As an undergraduate, I've been working as a TA in an electronics lab for a while. Recently I have been asked to grade other students' lab reports. I have also done some oral examination, but I guess that's relatively fine, since there you can indeed see if he knows what he's supposed to know.

However, when it comes to grading reports, they may be to some extent copied from other reports, may have data tampered with after the lab so they look correct, and in general are made to look correct through collaboration and some Google copy-paste, it becomes very hard to tell who deserves the grade and who doesn't.

Also, I myself wasn't getting good grades at those reports, and I never could understand what those correcting were expecting from me, so I would be grading on a different basis than they are. In fact, I really can't find much wrong with the reports, so I feel like I'm doing a lousy job (even though any time I express doubt about my judgement I am assured that stuff can't go wrong).

One final detail is that it's a hardware lab, and while I'm not bad at it, I'm headed straight to software, so I probably look at things from a different perspective, not to mention that what's important for me may be quite different.

Considering the above worries, does it seem fair that undergrad students grade the reports of younger undergrads, does it seem professional for those in charge of those groups assign such work to undergrad TAs, and finally, is it even legal for an undergrad to affect another undergraduate's grade by handling grading processes?

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    It sounds like you may be less than qualified in more aspects of the TA position than just the grading component. Presumably the experience has had some benefit anyway, helping you decide on software not hardware, helping you decide whether you want to pursue teaching, etc. – Ben Voigt Dec 6 '15 at 17:10
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    BTW, when it comes to data tampering or unauthorized collaboration, you should punt to the course professor. Assign a grade objectively based on accepting the data as real and the content as original, and document your concerns about veracity of data and/or plagiarism to the professor, who can determine whether the ethics violations you are concerned about actually occurred, and apply discipline (which may not be a mere adjustment to the grade on a single assignment) appropriately. You just decide what the grade is, not who deserves it. – Ben Voigt Dec 6 '15 at 17:14
  • @BenVoigt, I'm qualified to do the assisting part, as they require that we know what are the expected results of a given exercise, which components are responsible for every part of the result, and that we are comfortable with all the cables and stuff. Those are the principles I am trying to apply to the grading process, turns out it is easier than I had first thought, but unless I doubt myself I can't keep myself in check.. The professor considers everything to be ok actually, so I've got my rear covered, I'm asking out of general concern. – user3079666 Dec 6 '15 at 17:25
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    So you're a TA who's worried about doing the best job for your students. Congrats - you're doing it right :-) – tonysdg Dec 6 '15 at 17:26
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    The question of legality almost certainly depends on the examination regulation of your university. There may be some jurisdictions out there which handle this on a general basis, but then we do not know, which jurisdiction applies. – Wrzlprmft Dec 6 '15 at 17:31

As to the question in the title it is certainly ethical, professional, and legal. More than that, in the US at least, it is extremely common (in my experience at both public and private universities). However, undergraduate TAs should be handled by faculty somewhat differently since the potential for conflicts of interest which arise from grading students in their peer group is higher.

Carnegie Mellon has some very nice resources available on their website for both undergraduate TAs here and for the faculty supervising them available here. One of the points in your question about which you seemed particularly concerned was grading other students' assignments. An interesting point from the document for faculty above is the following instruction for faculty:

Provide clear, explicit grading guidelines to undergraduates involved in grading and evaluation. Without clear guidance, undergraduate TAs tend to be tougher graders than faculty.

So, I would say if you are in doubt about how to grade a particular assignment, you should not hesitate to ask for more guidance from the faculty member you are grading for. You should also certainly speak to your faculty supervisor if any conflicts arise. Another quote from the above documents on this point:

We expect the undergraduate TA to be neutral in teaching or grading, but we must understand that this is a very difficult ideal for anyone to meet. Following are some tips for averting such challenges:

  • You and the student should work together to identify potential conflicts of interest. Before the start of the semester, review the list of students with the undergraduate TA. Faculty cannot simply assume there will be no problems; likewise, undergraduate TAs may not be aware of these difficulties or their potential severity. The undergraduate TAs have interacted with the “potential conflict” students prior to the class, and may continue to do so for many semesters afterward. In our survey of undergraduates involved in teaching, a significant number of the students identified problems of this nature.

You might also find this article from earlier in the year in USA today interesting. It's just a quick overview of the social aspects of being an undergraduate TAing for undergraduates.

  • As a point of comparison: I taught at Williams College (entirely undergraduate) for a few years. They had a pretty strict policy about TAs being used to grade: they shouldn't be used in cases where the grading is subjective, the professors should provide detailed answer keys for the students to work from, and the portion of the students' final grade affected by the grading of TAs should not exceed 15%. Compared to this, Carnegie Mellon's policies seem pretty liberal. – Michael Seifert Dec 7 '15 at 21:02
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    During my masters', I was a TA for an undergrad course, that included close friends. It helps to have clear policy and objectives. I defined beforehand the values of some common errors ("gramatic, -0.25 each") for instance. Then I reviewed all the works, cataloging the errors into categories. Then I assigned the value of each error and did another pass calculating each grade. That way, when asked, you can say, "you did this -X, this -Y and that -Z". Its fair, consistent and impartial. One of those friends failed the course and still let me crash at his place once a week for a semester. :) – Fábio Dias Dec 8 '15 at 1:59

It's a fairly common practice at some universities for older undergraduate TAs to grade younger undergraduates' work. My undergrad institution relied heavily on this - it's perfectly legal and ethical SO LONG AS you, the TA, do not discuss one student's grades/work with another student. More generally, a TA in the United States is bound by FERPA as to what is legal or not.

If you're concerned about not knowing what to mark as wrong, consider asking the professor you are grading for for an answer key or an example solution set. They may be unwilling to give this to you outright, but hopefully they will at least walk through an example with you and point out what they're looking for in a fully correct answer.

  • In most cases, if you're grading at all, the university will (in the US) require you to undergo FERPA training. I'm surprised the OP hasn't, because I think that stuff would have been covered and they would have been subject to it (but maybe other universities aren't as zealous with mandatory training sessions as mine haha) – user0721090601 Dec 6 '15 at 18:20
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    @guifa: My undergrad institution made sure we knew that sharing grades was a very bad idea, but there wasn't anything terribly official. I think the relative size of the university/department will have a lot to do with that. – tonysdg Dec 6 '15 at 18:21

Undergrad students grading other undergrads

I've seen much more: undergrad students grading grad students, grad students grading postgrad students and research scholars! Before my opinion I'll state the basic concept:

Any of those who are qualified with the course subject are considered eligible to evaluate the answer scripts of the subject. This includes those who didn't complete the degree per se. Undergrad students who have completed the subject are said to have more up-to-date knowledge in the subject enough to grade other students of the same.

As a PhD research scholar myself, I felt the same. However, this even occurs in IITs (Indian Institute of Technology, the most prestigious institution in India). Hence this is something to accept with. I'll be happy enough of the grader who doesn't know the subject don't grade my course work irrespective of age or degree.

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    Why is that worse? In one of my first year grad classes, we had an undergrad TA. I'm pretty sure he knew the material well and was responsible. – Kimball Dec 6 '15 at 18:34
  • @Kimball: replaced worse with more. Besides, I've stated the same in my answer before. – Ébe Isaac Dec 6 '15 at 19:25
  • I graded papers for a graduate course while I was an undergraduate, and one of the classes that I took as a grad student had an undergraduate grader. I'm not aware of any problems arising in either case. – Andreas Blass Dec 6 '15 at 23:06

I think this is not a matter of ethics or something more. It’s all about sharing. I think if you have prepared yourself and gained some skills that give you some advantages over the others, you can evaluate a master. There are some graduated people who do not have the correct prerequesites for certain areas and somebody who has a only master degree in title, but from experience can give any advice and many times correct graduated people.

  • Welcome to Academia SE. I tried to fix the grammar of some of your sentences and make them understandable, but I am not entirely certain that I grasped what you wanted to say, so please check whether everything is still according to your intentions. Also, I failed to understand what you want to say with “you can evaluate a master”. – Wrzlprmft Dec 6 '15 at 21:21

Allowed and legal? yes. Ethical? Absolutely NOT in practice in my opinion. I have junior psych majors grading the papers of junior psych majors whom they will almost certainly be competing with for honors.

I do agree with the information from Carnegie Hall shared by @bamboo. HOWEVER, as the information also states, it is nearly impossible to actually achieve these standards, yet universities use UG TAs anyway.

I should mention I have faculty appointments at two undergraduate institutions. One in Europe and one in the US. Comparatively, grading in the US (where I was educated) is laughably subjective. In the UK, exams go through three rounds of refereeing and there are clear and genuine appeals processes. There is also often calibration exercises before the exam is issued or before grading even starts.

In one class I took as a student returning for a second undergrad degree earlier in my career, undergrads graded papers where a rubric and the grading sheet was provided to all students. This transparency was a great practice, but the undergrad TAs didn't use them AT ALL and when one TA was asked why she marked something wrong, and then had it pointed out by the researcher who wrote the article that was being summarized by the student who was marked wrong, that the student was not wrong, the undergrad TA said "oops, well I wouldn't appeal it to the course faculty because here are some other things that could have been better." AND COPIED THE FACULTY MEMBER.

The faculty member showed the same deference to the undergrad TAs as they do graduate teaching fellows and other faculty members. THIS is why it's unethical. In other words, like 99.9999999% of any grading questions or appeals in the US, the initial grade stands because faculty in the US are infallible (yes the same group of people who tout intellectual rigor and a peer review process)

The idea might not be unethical, but in practice it almost always is.


I'm sorry, but it isn't about sharing like @campussano's answer suggests. This is - almost certainly - the result of universities cutting costs by hiring under-experienced teaching staff. While you may be able to effectively check your colleagues' lab assignments, you're probably being used as a pawn against the graduate researchers, to lower their overall employment/upkeep costs. University managements very often try this "juniorization": non-tenured Doctors head courses, Ph.D. candidates teach, and undergrads check homework or even serve as teaching assistants. For shame.

What you - not personally, but collectively - should be doing in my opinion is forming a academic staff union (or overthrowing the comatose leadership of the existing union). At the very least people in your situation should get the same pay as their seniors (if not more), to de-motivate this kind of practice.

  • Finances are indeed the fundamental motivation, of course, as usual, rationalized by claims about benefits and equity and whatever... – paul garrett Dec 8 '15 at 0:31
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    That's exactly right einpoklum. That is why my department this year decided to fire our dedicated team of Nobel prize-winning TA's and switch to employing uneducated high school dropouts, and to outsource the grading to a sweatshop in Indonesia. When students complain about the poor quality of TA's, we plan to tell them that the Nobel prize winners were overqualified, and that the high school droupouts will benefit from a valuable training opportunity. But we all know that's bullshit, and will be laughing all the way to the bank to cash our inflated yearly bonuses. (/sarcasm and -1) – Dan Romik Dec 8 '15 at 0:44
  • @DanRomik, if you're not seeing the corresponding degradation in your environment, so much the better. And, no, I'd not claim that a 23-year-old is in any way clearly better than a 20-year-old in explaining lower-division mathematics to kids who are trying to do the least possible to fulfill a requirement. On the other hand, I do adamantly declare that the 23-year-old grad TA should feel more responsibility... just as a PhD'd faculty, or tenured, etc., should feel more responsibility: commensurate with the relative seniority and potential competence-by-experience of their situation... – paul garrett Dec 8 '15 at 1:04
  • Why do you assume that the OP is paid less than graduate teaching assistants? – ff524 Dec 8 '15 at 1:37
  • @paulgarrett as it happens you guessed correctly and I am in fact lucky to be at a well-functioning department and university (though we do employ undergrads as readers grading other undergrads' homework, and like other posters I see nothing wrong with that practice), but that's beside the point; my sarcasm was addressed mainly at the over-the-top, conspiracy-theoretic overtones of einpoklum's answer, so I think I would have reacted the same way even if I were in a less well-functioning department. – Dan Romik Dec 8 '15 at 1:54

My post grad psychology paper was graded recently by another post grad. It became clear to me by this marker's comments that they, in fact, had no idea of the context of the assignment question, had no idea of the peer reviewed literature surrounding the topic, and, worst of all, could not recognize diagnostic-criteria quotes from the DSM-5 in the diagnostic section of the paper.
It was also obvious that this marker had absolutely no idea of HOW to mark a written/research assignment. I was given a mediocre pass across the board, ie: for every aspect of my paper: referencing, content, synthesis of research, and written communication skills. My paper was given a poor grade and I am now fighting for my life for the second time in 4 months for some justice in the marking process. This practice is just plain dangerous. These so called markers hold the future of other students in their hands. Why are we paying excruciatingly high fees for university courses if our work is not going to be graded by a qualified professional who is getting paid to do the work.
I work in a psychology clinic where two ex-graduate students attend as patients. Their lives have been destroyed by this practice. They are anxious, depressed and traumatised. One of them, once a promising student, now crochets blankets and throws as her therapy. She does not leave her home unless accompanied by her mother and only leaves home to come to sessions at the clinic. This practice of students marking university papers is borderline criminal. Students pay high fees and pay the salary of the teaching staff. Thus it is within the students' right to demand a refund, just like any other commodity.

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