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I took a course, with 2 term exams (20% each) and a final (30%). I achieved close to the highest score on the first term exam, the highest score on the second term exam, and the highest score on the final exam. In all cases, I was significantly above the average score (by >20 points). But I did rather poorly on the assignments, so my final score was 420/600. The average score was 250/600, and the class is graded on a curve.

The Professor gave me a final grade of B, instead of an A, claiming that a different student (caucasian) had a higher pre-final average than me by 40 points. This is possible, due to the assignments, but does not take into account our performances on the final exam, which was very difficult. The other student has not yet taken the final exam due to "external reasons" (so, it's possible no one will get an A in this class). Can I accuse the professor of discrimination, as I feel is the case?

How can I handle this?

Additional details:

  • The "pre-final" score is a weighted average of Exams and HW
  • I may have received the highest grade in the class. The student who didn't take the final has not yet received a grade.
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    something’s not right. From a comment below you claim to have 420/600, which is 70% for the course. Yet all exams (on which you did very well) are also worth 70% of the grade, suggesting you did not do well on assignments. It is entirely possible that another student could have had scores close to yours on the term exams and done really well on the assignment, so this person could easily end up with more than 420 points and therefore ahead of you… Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 4:26
  • @ZeroTheHero As explained below, said student had a higher HW average, hence the higher pre-final average. However, as he did not take the final, I have explained to the professor that the entire comparison is moot. I am not aware if he received scores close to me on the term exams, but that is indeed a possibility.
    – DarkRunner
    Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 4:29
  • @ZeroTheHero Well, I have presented all the facts. There is not much more to add. I will just say that as he has not taken the final, I told the professor that I don't think he should be part of the conversatoin.
    – DarkRunner
    Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 4:37
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    so taking this other student out of the discussion: you want an A with 420/600, in a class where the average is 250/600, and in a class where apparently you did very poorly on assignments? Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 4:42
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    I'm not following. Why doesn't the other student have a grade? Do they have to take the final after their "external circumstances" have resolved?
    – cag51
    Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 19:53

4 Answers 4

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In summary, I think you should file a grievance with the department. I assume that your professor is tenured, so the likely outcome is that he will receive some feedback / counceling on how to do his job better in the future.

Now the gory details..

I don't like grading on a curve. I think it's inappropriate for most classes. If the same material is taught every semester, but in some semester the students are so strong that almost everyone deserves an A, but in some other semester the students are so weak that almost no one deserves an A - so be it. Grade the students based on their own work, not that of their random cohort. Much of your frustration seems to stem from the use of the curve. I hope that your professor will stop using the curve in the future.

As other people pointed out, the numbers that you posted show that although you did well on the exams, you didn't do any homework, which is part of the grade. A lot of people (myself included) don't like students who skip the required homework. So if some student's final grade were borderline B+ or A-, and the student did not even attempt the homeworks that are part of the grade, then I'd definitely go for the lower grade. Frankly, it sounds to me very much that your professor simply decided to penalize you a whole letter grade for not doing the homework, which to me sounds excessive. This is why I suggest that you use the process for appealing your final grade, which your department undoubtedly has. You may get your grade changed to B+ or even A- if indeed you got a B because you skipped the homework. And don't skip the homework in the future!

Professor informed me that student did not take final due to "external reasons", which may be personal.

Your professor really shouldn't be discussing other students with you! If not for the curve, I'd just say that other students' performance should not concern you. But it does, because of the curve; and your professor may have broken some Federal rules by telling you too much. Here is some free training that would benefit him: https://studentprivacy.ed.gov/training/ferpa-101-colleges-universities :) Now the other student appears to have solid grounds to complain that the professor victimized him and violating his privacy by discussing him with you.

It's possible that the professor treated the other student better than you because the other student did the homework and you did not. This sounds most plausible.

It's also possible that the professor treated the other student better than you because the other student is caucasian. I see no evidence here of anyone's race being relevant, but you're free to make this allegation to the department, and see how that plays out. But practically, you're better off focusing on your grade being too low, rather than on someone else's grade being higher than yours.

When I was an undergraduate, many decades ago, it was quite common for a course syllabus to say that students who turned in all the projects and scored better than some threshold on term exams could skip the final and get an A. It seems to be less common these days and many departments actually have grading policies requiring that everyone take the final.

When I teach, it seems that every semester some students don't take the final with the rest of the class because they have some disability requiring them to have "double time". So they take the same exam as everyone else, but with a separate proctor, and get more time to work on it.

And some students can't take the scheduled final (for example, I once had a very pregnant student who went into labor on the day of the final), and take it later. Schools have procedures for that.

My point is that if you don't see some student taking the final with the rest of your class, you should not assume that he's getting some preferential treatment. But your professor is definitely wrong to discuss the other student with you.

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  • Thank you for your in depth answer. To clarify, I completed all homework which combines to 51 pages of LaTeX-ed math, but received low grades on the HW because I got many questions wrong. I learned from my mistakes and did well in the exams.
    – DarkRunner
    Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 19:44
  • Thanks for the clarification. I misunderstood, I thought you didn't do any HW at all. So the trend was that you were getting HW questions wrong at the beginning, but were getting everything right by the end of the semester. Given that many students cheat and use Chegg or copy their homework from others, I think penalizing a student for trying on their own and getting HW wrong at the beginning of semester is far too harsh. Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 19:55
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Before you accuse anyone of anything, get facts. Avoid confrontational language like “accusing”, and instead “seek clarifications”. Establish for certain the facts that you have laid out, i.e. make absolutely sure someone really got an A without completing the final exam. There could be rumours and incorrect information circulating so you need to be sure about your facts.

If you need additional clarification, if your final grade is not as per course outline or other usual scale of assessment, consider an appeal. In most universities there is a formal procedure for such appeals, often with various stages, eventually escalating to deans and/or review panels.

Before you “accuse” an instructor of discrimination, make sure you have followed due process else the system will ignore your complaint.

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    @DarkRunner Why is the other student relevant at all? Stop wondering and thinking about the other student. Is your grade fair relative to your score on everything in the course, including the final?
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 3:55
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    @DarkRunner And homework? You conveniently seem to leave that out. Do your grades convert into some point total? How does that total compare to the threshold for an A?
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 4:03
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    with due respect: it seems to me quite a bit of information is missing but if you are wronged and the facts are in your favour, follow the appeal procedure. Accusing people without all the facts will get you nowhere. Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 4:10
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    @DarkRunner If the professor says 425 points is the threshold for an A, and your case is "I have 420 points and feel I sufficiently justified my case", you have zero case. Instead of asking about this other student, ask what the points needed for an A would be.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 4:24
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    @DarkRunner This conversation with you is exhausting me. I suspect anyone reviewing your case will feel similarly unless you adjust your communication style.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 4:32
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I agree with @ZeroTheHero entirely, but I'm going to take a slighty different approach here and focus on the way you have phrased your question. You use the word discrimination, and it is that word that is worth examining.

Discrimination often has two faces: discrimination against someone or something (perhaps on the grounds of sex, race, personal dislike, disability, or age), and discrimination in favor of someone, or for someone, (again perhaps, on the grounds of sex, race, favoritism, disability, or age). Your tone suggests that you think you might have been discriminated against; you feel hurt and as if you have been treated unfairly. However, even if some kind of discrimination has occurred (as yet unproved ... to quote @ZeroTheHero, "get the facts"), it might be that the discrimination has been exercised in favor of the other person rather than against you.

The distinction is important. For example, in my university, the entrance examination grades of student applicants from low-socioeconomic backgrounds are given an automatic boost of 5 points. However unfair that might seem to a student who missed out on a university place by 1 point because they were beaten by a low-SES student whose original unboosted grade was 4 points lower, the policy is intended to exercise a positive-discrimination bias in favor of low-SES students, rather than to punish high-SES students. Similarly, at many universities, a student with who is registered as having a disability will be given more time to complete an examination, even in the absence of proving that the specific disability would have had an impact on performance in the exam!

Discrimination in all it's guises, positive and negative, often seems unfair to at least some people; but it is a deliberate and lawful element of a great deal of public policy in the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom.

My intention, with this somewhat discursive answer, is to point out that unless you know the policies of your university in details, and unless you know the circumstances of the other student in details (which is highly unlikely), then any accusation of discrimination is likely to be on very shakey ground.

Following on from @ZeroTheHero, your first step might be to have a longer conversation with your professor, and ask exactly how your mark was calculated. You could also ask, without reference to any other student, whether that process applies equally to all students, or whether the university policy includes any positive discrimination aspects.

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  • Thank you for the extensive answer. Professor has provided a detailed calculation of my grade explaining 420/600. However, it is doubtful that he would concede/state whether this is an instance of positive discrimination. And furthermore, I doubt University policy explicitly discusses positive discrimination, but perhaps.
    – DarkRunner
    Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 4:53
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Your professor gave the other student the final grade before he/she even takes the final exam. In my opinion, that should haven't been done. However, it is not necessarily a violation of your institution's code of conduct, which you will have to check it yourself.

At many institutions including mine, the exam structure is totally at discretion of the course instructor. That means that they may change it if it is really necessary (e.g. adversarial situations), even for a single student. They can change the mode of the exam from written exam to oral exam and vice versa. Thay may grant exam exemption based on students' performance (e.g. regularly submitting homework with excellent results; class participation;...).

However, the main point of my answer (this part) is to address the question whether or not it was unreasonable that he gave you a B (for 420/600) while giving the other student A. You mentioned that the final exam accounted for 30%, which was 180 points. Before the final exam took place, his/her score was 40 points higher than yours. It implies that he/she could earn up to 180 points at the final exam (560/600 which is 140 points higher than yours), so it was not too unreasonable to give the other student a higher score than yours given his/her past performance.

Also, as other people pointed out in the comment section of ZeroTheHero's answer, 420/600 (~70%) seems not to be a high score for an A. However, I don't have information about the grade distribution of the course, so I cannot give any opinion on whether or not he/she or you deserved an A.

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  • Sure. I see your point. The average score in the class is ~250/600.
    – DarkRunner
    Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 4:35
  • @DarkRunner but if the marking is relative it simply means you did well compared with the rest, not that others did not do better than you. The average could be depressed by some very poor performances, or the distribution could be bimodal with lots of people well above the average… Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 4:38
  • Sure, certainly possible, although it is a small class.
    – DarkRunner
    Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 4:44
  • I have been already exhausted because it is quite late here, but I tried to write the answer. Feel free to edit if there is any stupid mistake like "30% of 600 is 200". And good luck to you @DarkRunner. Try to get good grades but don't be too obsessed with grade. It does more harm than good.
    – Neuchâtel
    Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 4:47
  • Thank you @Pikachu피카츄 I appreciate your input. Best of luck
    – DarkRunner
    Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 4:50

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