marks are awarded for being the first ten - which are not bonus marks, strikes me as a bit unfair, where even if you did the assignment "perfectly" but were number 11, you could never get a perfect or near perfect score. Students also have varying commitments, and if its not handing in late then I dont think this is a fair way to grade. But you need to lay this out in a rational and respectful way.

The second part seems to be common practice - I've used this method before, where you grade off the best few papers. Essentially its actually kind of like a bell curve. Think of it as - with the instructions of the assignment, the course material and the student level of learning, this was one of the best outcomes in terms of product. I may have been expecting more, but if these are examples of the best assignment that helps situate how hard you should be marking. When I have a test I do the same thing - if the highest grade in the class is 56/60, then I grade them all out of 56 - I also remove questions if a majority do not answer correctly - the intent isn't to trick students, but to test their knowledge. If my test is too hard for at least one student to get perfect, then I dont think all the questions were fair.

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    "If my test is too hard for at least one student to get perfect" --- For the most part I agree with what you've said, although I'd be careful with omitting questions that many people missed, because some students may have spent a lot of time on those at the expense of other questions. However, "at least one student to get perfect" seems like an extremely high bar unless this is an introductory class and the test is on straightforward material with straightforward questions. In my case as a student, it was nearly unheard of for anyone to get perfect on an upper/graduate level physics test. Dec 13, 2018 at 11:35

"Fair" and "wise" are two different things.

First, I don't think this is wise. It serves little purpose. It doesn't even teach time management. Students should be given a deadline, and they should be penalized if they don't meet that deadline. If you're trying to teach time management, you might break a project into chunks and create interim deadlines.

Is it "fair"? In a sense, since all students are under the same rules, it is fair. In another sense, because students have no control over when other students turn in an assignment, part of the grade is out of one's personal control, and that could be considered unfair.

If the prof would like to teach "initiative", I'd recommend two due times, with the early submission time earning the initiative points. If everybody makes that due time, they all get the points. I still think it's silly, but more fair.

Making sure the best performing students in the class get the best grades is a fairly common practice. My preference is to make expected levels of mastery known, and grade to those. The top levels should be very challenging, and the students with the most aptitude and those willing to work hardest should be able to achieve A's. Same outcome, but it doesn't create a competition between students. If everyone works very hard and they all get A's, that's fine. If the metrics and rubrics are laid out right, it usually doesn't happen (you need to be careful to avoid grade inflation).

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    "Making sure the best students get the best grades" feels to me like unfairly loading the dice. It becomes a self fulfilling prophecy that may have little basis in reality and certainly disadvantages some students.
    – Buffy
    Dec 13, 2018 at 15:19
  • @Buffy I agree. Confirmational bias is very important to avoid. I changed the language somewhat to try to better reflect what I was trying to convey. Dec 13, 2018 at 15:22
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    @JeffE As opposed to a situation where they can choose to work hard to master material better. Dec 14, 2018 at 0:02
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    In a sense, since all students are under the same rules, it is fair. That is a necessary but not sufficient condition for fairness. For example, a rule according to which every student gets a completely random grade satisfies the condition, but is obviously unfair. (Of course, it is equally unfair to all students. I guess that counts for something...)
    – Dan Romik
    Dec 14, 2018 at 9:54
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    @JEffE, Scott Seidman, I think it makes more sense to say "part of the grade is under the other students' control". And this is indeed unfair, because it should be under the control of the student who's work is being graded, and of the instructor who does the grading. Dec 14, 2018 at 10:48

Of the practices you described, the one that stood out to me as being very clearly unfair is the marking off of points for not submitting work early enough when the submission was still done ahead of an officially-announced deadline, and where no indication was communicated to you of any expectation that you should submit even earlier than that official deadline to qualify for full points. This is 100% unfair and illegitimate, pure and simple, and you would be completely reasonable to complain about it.

As for the other things you mentioned:

  1. Using the best submission as a reference for grading purposes sounds like a reasonable and accepted practice. While it is also reasonable for you to want to be judged based on your own abilities according to some objective set of expectations, the fact is that teachers do not always know what is reasonable or realistic to expect of students, so when we are grading work, we may calibrate our expectations by first of all looking at some fraction of the assignments (or even all of them, if it’s a small enough number), and then deciding that the best work is what we consider appropriate for the highest grade. Knowing what the best assignment looks like can be a reasonable heuristic to guide one’s attitudes in grading the work of the other students. Of course, a sensible instructor will not get too carried away with this approach, and also be mindful of the possibility that they have some exceptionally brilliant or precocious student in their class and be careful not to have that negatively affect their view of the other students’ work. And perhaps your professor isn’t a sensible person and doesn’t implement this methodology in an optimal way, I can’t say for sure. But generally speaking, this particular practice doesn’t sound outrageous to me.

  2. The issue with the posters sounds unfortunate to me. Probably the professor’s idea of using popularity as a factor in grading the posters wasn’t as well thought out as it should have been. Perhaps if she realized that posters that were close to the entrance of the room enjoyed an unfair advantage she would find a way to make the grading more fair, so it would be a good idea to bring the matter to her attention. So yes, I see this is as somewhat unfair, but it looks like an unintentional sort of unfairness that I would get less outraged about (as opposed to holding students accountable for imaginary submission timelines that aren’t communicated, which is really quite egregiously wrong as I discussed above).

  3. Generally speaking, turning things into a competition between students may be frustrating for you, but it’s an accepted practice, and considered reasonable, among other reasons for the reason I mentioned above that professors often need to know how their students are performing as a group to calibrate their expectations of any individual students. (Again, experienced instructors know how to avoid taking this to an unhealthy extreme, and perhaps your professor hasn’t learned that lesson yet.) Also, note that this methodology can actually work in your favor rather than against you - for example, if I always graded students “objectively” purely based on my own internal expectations and without taking into account how the class is performing as a whole, I’m sure there would be times when I might get things horribly wrong and give way too many students a failing or very low grade. So grading on a curve does have some practical benefits also from the students’ point of view.

  • Reading your answer, I adjusted my attitude toward grading on a curve. Dec 14, 2018 at 10:52
  • @henning good to know!
    – Dan Romik
    Dec 14, 2018 at 11:03

Life isn't fair.

That is the first lesson here. You will have to learn to cope with blatant discrimination, outright lies, and clearly biased situations. This professor, intentionally or not, is helping to teach that here. You even found evidence of that in the rubric, which is clearly unfair and biased towards the students able to post more quickly.

Absolutely, that is not fair. But the question of fairness is itself not the right question. Is it wrong?

No. It's in the rubric. Possibly. It depends on how it is applied. This is where ethical code of conduct may apply. If it does, be exceptionally careful and detailed in documenting the problems before reporting them.

It is not the student's job to correct the teacher, admonish the teacher, or dictate to the teacher. The student is there to learn the lessons of the teacher. Disclaimer: This generalization doesn't take extreme situations into account.

Accept that even if the professor is deliberately unfair and biased, you are still accountable for your own actions and responsible for yourself. This empowers you to take the action necessary to succeed here.

If you completely disagree with the professor, lack understanding of what is being done, or cant explain the actions in any reasonable manner then you should approach your professor outside of class with enough time to discuss your grievances.

In your comments you mention how there seems to be contradictory information provided, such as being told that X action will benefit you when the reality is not doing X is penalizing you. This is something I would ask the professor about directly. There may be something you're missing or it may be a communication problem.

Your understanding of the problem is incomplete. Here you've focused on the professor, what is fair, and how you can compel them to change. The class isn't about the professor, it is about you. Take advantage of your situation and what you know here.

The professor has a syllabus and given rubrics out for clearly defining how the work is going to be graded. This means the rubric defines what is a good assignment, not your perception of what is good.

If the rubric requires you to write the best novel in the world but will take off a point for every instance of the letter "e" in the novel, then you wont find many competitors to "Gadsby" out there.

Study the syllabus. Study the rubric. Use them. They work both ways. Ask for the rubric with the assignments if it isn't provided. You seem like someone that excels within defined boundaries. Ask for those boundaries. If there are none, arbitrarily make some up for yourself and adjust from there.

If your goal is the compel the professor to change, then use the rubric and syllabus to your advantage. Exploiting the rubric is an effective way to force the professor to take action. A heavy warning here, this puts you into an adversarial relationship with your professor and usually unexpected negative consequences appear in other ways. I don't recommend this at all, even as a last resort.

You're far better off learning from "Its not what you know, it is who you know" and just befriend the best students in that class. Your grade will likely go up just by interacting with them more as you will see what the curve leans towards.

Edit: Changes to the question fundamentally altered the answer's direction.

  • I did edit my question for clarification - the rubric wasn't one that was given to us when the assignment was assigned. I simply came across it on the online program that is used to report grades (it showed the rubric used for grading). In addition, grading based of initiative was also never mentioned in the syllabus. The lack of communication is simply what bothers me.
    – Rayne
    Dec 13, 2018 at 17:59
  • @Rayne This may be super specific to ask here: Even with digging and without communication, was the rubric information that you found possible to find or available prior to the due date of the assignment?
    – David S
    Dec 13, 2018 at 18:07
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    No. We were given instructions for the assignment, but no rubric, and the instructions did not mention anything about what grading would be based off of. It only included what information we should include in the assignment. I remember her briefly mentioning in class after we were assigned the assignment, and after a student or two had already posted, that she would reward students for getting it done early. However, to me that sounds like they would get extra points for being ahead of the game, not that points would be deducted for not doing it early.
    – Rayne
    Dec 13, 2018 at 18:26

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