I think this is an unspoken question in academia: how do you factor in the effort put forth by a student before taking your class?

I think the answer to this question has several consequences:

  1. it presents accurate reflection of your teaching,

  2. it presents more accurate reflection of the quality of work of a student

It also addresses a more profound question:

Is good educational outcome measured by grades a product of privilege or a measure of intelligence?

Personal anecdote:

In my undergrad classes, I find for some courses the class will be divided into two camps - one who has done some work outside of the class (the ones who have a background), another who will try to learn the course material as the course progresses.

The results are vastly different. The ones who have done work outside of class will achieve higher grade across the board, are more motivated, ask extremely technical questions in classes, gets all the attention of the professor as the next "rising star", etc., whereas the other students who haven't had as much experience prior coming to class will try his/her hardest with uncertain outcomes and will tend to struggle a great deal more.

From my own observation, a course taught by a lecturer who uses less conventional course material seems to even out the grade much better than a lecturer who uses standard material - since in these cases, the advanced students are less able to predict what will show up on the exams.

This is most significant in computer science classes. Any computer, CS, programming classes will teach things in two folds: practical and theoretical. I find in many of my classes, a portion of the student will have a great deal of knowledge in the former, therefore significantly reducing his/her course load. How easy is it to ace an introduction to programming course if you already have years of experience in the language? These courses will always produce several students who go on doing interesting research or work at some big-name companies, and the lecturer will be praised as being effective at teaching. But it is so obvious to me, that the student - the one who has taken years of programming at middle to high school level, a summer course at another University... - is more advantaged in this area than a student who is just coming in to be acquainted with a field of study.

Hence, what is the ethics of preparing yourself for a course before it begins given such uneven playing field in today's academic setting? Will this be a mark of a motivated student who is genuinely interested to learn a subject or a student who is just trying to get ahead and earn good grades? Why should or shouldn't a student prepare himself for all the courses he will take one or two years down the road?

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    The Ethics of Preparing for a Course Long Before Actually Taking it; I don't get, why it may be unethical.
    – enthu
    Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 13:39
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    Are you using "Ethics" in the sense of "dealing with right and wrong?" In other words, are you asking if it is right or wrong to prepare for a course long before actually taking it? If I've understood your question, then I think the answer is most certainly "no, it is not wrong." To say otherwise is tantamount to saying that it is wrong to learn outside of a class; at least, for anything that might possibly be learned in a "course" somewhere. Learning is a lifelong process that should be pursued both in and out of classrooms.
    – Josh
    Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 14:30
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    When I was a student, I would start preparing for next semester's classes during the current semester. I would do it right after signing up for next semester classes. I would visit the instructor's website, and grab all the material I could find - from lecture notes through homework problems and answer to exams and answers ;) I wasn't skating - I learned a lot. I just happened to graduate with straight A's and one B (rather than mostly A's and some B's).
    – user18370
    Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 19:07
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    how do you factor in the effort put forth by a student before taking your class? — I don't.
    – JeffE
    Commented Aug 26, 2014 at 3:02
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    I get the gist of it, but the wording comes across as akin to "is stretching before exercising ethical?" ie it's not only not unethical, but it's optimal. Main negative that comes to mind is if assigning a group project and the ahead-of-the-curve student takes control and does all the work while everybody else stands aside not knowing what's going on.
    – coburne
    Commented Aug 26, 2014 at 12:54

12 Answers 12


IMO, there is no ethical problem with students preparing for a course in advance. As Moriarty notes in their answer, what matters is that the student learns the material, not when or how they learn it.

That said, there are (at least) two actual problems that your question touches upon:

  • the occasional problem of advanced (or self-taught) students taking beginner-level courses for "easy credits", and

  • the practical problem of teaching a course for students with a highly variable baseline experience level.

The first one could be considered unethical behavior in some circumstances. For example, let's say I'm a math major who decides to minor in biology, and the university happens to offer an "introductory math for biologists" course. If I was unscrupulous enough, and nothing specifically forbade me from doing so, I might be able to take that course and basically just show up for the exam, getting free biology credits for stuff I learned in first-year math.

(In fact, I freely admit to having done something similar myself on occasion. For example, one of the last courses I took as an undergrad, to make up the credits I needed to graduate, was a first-year "computer literacy" class that basically consisted of learning how to use a web browser, e-mail and a word processor. As I had already completed a minor in computer science, as well as worked for several years as a full-time software developer, I hardly need to mention I did not find it much of a challenge. Still, it got me the three extra credit points of "general studies" that I needed.)

It could also be argued that there is no problem: if you consider the credits to be awarded for knowing the material, then I clearly deserve them. On the other hand, if you consider the credits to be earned for learning something, then I clearly do not (as I already got credited for learning the same material once, back when I first learned it in math class).

More generally, issues like this can occur any time an institute offers multiple introductory-level courses covering essentially the same material (but possibly from a different angle) and does not specifically forbid students from taking more than one of them. When that happens, a student can effectively learn the material once, but get credited for it n times, where n is the number of such overlapping courses they can find.

The usual solution here is simply to try to find and close any such loopholes. Some possible methods for doing that include:

  • explicitly designating certain courses as equivalent to each other, so that a student can only receive credits for one of them, and

  • restricting certain very basic introductory courses, like the "math for biologists" example I gave above, only to students actually majoring in the target field (here, biology).

Also, if students are going to commit such shenanigans anyway, it can be argued that they should be allowed to demonstrate their competence in a separate exam, so that they don't need to waste time and classroom space, and skew the grade distribution, by actually sitting in a class they don't need.

As for the second problem I mentioned above, i.e. teaching a class where some students already know much more of the material than others, there are several distinct approaches that people may argue, depending on their general teaching philosophies. My personal suggestion, which I'd consider a "moderate" position, is to take a "triage" approach and mentally divide your students into distinct groups:

  1. The advanced group consists of the students who already know much of the material, and just want to show their competence and get the official certificate for it. Some may be hoping to learn some interesting new tidbits, but they'll still pass the course even if they learn nothing new at all.

  2. The learning group consists of those students who actually more or less match the intended level of the course: they know the prerequisites reasonably well, and are reasonably capable learners, but don't yet know the material you'll be covering. In many (but not all) courses, this group will make up the majority of the students, and they're the ones you should adjust your teaching pace for.

  3. The struggling group consists of the students who lack some of the prerequisite knowledge the course assumes, or who are otherwise falling behind the rest of the class. They'll likely need remedial teaching to have any hope of passing the course. You should not have many students in this group; if you do, it may be sign that you're going too fast, and some of the students that should be in the "learning" group are falling behind.

It can be a temptation to focus on the "star" students in the advanced group, since they're the best in class, have the most interesting questions (if any), and generally appear to offer the most reward for the least effort. They're also the ones most likely to end up as future grad students in your field, which makes focusing on them even more tempting.

However, the advanced students are, by definition, not the ones the course is actually intended for, and they're not the ones you're really there to teach. Rather, your main goal with the advanced students (insofar as they come to class at all, rather than just taking the exam directly) is simply to ensure that they're not bored. There are several ways you can achieve this, such as:

  • giving the advanced students additional bonus exercises or projects that go beyond the standard syllabus, or letting them pursue their own side projects;

  • encouraging the more advanced students to help the less advanced ones;

  • encouraging students to come see you outside class if they'd like to learn more about something that sparked their interest; and

  • if you still cannot engage some students in class, letting them skip it if they already know the material.

As for the struggling students, there is an argument to be made that you, ideally, shouldn't have any, and that even a single student falling behind is a sign that you should slow down until they can catch up. Essentially, this approach amounts to lumping the "learning" and "struggling" groups together, adjusting your pace to the tail end of that combined group, and treating any students who progress faster as "advanced".

While there is some merit to this approach, it can also be taken too far. Especially in higher education, it is often simply not possible to set the pace by the slowest students in class, and still have enough time to cover all the material in the allotted time. Instead, as an alternative to simply letting these students fail, it may be more effective to set the in-class pace by the majority of the class, and to focus specific remedial efforts (such as individual tutoring, possibly by some of the more advanced students) on those that need it.

Of course, even this won't always help, and sometimes you may simply have to let a student fail. In particular, it's important to learn to distinguish students who'd like to learn, but have a hard time doing so, from those who are simply too lazy or disinterested to learn. The former group can be helped; the latter cannot.

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    +1 - well written and comprehensive! Noting that bonus / side projects that go above the learning requirements for the course probably shouldn't be worth marks. You could assign "bonus marks" to offset losses in easier questions (this would encourage the "learning" group to give the harder bits a go!), but the bonus questions shouldn't be required in order to score 100%.
    – Moriarty
    Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 14:54
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    @IllegalImmigrant: The pacing issue has been discussed here before, and I agree with many of the suggestions (like using quick in-class exercises to gauge student progress). Even just asking students to raise their hands if they understand and want you to move on is better than having them shout it -- it's a lot easier to count hands than to listen to random shouts from the audience. (Tip: don't actually count hands when asking this; look for the students who haven't raised their hands instead. Ideally, of course, you'd hope not to find any.) Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 15:36
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    Restricting registrations is a delicate matter. For example, a Physicist knows almost all the EM a Telecom Eng needs, and almost all the Atomics a Chemist does; so even advanced courses will be "easy". But then, there are always details of the art, and focuses that are different. After seeing it in my degree, I could probably have scrapped enough points to pass without studying some related courses in other disciplines, but if I wanted to become actually good at them, I would need to take them and learn the particular details.
    – Davidmh
    Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 16:16
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    There's also the question of, "if a professor knows this is happening, is it ethical to accept rewards, positive reviews, etc., that are based on students doing well in the class?" Commented Aug 26, 2014 at 15:54
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    "The struggling group consists of the students who lack some of the prerequisite knowledge the course assumes, or who are otherwise falling behind the rest of the class. They'll likely need remedial teaching to have any hope of passing the course. You should not have many students in this group; if you do, it may be sign that you're going too fast, and some of the students that should be in the "learning" group are falling behind." or you're like my university, and you seem to regularly ignore preqrequisites and then wonder why those people fail the course.
    – user12726
    Commented Aug 27, 2014 at 0:59

A student takes a course to prove he learned the stuff in the syllabus. He/she passes the course, and then has official certification that he knows that stuff.

Who cares when he learned it?

The trickiest part is keeping the course interesting for the high-flyers, without alienating the less able (or less knowledgeable) class members.

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    "He/she passes the course, and then has official certification that he knows that stuff. Who cares when he learned it?" Oh, the naivete. If this was the case then why did my university want to charge me 150% the course fee to challenge the exam?
    – tar
    Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 9:47
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    @tar That sounds like a very expensive fee (unless it was a very cheap course!). If your challenge is successful, you probably will (and should!) receive a refund of that fee, and the examiner will have been proven to have made a mistake in your grading. If your challenge is unsuccessful, then it would appear that you haven't learned the course material to the examiner's satisfaction. I fail to see how this backs up your accusation of naivety.
    – Moriarty
    Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 10:07
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    @tar is using "challenge" in a different sense from you. He's not claiming the exam was unfair or appealing the grade. Rather, he wants to get credit for the course just by taking an exam, without doing a semester worth of homework, projects, midterm exams, attending the lectures, etc. That is called "challenging the course by exam" at US universities. Apparently his charges a fee which is greater than the ordinary tuition for the course. He doesn't get it back if he passes (though in some cases he might if he fails). Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 14:05
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    @NateEldredge Ah, I didn't even know you could do that. Exams and assignments are often very different in terms of the skills they assess (especially CS!), so I'm surprised that you can do that at all. It likely costs more than the regular course because of the extra preparation involved: perhaps the assignments also have to be completed, and different versions of exams (and possibly assignments) have to be prepared for the challenger unless he sits them at the same time as the normal class. Seems perverse, but fair. I still don't see how I'm being naive!
    – Moriarty
    Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 14:45
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    Usually the assignments do not have to be completed, or perhaps just one or two of them. Sometimes it is necessary to write a new exam, but more often the instructor will reuse one from a previous year, perhaps with minor modifications. Institutions usually place rather strict limits on how many times you can do this; it's mostly used in situations where Course B has Course A as a prerequisite, but the student is already familiar with the material of Course A. But I think it's odd for this to cost more than taking the course normally. Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 15:18

The goal of a university course is education on a particular topic. Students who study before the class are educating themselves on that topic. Students who don't study before the class are, hopefully, being educated by the teacher on that topic. Both of these things achieve the goal.

Frankly, if you have even the slightest suspicion that it is unethical for your students to educate themselves, you are in the wrong place. There is no such thing as "too educated" in academia.


I think the question can be greatly simplified:
Should credits be awarded for effort or for knowledge?
The person who knows their stuff without having it picked up in class was obviously smart enough to pick up the stuff they needed to know on their own or before hand. Call that preparation, genius or whatever, if he or she knows their stuff, they deserve the credit, no matter how long, short, hard or easy they had to work to learn it.
Should you give credit to someone who does not know what their doing, just because they put a lot of effort and time into it? I hope not! I do not want to be operated on by a doctor that put many years of hard work into NOT KNOWING their stuff, I rather get an operation from a self taught autistic savant that spend 3 Month reading and watching videos, acing all tests, never sitting in a single class!
Sure I admire people that put a lot of effort into learning something, because they can put that much effort into something, but when a job needs to be done, the only thing that counts is, who can do the job!
It's a shame that so many Universities require students to take nonsensical courses, which they have to pay a lot of money for, rather than giving them the option to just take the test. And why do Universities that allow you to just take the test want like 50% of the tuition from students that only come in once for the test. Quite an obscene payment for the time to take the test and correct it...
Don't get me wrong, credit for effort is GREAT, ... in Kindergarten!

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    Well put. I have long been uninterested in my "subject", mathematics, merely as a game for grade-getting and such, or contest, either. "School" too often perverts the goals of science and scholarship. And the confusion of the "moral" virtue of "trying hard" with the actual virtue of "being effective" makes a mess. But commodification of "education" amplifies the gate-keeping ticket-taking aspect in a way that confuses many people. And, sadly, at the same time, some coursework does descend to the minimum level compatible with a derivative picture of the goals... Nevermind... Commented Aug 26, 2014 at 1:14
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    Should credits be awarded for effort or for knowledge? — Neither. They should be awarded for demonstrated skill.
    – JeffE
    Commented Aug 26, 2014 at 3:06
  • Thanks, the hits it even better! Since knowing something and not being able to apply your knowledge as a skill helps nobody.
    – fgwaller
    Commented Aug 26, 2014 at 21:08

It doesn't directly apply, because it doesn't so come from prior prep work or experience, but during my doctoral program, there was a mandatory class that had two different groups in it - PhDs in that department, and PhDs outside it who, while fairly sophisticated, clearly lacked the same background in terms of coursework.

How he handled this is to divide the course into "tracks". There was a modest, "shooting for a B" track, and a much more challenging "shooting for an A" track, with a hard mode "shooting for the A+ track" that actually had little effect besides drawing a certain sort of student, since the + in a grade doesn't even exist at that institution.

The department majors were required to be on the A or A+ track, everyone else could choose. You might similarly be able to ask students to self-rate their familiarity with the subject, and strongly encourage those who rate themselves well to consider a more challenging track.


There is actually two good questions contained here but conflating the two would be a mistake.

  1. What to do about students who already have a lot of knowledge that would be covered in the course?

  2. Is there a socioeconomic problem with some people having more resources and therefor being more prepared.

The reason I split these questions is that it is entirely possible for a student to use public resources, or take classes in a way that they end up not challenged by a class. And depending on the motive there should be no problem with this. If I was interested in a topic I would probably do some amount of self study before enrolling in a college course (I have finished a B.S. and am working on a M.E.), I have also taken classes at the Master's level that were far less challenging for me simply because my Bachelor's was in Math. However, if I were to take a class that I knew all the material for just to get more credits or improve my grade there is an issue because I would be taking space and resources from people who would learn more from being there. So, there is no ethical problem for a student to self study because they love the material or so that they can maximize their return on the course... in fact we should encourage them. But taking a useless class in order to meet a metric is wasteful and denies resources to others.

(For the next part my view is that of someone living in the U.S. but it is applicable widely)

As for the second question, I agree that there is a socioeconomic issue with some students having the resources to be more prepared, my question is how to we mitigate this? I would suggest a combination of more free computer and book access, better schools and more activities outside of school being available. Personally as a father I am making an investment in my son by using my wealth to enrich my child's mental abilities, and that is perfectly fine. As a people we need to do better about erasing economic gaps and realizing social gaps are not gaps at all but opportunities to grow. So ethical? On a personal level yes, on a societal level no. Who is to blame? All of us... but all of us is also the solution.


For our purposes, there are three types of students causing the concern:

1) Students who have taken similar, or comparable-level courses and are "repeating" this course for a "cheap" grade.

2) Students who have not taken comparable level courses but have "boned up" ahead of time.

3) Students who have not done 1) or 2) but whose proficiency in computers give them a "natural" advantage.

The ones we should be most concerned about are the students in the first category, the "repeaters." That is solved by establishing course levels, to say the students who have passed courses at an equal or higher level cannot take this course.

The students in category 2) don't provide much a worry. At one level, you want to applaud them for the "eager beaver" tactics, but at another level, it might not do them much good.That's because they are (probably) learning the book, or course, not the material. As you pointed out, introducing new material dissipates their advantage most of the time.

The students in the third category are the ones you want to encourage. They are those whose general computer efficiency at work or playing computer games gives them an advantage in computer science, even if they haven't seen the material before. Why should that not be the case? Someone who has worked with hammers and nails and other tools will have an advantage in physics over someone who hasn't.

Yale math professor Serge Lang would "sort out" his students on the first day of Calculus class, by giving an algebra quiz.It was one that everyone would "pass," but some would do so faster than others, and those were the likely "A" students.


There are cases in Academia where students are held to different standards based on preparation. At my university there were some classes in mid-level physics that were cross-listed as both undergraduate and graduate classes. Typically the students were graded on two curves, one curve for undergraduates biased by actual undergraduate scores, and a second curve for graduate students biased by actual grad student scores. I thought that this approach was both merciful and a decent solution to the "different levels of preparation" issue raised by Illegal Immigrant.

When the differences between students are not easily catagorized as above, it becomes difficult to divide students into groups. This is a practical matter, not an ethical one. Unfortunately, practicalities often trump ethics in American society since Americans place a high value on simplicity and equal treatment. It is a real problem, but usually there is no admissible (constitutional) mitigation for the problem.


Some parts of the implicit hypotheses of the question are misguided. First, courses are about the students, not about the teachers. The teachers may give the students something, but if the students already "have too much", this is the opposite of a "problem".

Yes, it is a minor sociological problem to have highly motivated students in a room with unmotivated students. :) Hmmm. :)

Also, a "problem" to have genuinely gifted students in a room with ... uh, maybe anyone who'll "feel bad" if they can't "compete"? But, wait, why is it a competition. Oh, yes, "grades". Hm. Rewind. Don't punish kids who're talented and who've taken initiative, and don't punish kids who're just "doing the class", either. Classes should not be a test of giftedness, (or else it's a rip-off), nor should they punish it.

The notion that we can arrange to have student populations be homogeneous is ridiculous... btw.

That is, the outcomes of inhomogeneity are inevitable. If the gifted kids, or kids who've read lotta books before, already know all the usual pranks, it's fine. Don't make up extra-perverse pranks to try to bring them down, and don't assign them extra classroom chores as punishment for doing well. That is, don't add perversities to the accidents of nature and society.

When I was younger, I did often sign up for courses that I already felt I'd read about sufficiently to not feel at a disadvantage. Seemed reasonable to me. Not to mention that a sincere person might not feel constrained (as other answerers have mentioned) to wait to take a class to read the dang book. Srsly.

Should unambitious students feel intimidated by the few students who've already read all the stuff, know much more? Uh... yes. Not that they should fear that their deficit from that level will be fatal, but, yes, that that level of function is possible and reasonable and desirable. Any program that makes precocity penalizable is criminally perverse: knowing more is good; knowing less is less good.

One operational problem is that such stuff is not easily "formalizable" and "institutionalizable", but that should not be allowed to be an obstacle. It's possible to teach "typical" kids, and not torment them, without hassling exceptional kids. Obviously.


Whats the difference of the student (say, X) who studied long before taking the course and the student (say, Y) who failed the course the first time and have to retake it in the next year? Seems to me that X is a better student than Y, because Y once failed the course. But in term of preparation before taking the course, both have them. And if any of them obtained an A grade in ethical way, that is, by doing their homework, and doing the tests correctly, I find there is no problem at all. We shouldn't discriminate either X,Y, or normal student in obtaining their credits/grades.

As for whether credits should be awarded to effort or to knowledge, it is at the discretion of the professor/class, the professor might give grades partially on effort (homework, essay, or project) and partially on knowledge (test results).

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    I cannot at all agree that it is legitimate to grade "effort", since this is not possible to measure sensibly. It's hard enough to measure "performance". Commented Aug 30, 2014 at 19:14

Ethics aside, as many people have noted that the concerns that arise aren't strictly ethics-dependent, there are practical issues to address.

Harvey Mudd College saw this in a big way in its CS courses, particularly the introductory sequence. Historically, they had a required intro programming course that first-term freshman took unless they placed out via AP or local exam. This left a lot of students with substantial programming background mixed with students who had none. The class dynamics were broken in many ways from this. Students with experience could answer questions and complete assignments much more readily than those without. Students without would often get disheartened, feeling like they lacked talent in comparison, rather than recognizing the difference in background from their more advanced peers.

They addressed this issue by separating incoming students into various streams until they either completed the intro course and went on to another major, or were on equal footing going into the CS-major coursework. The true intro course was split into sections between students with moderate experience, and those with little to none. Switching between them was made relatively accessible. Students with more experience to place out of the intro course, but not with all the material the school wanted them to have for the major, took an advanced intro course that covered the first in-major course's material, while those who took the plain intro would take that a second semester course covering just the more advanced material.

The consequences of this were pretty huge. Gender parity in the CS major shot up, even faster than the rapid shift of the school's overall demographics. Enrollment in subsequent CS courses and the CS major increased among all groups of students.


In my honest opinion, this is more of a corollary to a fundamental systemic problem than an ethical one. The questions to be raised is why such students take those courses. There are few motivies I have personally witnessed.

  • To get an easy grade
  • The course is mandatory or a prerequisite with no way around it
  • Students need to fit some numerical credit criteria and they don't want to take it

All 3 of these reasons exhibit issues with how a university function. The universities seem to behave as if their priority is to give an "equally" measured certificate. Whether or not someone actually learns something seem to come second. This is not only universities' fault. Institutions of all sorts seem to use GPA as a significant measure of success. I have seen scholarships or university benefits where GPA was literally the main judging factor. This motivates people to not "risk" a lower grade in a more technical course when they can get an easy "A" by practically learning very few things.

Another issue is that the exams are in many senses unfair. It is quite possible for one to get a worse letter grade than one should given their understanding. Because of the results mentioned and many others these people are encouraged to retake the course in order to improve their passing grade rather than taking follow up courses.

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