Back in France I had a few teachers handing back exams in order from the highest grade to the lowest grade, and I recall there was some tense suspense, especially for for the people at the bottom of the stack. Is there any point in handing back exams ordered by grade? Assume there is no online platform to release grades.

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    Protecting because it's on list of "hot network questions," which tends to lead to answers from users of other SE sites who don't necessarily have any knowledge of academia.
    – ff524
    Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 23:01
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    @ff524 it'd be great if you could "protect" upvotes too, because once a question gets hot it can be quite poor (not worth downvotes, but not well researched!) and get more than a 'proper' question.
    – Alec Teal
    Commented Aug 3, 2015 at 4:41
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    Funny that you mention this. When I hand back exams, I often make it a point to tell the students that I am not handing them back in any particular order, because sometimes I've sensed anxiety building in the room – no doubt because some students were wondering if I was following this practice.
    – J.R.
    Commented Aug 3, 2015 at 9:19
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    @xLeitix Then he should post his comment on meta as a question. Commented Aug 3, 2015 at 18:37
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    To add some competitive incentive to do well
    – Evorlor
    Commented Aug 3, 2015 at 23:47

4 Answers 4


No good reasons, only tradition (this is how we've always done it) and sadism (the poorer scoring students should be shamed into doing better). In the US, these days, at the college level at least, it also might now also be considered bordering on a FERPA violation by some. If you announced that the grades were returned in score order, but didn't reveal an actual number, you might get a pass, but I bet you'd get a lot of complaints. If you announced the scores as you did it, you'd definitely be in violation.

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    None whatsoever especially since I've never experienced it. I have experienced the posting of grades publicly by last name, last 4 digits of SSN/Student ID number, and the calling out of grades in a classroom setting. None of these are allowed here now both for privacy reasons (FERPA) and to protect the feelings of students (which is related).
    – Bill Barth
    Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 19:08
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    Yeah, in the US grades are considered confidential information, so I'd be worried that passing them back sorted by grade could be construed as a violation. And as a child I remember hating when my elementary school teachers did this. I was almost always the top score, and it just made it so easy for the kids to know who to ostracize. College students are a little bit more mature than that (I've seen semblances of the behavior in them at times, though), but even without the legal consideration I avoid this behavior out of bad memories. Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 19:08
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    @FranckDernoncourt This is anecdotal and poorly sourced, but I have heard that French education has historically tended to embrace the practice of publicly shaming students who perform poorly, in order to push them to do better. Handing back exams like this would be part and parcel with such a philosophy.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 19:22
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    @jakebeal I can confirm that from my own experience (as a grown-up in two separate French classes), and this was the reason given by French colleagues why they didn't want to speak English - they are indoctrinated to feel shameful about anything other than perfection. Terrifying system.
    – l0b0
    Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 21:47
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    @l0b0 Anecdote as a reply: my aunt is French and has spoken English as part of her business for many many years (15-20). She doesn't speak English to her children at all because she's afraid her English isn't good enough (my uncle is American so he fills in). It's a very complex issue for French nationals, and quite honestly I don't know if it's something that can be changed without amending the education system in France. It's perhaps even deeper than that, a cultural issue that will continue to affect French citizens. Commented Aug 3, 2015 at 2:11

When I was a student, some twenty years ago, there were two common ways to release grades after a written exam:

  1. putting a notice on a board along the university corridors;
  2. gathering all the students in a classroom and calling them one by one to the desk.

In the first case, the order on the notice was typically alphabetical. In the second, the order of the calls was frequently by grade, especially when written tests were followed by an oral examination to be started soon after the release of the grades. In this case, the motivation was probably that of practicality: it's easier to draw the boundary line between those who have to take the oral examination and those who failed.

A funny note: I recall an exam in which the professor listed first those who passed the exam, and I wasn't there; then he listed those who failed the exam... and I wasn't even there; lastly, he added minaciously: and then there's Ortolano...

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    So did you fail or pass? :) Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 20:15
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    @FranckDernoncourt: I was borderline, but he admitted me to the oral examination, menacing of failing me at the first wrong word. I eventually passed the exam with a grade slightly above the bare minimum ;-) Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 20:22
  • @Joe: why new? It's old actually ;-) Commented Aug 3, 2015 at 17:50
  • @MassimoOrtolano New to me (and that's probably why it's new!)
    – Joe
    Commented Aug 3, 2015 at 17:51

I often sort essays by the grade so I can do a final check on the distribution and the consistency of the marking. We return essays through the school office, so the order does not matter. If I was handing them out to the class, for them not to be in grade order, I would have to introduce a random shuffle. Throughly shuffling 200+ essays would take a little time, likely in the critical 10 minutes before the start of class. That said, I would probably do it.

  • I agree, the only upside I could think of was to avoid shuffling the exams. Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 19:26
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    You probably wouldn't have to do a thorough shuffle, as long as no more than 2 or 3 at a time were in order. Even that might be overkill, as nobody except for the recipient sees his grade, and the order is unimportant unless people can guess what people got. That guess won't be exact, so probably just randomizing eight groups would be enough. Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 20:25
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    You wouldn't need to shuffle, just grab them from a "random" point in the pile instead of from the top.
    – o0'.
    Commented Aug 3, 2015 at 8:48
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    I agree with @Lohoris – you could also "cut the deck" three or four times. The order wouldn't be completely random, but it would only take 15 or 20 seconds to introduce some degree of unsortedness.
    – J.R.
    Commented Aug 3, 2015 at 9:15
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    You check the grade distribution of 200+ exams without a computer, sorting them by hand? Commented Aug 3, 2015 at 10:00

What happens in a high school setting is that the pupils will be curious about how their friends did in the exam. If you hand back the exams in this way, you'll be able to resume the lessons very soon after you're done giving back the exams.

  • similarly students will try to establish how well they did, based on the difficulty of the exam (rather than on raw mark), and one way to do this is by comparison to students of known quality. Eg I know Bob is a really smart dude, I did better than Bob, so I must be doing OK. Or I know Sam never shows up to class, I did worse than him, I guess my failure wasn't cos the exam was hard, but because I don't know the content. Thus there is chatter and speculation as a attempt to work out true proficiency. That said, I think a better way to know true proficiency is to release the mean and std dev. Commented Aug 3, 2015 at 4:35

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