I took a class with graduate students as an undergraduate student. The grading was on a curve and combined (as in graduate students were graded along with undergraduate students).

Is this normal in US universities as well? Won't the undergraduate students have a disadvantage competing against graduate students (pursuing 2nd year of Masters/PhD) for a good grade.

What ended up was:

1 A Grade

12 B Grades (7 of which went to graduate Students and 5 to undergraduate students)

20 C Grades

10 D Grades

3 E Grades

For a class of 25 graduate students and 21 undergraduate students.

  • 1
    I was graded in a common pool that included both graduate and undergraduate students several times including some cases where I was on both side of the line. It happens. Dec 1, 2012 at 5:44
  • 5
    Won't the undergraduate students have a disadvantage competing against graduate students — Given the grade distribution you describe, apparently not!
    – JeffE
    Dec 1, 2012 at 18:47
  • 3
    I do know one thing: the one guy with the A grade is a jerk. Would it have killed him to get a couple wrong for the good of everyone else's GPA?
    – corsiKa
    Dec 1, 2012 at 19:47
  • 6
    On a more serious note, what year were the undergrads? Most fourth year students I knew when I was in my fourth year were significantly more able than the masters students. Not to stereotype, but many of the masters students simply weren't able to get a job upon graduation, so continued schooling to avoid paying student loans. The difference between 4 and 6 years of schooling is significantly less than the difference between, say, 0 and 2 or 1 and 3. 2 years is not just 2 years.
    – corsiKa
    Dec 1, 2012 at 19:50
  • 2
    There is the famous case of Wharton, where the graduate students are not allowed to disclose their grades to prospective employers. This is ostensibly to encourage cooperation and learning for it's own sake, but is widely acknowledge to be a response to the superior performance of undergraduates in course work.
    – Zach H
    Aug 7, 2015 at 21:28

8 Answers 8


In the past, I've graded the pool together, and have also graded grads and undergrads separately. Ultimately this is a decision made by the instructor, who probably spelt this out in their syllabus before the class started.

  • Professor: Why would you grade undergraduate students with obviously 'lesser' background with graduate students? Won't this be skewing their grades negatively? Hope this does not come off as offensive...
    – Naresh
    Dec 1, 2012 at 7:04
  • 12
    why "lesser" ? advanced undergraduates and entering grads are closer than you think, and it's not uncommon for the UGs to be better.
    – Suresh
    Dec 1, 2012 at 10:00
  • I don't quite know about the US scenario, however, in India, most Masters students who enter university come with a year or two of Industrial experience in a relevant field. At least, that was the case in my class.
    – Naresh
    Dec 1, 2012 at 10:45
  • 8
    That really depends on the department. There are departments where advanced undergrad classes are harder than grad classes, because the advanced undergraduates are stronger than the graduate students. Also, depending on the class in question, "a year or two of industrial experience" may be a serious disadvantage.
    – JeffE
    Dec 1, 2012 at 18:45
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    @Naresh The flip side of your question is: why would undergrads be taking (what appears to be a) primarily graduate course if they were not at the level of grad students? Aug 1, 2013 at 14:20

There is no uniform set of regulations; every college (and perhaps even every department within a college, or even every instructor) might have its own regulations.

However, the existence of classes open to both undergraduates and graduate students is in fact quite common, and I know I certainly took several graduate classes as an undergraduate.

In general, the difference comes in when the class is really a graduate-level class that is also open to advanced undergraduates, or when the course is truly designed to be open to both undergraduates and graduates. When the class is really a graduate-level class, undergraduates are generally not treated with "kid gloves," and are expected to compete head-to-head with the graduate students. For a truly mixed class, the options are more varied.

With respect to the specific distribution of grades, I can't really comment on that, as those choices are specific to your course.


In math graduate programs in the U.S., it is typical (although not universal) to be quite lenient about grading. The philosophy, for better or worse, is that it should be the student's privilege to decide how important the class is.

I have never seen such a strict distribution of grades in any class with math graduate students in it.


In the US there tend to be to models by which undergraduates take graduate level classes. The first are jointly listed classes where the undergraduate class might be 401 and the graduate class would then be 501. In these cases the graduate level class usually includes extra assignments or different examinations and the students are graded separately. For the undergraduate student the undergraduate class is listed on the transcript.

The second way is a single class (e.g., 502) with the same work and same grading for everyone. In this system the graduate level class is listed on the transcript. Sure, the undergraduate might be at a disadvantage, but it comes with the advantage of having a graduate level class on your transcript. It would be very misleading to see a graduate level class on a transcript for a class that was tailored and graded to undergraduate standards. If you don't want to compete with the "big boys" stick with the little kid classes.


As an undergradute I took a computer architecture class in the spring of my junior year though it is recommended to be taken during spring of senior year. It is listed as an "upper-level" course. The class had 22 students, of which, 8 were grad students. The grad students got B's and C's and the majority of the undergrads got A's.

What the teacher told me after the class when I was talking with him (I had made some off handed comment about the undergrads beating the grad students) was that most of the grad students were doing research or working in industry. As long as they kept a C and understood the foundation of what he was lecturing on they would be fine.

It was more important for the grad students to work on their research. They did not need to Ace the classes.

In your case the class specifically required instructor consent for you to enter. They were allowing you the privilege of being able to take a class that is normally denied to you. If you feel the instructor erred and you were not proficient enough to be able to undertake the class then it is the instructors fault. If you did not study hard enough or go into it knowing that this class was on another level then it yours.


Actually, you'll have an advantage in your grades if you are taking course with graduate students(assuming that you are someone who puts a moderate effort on your courses). Most graduate students measure their success by their published papers rather than by grades. To this end, they don't give much attention to course work and they study it for a day or two before the exam. This was the case with many of the grad students in my school and the undergraduates put every effort to be part of the courses as they spent most of their time in course work and chasing the "A" letter.

The only exception is that when the course is related to the research area of the graduate students. In that case, the grad students might know better than you. But graduate class professors mostly have labs and are busy advisors. Which means that they repeat the same exam questions year after year and you only need to solve these problems to get A+ (at least at my university). The drawback of this is, you won't learn much out of the course as the grades come easily. That is one of the reasons I don't understand why courses are given in the first place at graduate level.


In the US, unless a class is strictly made as a undergrad/graduate mix class, graduate classes are made mostly for graduate students. Some universities require the instructors consent to enroll and you won't be able to enroll independently online, other will only let you enroll if there are seats left after graduate enrollment. Since in these cases it is up to the instructor or student discretion to take a course, then there is really no special treatment.

In my opinion seniors are more or less on the same level as master's students when starting a class, as usually both wouldn't not have any advanced knowledge of graduate level content. So the gap is not as wide as it might seem.

As far as the grading, that is highly subjective, and can change a lot. I know some instructors even have separate assignments.

  • 1
    seniors are more or less on the same level as master's students — Again, this really depends on the department.
    – JeffE
    Dec 1, 2012 at 18:46
  • @JeffE Agreed. In my field, that's likely not at all true, and seniors, even promising seniors, would be at a staggering disadvantage.
    – Fomite
    Dec 3, 2012 at 23:44
  • What is the difference between a senior at his last semester and a first year master student? Dec 3, 2012 at 23:49
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    @user4050 Most undergrads are neither interested in nor qualified for graduate school, and so do not become first year master's students. The undergrads that do become first year master's students tend to be more interested in the material, academically stronger, more intellectually mature, etc. At least, I think that's true in general; the distinction varies significantly among departments.
    – JeffE
    Dec 4, 2012 at 18:26
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    Jess, I agree with your statement only if the undergraduate that are taking a graduate class as a requirement. On the other side, if an undergrad takes a grad class as an elective it is usually a high performing student. Dec 4, 2012 at 19:54

In brief, to supplement other answers and remarks: first, I do try to think of "grades" as giving information to students, primarily, so that the "running grade" during the term provides some feedback on my perception of peoples' success. Significantly, I do not imagine, nor position, my courses as "filters" or "challenges", but as informational, provocative, invitations to mathematics that is within my professional scope (after all these years). So I do not want to express (directly or indirectly) "skepticism" that people could (if they wanted, and were interested) follow and assimilate what's going on. That is, "it's not that hard". Sure, nearly anything, even senseless, pointless activities, can be turned into filters or challenges, but... why?

Srsly, if courses are meant to primarily test natural ability (as some of my colleagues have adamantly insisted) then we shouldn't charge tuition, pretending that we're teaching something. That is, if a thing works well, and is do-able, it should be teachable to interested parties.

Then, to the question at hand: if the issue is communication and explanation, probably I'm not grading harshly anyway, and take into consideration everyone's context, not just the undergrads. Duh! That is, my aim is not to declare winners and losers, but to give useful feedback to the people who self-selected to hear what I was talking about. The situation does not demand a competition among them "for limited resources". Certain resources, such as my approval, are not "limited" in any sense that should/could function for external entities who'd wish I'd declare winners and losers.

It does start to be uglier when people are in the room against their will/interests. "Required courses"? Well, ideally, things are required (brush and floss...) because they're "good for you". The imputed virtues are not always easy to see, and are sometimes hijacked for various ideological purposes. Nevertheless, I do try to sway/convert people who're grudgingly present, that the "burden" is actually a "help/opportunity", despite sadly-all-too-common presentations that make everything lugubrious and awful.

To reiterate: sure, I do grade people in different contexts differently, because the grade is an item of communication. Not the only one, in my classes. The central administration does seem to collapse to wanting a single number... but I try to ignore that, and not harm the students who have some curiosity about what I offer to discuss with them.

(So, indeed, as in other answers and comments, the various mechanisms of self-selection present people with a great variety of motivations and interests. Responding to them individually, say with a class of 15-25, is not so terrible at all, and quite interesting, and, I fancy, a good deed. To "rank them" seems on most occasions to be not sane... Or maybe that's just a special case of the insanity of the bureacratic-school pressure to do this. True, many students pre-emptively operate in that context, but I do not take that as a mandate to sink to the same sad level. I.e., it's not that we "don't leave any child behind" by not moving forward, but that we gather them up and do move, etc, blah-blah-blah).

Or, sure, cold mountain-slopes for babies, ... single combat ... :)

Srsly, I do think that in upper-division, much less grad-level, people should not be beat-up grade-wise. They volunteered to be there! Even if they're not so very good at what they'd like to do, "giving a bad grade" is not helping them. The far-subtler issue is how to help a person who wants to do something that they're currently not-so-good-at. Various misunderstandings create fake incompetencies!

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