The situation

I'm a PhD student and serve as an assistant to several courses. Now, the students were complaining that some rules of our course are not good for them - there are some restriction what has to be achieved in order to participate in the final exam, e.g.

  1. they need a certain amount of credits in their homework,
  2. everybody who has failed that course in the years before, have the get the credits for their homework again.

You have freedom in chosing the threshold, but the rules are written in the examination regulations (I'm also a member of the that examination committee) that is not the problem.

There are some professors in my department who don't follow that rules; or (even) worse come up with some funny new rules contradicting the rules (like (you don't have to read this to answer the question) If you have 50% of the credits until the third to last week of the semester, you are able to participate in the final exam. If you pass, you pass. If you fail, you are only allowed to participate in the repetition of the final exam if you have 50% of your credits in the last week of the semester).

The problem

Apart from them violating the rules, the problem is now that students come to my course and say: "Hey, professor XX did not have the rules last year. Why do you have them? That is so unfair! And you can have it, too! Because, nobody complained last year! Cmon, we will not tell anyone!".

As soon as I hear something like that, I complain. The problem is then: No student would tell someone things like that (exept in the mentioned case when they try to convince me to do it that way, too); the professors are sometimes not informed, but also sometimes aware of that und don't write anything on their course homepage. So nobody can find out. If you find out (probably at the end of the semester), it is too late and if you want to declare that course as not following the rules, you are only damaging the students of that course.

I was talking to the responsible persons in my department; they see the problem, but they don't want to have fights within the department and they don't to establish automatic announcements from the professors what the rules for their course are.

The question

What can I do against it? The atmosphere in my course was very bad because of that. I could go to the head of the faculty or the university who will end all that, but then I fair to be an abandoned person in my department. Also, I want not to damage students and declare their passed exams as illegal.

  • if you want to declare that course as not following the rules, you are only damaging the students of that course — [citation needed]
    – JeffE
    Commented Apr 8, 2014 at 11:11
  • @JeffE This is my opinion if you want to take away a passed exam from the due to the professor not following the rules. Some of them might not be aware of the exact rules or think that if a professor sets up own rules, he have talked to someone before. Commented Apr 8, 2014 at 11:13
  • 3
    It would be incredibly unethical for the department administration to change a student's existing grade in a course because someone else pointed out that the course didn't follow department policy. But even if they did, it wouldn't be the declaration that hurt the students.
    – JeffE
    Commented Apr 8, 2014 at 11:19
  • 1
    Somewhat unrelated, but I don't believe I've ever taken a course where previous grades in the course affected your qualifications for taking the final exam. Is this just a matter of courses in university systems where a student's final grade is determined solely by the final exam but homework is still required as part of the course?
    – JAB
    Commented Apr 8, 2014 at 17:04
  • 3
    @JAB This is very common (at least) in Germany that you have to do 50% of homework grades to go to the exam, but only the grade in the exam counts for your final grade in your study. Commented Apr 8, 2014 at 18:09

4 Answers 4


This is a standard problem in places where a mentality of unwritten rules has become standard (you know, the places that have "rules" and actual rules). If this becomes ingrained in the university culture (both in the student body and the faculty), nobody can really tell anymore what is a an actual rule and what isn't (and, really, the answer will be different for each teacher). For this reason I prefer a relatively strict no exceptions policy in my courses. I understand the downsides of this model (see for instance also here: How do I appropriately penalize late projects?), but at least everybody knows where he stands in such a model.

I understand that you are not in a position to change university culture, so you need to play the hand you are dealt. I see two main ways to go forward:

  • Become more lenient yourself. If a number of senior professors deems it fit to not enforce the official rules or implement weaker rules, then maybe the official rules are in fact perceived too strict. In that case, maybe the answer is just to run with the herd and allow for more exceptions etc. yourself. Of course the preferred solution in that case would be to change to official rules, but it is well conceivable that this is not feasible for one reason or another.
  • Announce very, very clearly at the beginning of the semester that in your case the rules will be the rules, no matter how things were in previous years or with other teachers. Follow through on your claim, and build up a reputation as being a strict guy. Note that being strict is not the same as being an unpopular / bad teacher. I have continuously followed this strategy in my teaching, and still receive good to excellent teaching evaluations.

Of course, if you follow the second strategy, some complaining, accusing and guilt-tripping will happen. It is your task as a teacher to be able to distinguish between warranted complains (and react to them) and more manipulative ones (that are to be ignored). These examples you give quite clearly fall into the second category. What you need to do is find a number of polite standard answers to these statements, and then forget them. Examples:

Hey, professor XX did not have the rules last year. Why do you have them? That is so unfair!

Answer: sorry, but it is impossible to change anything in a course if I am forced to always do things exactly like the were done in previous years. I am trying to be more strict this year because I have seen that unclear rules are also not beneficial for many students, as nobody really knows anymore what the actual rules are.

Cmon, we will not tell anyone!

Answer: while I appreciate that, I am afraid that I do not want to make an exception here. Making an exception for you is unfair towards the other students that did not get this exception.

Some other minor comments:

I could go to the head of the faculty or the university who will end all that

I am unsure if that is even true. In all places that I have been to, it would be very unlikely that a head of faculty micro-manages how professors do their teaching.

Also, I want not to damage students and declare their passed exams as illegal.

This is understandable and correct. If you truely think that students were under the impression that a certain rule or exception would apply to them, I would let them pass as part of a transition period. If you think that they were aware that they should actually fail, but simply try to come up with a reason why this is not the case, then be strict and let them fail. Note that this is the reason why announcing your strict rules enforcement as clearly as possible is key. In your situation, being strict is only fair if you give your students advance warning, as the seem to be trained by your university that, by and large, teachers are lenient.

  • 6
    +1. I am fascinated by the parallels between laying down rules in higher education and in raising children. Commented Apr 8, 2014 at 9:48
  • @StephanKolassa The methods of establishing a society environment is similar in many societies: rules, awards, punishments. Only the specific ways differ: You won't deny a grad student access to TV because he didn't bring his homework...
    – yo'
    Commented Apr 8, 2014 at 13:00
  • @tohecz Indeed. I propose to read Paul Chance - Learning and Behavior (books.google.ch/books/about/…) if one is interested in the underlying fundamental biological principles of learning. I read it some time ago as part of studying animal training, and it was quite interesting how widely the same principles apply.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Apr 8, 2014 at 13:26
  • @Stephan It's not just academia: I became a much better project manager since I became a dad. It's amazing how many people think like children. Or at least, respond in the same way children do.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Apr 8, 2014 at 19:59
  • One thing to note about being a "strict guy", if the course is a low credit elective, expect a big drop-off in numbers. Students won't want to have a course that's not worth very much bothering them with strict rules, they'll just pick something easier. Commented May 15, 2017 at 18:09

I was about to recommend talking to the responsible person in your department, and then saw you did that. They handled the situation atrociously; as a PhD student, this sort of department conflict shouldn't be put on your shoulders. You don't have the freedom to deviate from policy as easily as a professor (for instance, you're more vulnerable if the school suddenly gets serious about it).

It's not clear to me if you've asked this, but a good question to ask the responsible person is a flat out: "What should I do?" It's not your responsibility to fix the department's mess. It's that person's job to give you an unequivocal answer about what you should do, and then back you up on it: either tell you to follow the rules, and that any student complaints should be directed their way, or tell you to break the rules and agree to cover you if there's fallout.

If I couldn't get a clear "go ahead and break the rules, if anyone's upset you can say I told you to" then I would go ahead and follow the rules, tell students you simply have no power over the issue, and that the person in charge is the responsible department official. If they don't want to deal with fixing the problem, it's certainly their job to field complaints about the result. That's very much my response, though, which includes a preference for following rules and insufficient regard for whether I'm annoying people who aren't following the rules. It may not actually be the best advice for your career.

  • 2
    From the way the OP asked the question, I was assuming that the OP has much more responsibility / freedom than you seem to assume. It is not uncommon in Germany that PhD students have significant responsibility and freedom in their teaching.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Apr 8, 2014 at 14:46
  • @xLeitix: I don't think my answer is inconsistent with that. A PhD student is always going to have less freedom to deviate from the written rules than a professor, and is always entitled to be protected from bearing the brunt of the vagaries of department politics.
    – Henry
    Commented Apr 8, 2014 at 15:59
  • @Henry: Well, you do a tiny bit: You write "It's not your responsibility to fix the department's mess.", whereas the PhD students could be seen as what mainly forms the department. Unless the professor (maybe along with one or two postdocs) is ruling like a king (such professors do exist, as well), tackling problems is generally a community effort by all employees of the department, and bringing up such issues and at least suggesting solutions is first and foremost the responsibility of PhD students who usually have the most direct contact to students and the most direct view on ... Commented Jun 3, 2014 at 17:39
  • ... what is generally going on across lectures and courses organized by different professors from the perspective of those actually present in class. I agree the decision may in theory lastly be with the professor, and even if the respective professors would not want to make that decision themselves for some reason, a consultation with them is probably adviseable. Commented Jun 3, 2014 at 17:46
  • @O.R.Mapper: I didn't say PhD students don't have a role in fixing department problems. I said the responsibility for successfully getting a department level problem fixed does not fall on a single graduate student. We're talking about a situation where the PhD student carried out his responsibility--notifying the relevant official--and that official insisted on doing nothing about the situation.
    – Henry
    Commented Jun 3, 2014 at 19:31

"they don't want to have fights within the department" -- there's your answer. The department would prefer to have inconsistency between different courses/years, than enforce consistency.

Don't put it that way to the students, but acknowledge the truth to yourself, which is that there are better things for course assistants to do with their time, than worry about what other professors than "yours" do when they run this or other courses.

Maybe it isn't fair, but it's not exactly the assistant's job to make it fair or to decide whether a particular department or professor is applying the rules properly. You can (and have) raised the issue and got a decision. Since you know that there's a problem with students not knowing the rules, you can choose to make them clear to the students you see regardless of whether professors are required to announce them.

Make sure that when you're assisting one of the "bad" professors, you are clear what rules you should be passing on to the students in that class -- the exam regulations or whatever this professor has invented.

Now, as well as being an assistant, you're on the examinations committee. Oh ho ho ho. Well I never. Wellity well. With your other hat on, the shoe is on the other foot. That's where you make your case that a rogue department and/or rogue professors are disrespecting the exam regulations. As a committee you can consider whether the breaches are so serious as to overrule the department's desire not to have fights, and fight them :-)

The committee is also best placed to make a plausible recommendation how its rules should be enforced by policy.


The atmosphere in my course was very bad because of that.

The question is: should you really care about this?

Of course it is nothing nice to deal with, but I think there's something really wrong with your students if they constantly produced bad atmosphere just because you enforced the university rules. They will face uneven or even clearly unfair conditions during the course of their entire live, so at some stage they must accept this. They should recognise your authority in establishing the rules. You won't teach them this if you will finally relax the rules or influence other courses.

I don't say you shouldn't care about the student feelings, but I think it's more important to teach them respect and some kind of immunity.

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