A typical freshman course on calculus has about 100 students every semester. If the course is divided into 4 sections, each has 25 students and a different instructor.

Because the instructors are different, a student's grade may strongly depend on who teaches his section. Lazy students could ask other students before registering who is the easiest grader or who makes easy or straightforward exams, etc. This is unfair to the rest of the students.

Has anybody else faced the same problem? And how did you overcome it?

What criteria one should impose to guarantee that a student's grade will only weakly depend on who is teaching him?.

We are thinking about giving all sections the same midterms and finals. But, obviously this is not enough


6 Answers 6


The more common problem across multiple sections of large courses taught by several different instructors is content drift, not grade drift. At my institution we have three General Chemistry I sections, and the distributions of A's, B's, and C's among the students does not change significantly depending on which of 6 people teach the course. The distribution of D's and F's does vary, however. What is more troublesome to us is that some instructors will cover 8 chapters, some will cover 9, some 10, and so on.

However, if you really want to minimize grade drift, then do the following, which will also eliminate content drift:

  1. Coordinate the class - same textbook, same syllabus, identical assignments, exams, everything.
  2. Agree ahead of time on a common grading policy, including cutoffs, curves, grade disputes, etc., and enforce it uniformly.
  3. Teach from a common outline so that all sections get the same material in the same week.
  4. Meet frequently, including at least one meeting before the class starts.
  5. Grade equitably, which may seem difficult, unless you do the following: Professor A grades all of Assignment 1 across all 4 sections. Professor B grades all of assignment 2, etc. Better yet, hire one person (a grad student maybe) to do all of the grading for all 4 sections.
  • Just to add to the last suggestion: when I’ve been involved with such courses, we’ve usually split it up more finely, like “On Assignment 1, Prof A grades Q1 for all students, Prof B grades Q2 for all students…” and so on. This both helps further with evening out the grades, and means that the professors’ workload is more evenly distributed, since “Prof A grades all of assignment 1 for all students” would be a lot of work in a big class.
    – PLL
    Aug 17, 2016 at 7:21

So far, I think this is better to make a rotation of the instructor. Split the course in 4 parts, each part being taught by one instructor to all the students. Each part is graded independently by each instructor as well.

If this is not doable (slots in parallel, with a strong sequencing of the content), then the only thing I can think of this making as much grading as possible in common (same exam, etc.) and normalize the grades for the rest.

Another possible way of action is to randomly select the correspondence between groups and exams. Let me be clearer: let say that two instructors A and B give a lecture in common. We toss a coin to decide whether group A (or B) have exam by instructor A. In that way, students cannot have a strategy that maximizes their grades.

  • 1
    Doing each part being taught by one instructor to all the students is not always possible since each student may need to learn sec-1 before sec-2 and sec-3
    – Stat-R
    Aug 27, 2012 at 10:59
  • 1
    I suspect the intent is that if you have three instructors over three sections in a fifteen week course, the first instructor teaches all three sections for the first five weeks at the same time and then the second instructor takes over, and so on.
    – Ben Norris
    Nov 7, 2014 at 11:25

You already said, "we are thinking about making same midterms and same finals exams to all sections, but obviously this is not enough".

In effect it is not possible on a practical level to be equal since it all depends on how each professor teach and interact with his/her students. Each professor has specific personality and way of doing things which different people/student would like and dislike. However, somehow the following principles are followed by each professor, each class may be comparably good:

  1. Professors are dedicated to student's welfare
  2. There is a good understanding among the professors and they are in agreement with what should be taught (This may include regular meetings among themselves)

Apart from this each professor has his/her natural way of teaching that he/she is most confident about and this cannot be separated.

  • I disagree. If the common background and the exams are designed before the beginning of the lecture, then it is perfectly doable to share most of the material. Instructors can share exams without giving the exact same lectures. Aug 27, 2012 at 7:05
  • 2
    I was trying to hint at something deeper beyond setting common exams/examiners/section-instructors. I said there will be some difference always unless there is some randomness and each teacher teach a given section to all the students.
    – Stat-R
    Aug 27, 2012 at 10:58

The above is the common situation in Israel. Most of the freshmen-year classes are given by multiple lecturers, while the students are tested by the same midterm and final. They also have exactly the same homeworks and due dates, etc.

Officially, the sections are "identical". One professor is declared as the leading-professor and s/he sets the syllabus and takes any course-wide decision. Since all the professors are aware that the homeworks/exams are the same, they all teach the same material, more or less, giving the same emphasis on different subjects, more or less, etc. It should be the case that if one student misses one lecture at some week, s/he can go the the other lecture and be able to continue from the same point.

Of course, this is not perfect, and the different sections are not "identical", but rather, "close enough". In addition, an important thing is that students can choose which section to go. Indeed, sometimes "good lecturers" gets a class full of students (with people sitting on the floor, etc) while "bad" lecturers teach a half-empty class. Most of the times, there are no "bad" lecturers (there are better and worse, but many time the difference is not substantial enough that students change their schedule), so most of the classes are 70-90% full on avg.

Exams are graded by the same team, regardless of the section you are enrolled to. In general, the sections are "technical" partition, and any decision is course-wide and not section-wide. All students from all sections should be treated the same in the most objective way.


I did upvote most of the other answers... but would like to add something:

Yes, it is important to try to be "fair". Sometimes, "uniformity" is the best approximation we can systematically arrange to "fairness". Other answers discussed how to implement this (common mid-terms, common finals).

However, there is sometimes a danger that "uniformity" seems to demand that everyone's situation be degraded to that which can be guaranteed for everyone else. That is, while it is highly desirable to guard against bad effects of poor teaching, it is surely also desirable to not prevent benefits of good teaching, as a side effect of administrative design.

Similarly, while the impulse is understandable, keeping instructors "secret" so that students cannot seek out desirable instructors (desirable for both wholesome and less-than-wholesome reasons) is a bit perverse, in my opinion. Namely, it always seems to me that "equality" achieved by suppressing information is not at all moving to maximize social welfare, but only "equalizing" it in a rather poor, default sense.

Students "voting with their feet" is a "problem" at all levels, and some of that is reasonable, some unreasonable, of course. But the "solution" of having instructors be "secret" amounts to merely ignoring genuine issues in the situation by trying to obliterate information.

  • Should all information about the teachers be revealed? For example, should the age, gender, political affiliation, and race of each teacher be explicitly mentioned?
    – JRN
    Aug 28, 2012 at 1:00
  • 2
    In the U.S., unless an individual voluntarily and deliberately discloses such things as @Joel mentions, they are "private" information. The actual chain of events would be that giving the instructor's full name would lead to their university web-page, and, yes, also, google-able information. Aug 28, 2012 at 12:32
  • thanks for the clarification. I agree with you that "uniformity" is sometimes not desirable.
    – JRN
    Aug 28, 2012 at 12:57

Aside from having common exams, one possibility is to withhold the names of the instructors until the registration is finished. In that way, students cannot choose sections based on who is teaching it.

Another possibility is to have all, say, 4 teachers teach all 4 sections: Teacher "W" teaches section "A" during the first quarter, then teaches section "B" during the second quarter, ..., while teacher "X" teaches section "B" during the first quarter, etc.

I do not completely agree with your statement that "the student grade in any section will strongly depend on who is teaching it." I think that the teacher is a factor, but not the main factor. An extremely lazy and weak student will fail no matter who the teacher is; An extremely hardworking and strong student will pass no matter who the teacher is. I believe the student is the main factor.

  • 2
    I think it's more the interaction between the teacher and the student with a productive interaction being only one of four outcomes. A motivated student can leave a class with a "bitter A", turned off from a topic he is talented in, because the professor and he didn't click. Not that you can click with every student (or faculty member).
    – mac389
    Aug 27, 2012 at 12:16
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    For any individual student, the choice of instructor can have a profound effect on their grade, their mastery of the material, and their enthusiasm for the topic.
    – JeffE
    Aug 27, 2012 at 13:08
  • I've had different experiences. Sometimes entire batches of students have different experiences. My control systems Professor was lenient at grading, keeping the class average at a C. He taught well, but however had to shift to another university before the second semester of that year. The other half of my batch had to deal with the second professor whose mean grade was a D. I think a Professor, in this way could perhaps make a large impact on a student's grades. Perhaps even on the grades of an entire batch of students.
    – Naresh
    Nov 23, 2012 at 6:51

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