For most university classes I have come across, the professor teaching the class is also responsible for making (and usually grading) the exam, or holding an oral exam. As far as I can tell this is true in most (at least Western) countries.

There are a few exceptions, e.g. some (but certainly not all) universities do not allow the supervisor to be part of the examining committee during a PhD-defense, and many high school educations have a centralised exam at some point.

Does combining "teaching" and "evaluating" in a single person not create a conflict of interest - and why is this so prevalent at universities?


As people were wondering which conflicts of interest I was referring to: all of them :)

I was mainly thinking about the fact that teachers are usually evaluated based on their performance, which is either measured through e.g. student pass rates and/or student evaluations. Both of these provide an incentive for the teacher to make the exam easy to pass, either by making an easy exam or by preparing students on very specific questions in a hard exam.

But there are also arguments to be made that this system is not particularly good for the student-teacher relationship - I personally find it a lot easier to teach and motivate students when I am not evaluating them, because it has more of a "I am helping you to pass the exam", and less of an "learn this or I will fail you" atmosphere.

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    What kind of "conflict of interest" are you talking about? Whose "interest"?
    – user9646
    Mar 30, 2016 at 7:48
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    This is not only true for university classes, but for most of education in general. Of course if there are standardised topics to be learned, there can be centralised exams, but with courses where the whole curriculum is set up by the teacher and might even be the special research interest and results of this teacher who else should evaluate the students? (Of course, sometimes tutors are involved in holding and preparing the exams, too.)
    – skymningen
    Mar 30, 2016 at 11:32
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    +1 I think this is a great question, even though it is not fundamentally about academia but about the relationship of teaching and grading in general. I don't really have a comprehensive answer, but one practical issue on the advanced level is that if you want the teacher and the grader to be independent persons, this requires you to have two subject experts in your faculty. Many, especially smaller, faculties don't have this kind of redundancy.
    – xLeitix
    Mar 30, 2016 at 11:51
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    At my university, I believe most of the exams are written by the lecturers since they have the best understanding of what exact material was taught that semester, especially what was emphasised. If a different 'examiner' wrote the exam, it might assume knowledge which wasn't assumed during the rest of the semester. This is especially important for higher tertiary education, where lecturers tailor the courses to suit their area of expertise. It does mean some courses are harder in some semesters than in others however, which is a drawback.
    – Inazuma
    Mar 30, 2016 at 12:08
  • This dilemma has been recognised as an interesting problem and there is some work related to how to get the balance between teaching and examining, collaboration and competition, right: brandeis.edu/now/2008/november/pollack-catalyst.html Oct 25, 2016 at 18:56

3 Answers 3


At least at the university level, I think the biggest issue is practicality: who is going to write and grade the exams, if not the professor in charge of the course?

I think this is especially true in things like humanities courses, where the content is so often individualized according to the professor's interests and preferences. (The same thing also happens in STEM courses, but there's often much less freedom in what can be covered, often for "continuity" within a larger degree program.)

For example, say I'm teaching a French literature course with a specific set of goals (at least in my mind). How much information do I have to communicate to someone else, so that this other individual can write an exam that fairly assesses what the students have actually studied, as opposed to what the examiner thinks they should have studied?

  • You are probably right, that on very advanced (and hence usually niche-) subjects, the ease of understanding the subject is likely one of the main reason, and a different professor might have to do a fair amount of reading in order to create the exam. I am not sure whether I agree with the argument that it's not clear what the course's content is, though: shouldn't the course have a curriculum and learning goals before it actually starts?
    – Gerhard
    Apr 1, 2016 at 13:19
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    Also, your last paragraph illustrates one of the potential conflicts of interest: essentially, students learn what the teacher wants to hear, independently of whether this is objectively correct or not. (But this was not my main point - see above)
    – Gerhard
    Apr 1, 2016 at 13:23

In my understanding, the conflict of interest actually goes in the other direction: if the teacher is not the examiner, then the teacher has a conflict of interest because their job depends on the performance of the students on the exam.

In the United States, tying lower levels of education to test scores has created quite a bit of "teaching to the test," as well as other ethically problematic practices like schools cherrypicking good students and attempting to expel special-needs students because the funding of schools and the careers of individual teachers are both closely tied to how their students perform with external examiners.

As such, I think that it is a very good thing that at the university level and postgraduate level, most education is allowed to be much more customized. Note, however, that in professions where there are strong ethical and safety issues involved, such as law and medicine, there are still external testers but these tests are more holistic certifications rather than individual class evaluations.

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    It's not clear to me how having the teacher set the exam resolves the conflict of interest you describe - it seems like it just shifts it from the admissions/teaching arena to the assessment arena. If teachers are judged on students' performance as measured on exams, they either have an incentive to game the educational system as you describe (if they have no control over the exam) or game the exam (if they set the exam themselves) to make their teaching appear more successful.
    – ff524
    Mar 30, 2016 at 12:10
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    Excellent points, both: you always have a conflict of interest. However, from psychology and other domains it is known that external goal-setting carries the danger of promoting "overfitting". Intrinsic motivation (e.g. by a university lecturer to have a well-educated class) can avoid this - however, in strongly bureaucratised environments the requirement of a given pass rate can again introduce external goal-setting and thus promote teaching/examining to the "fail rate". It is thus the job of good academic management to keep the intrinsic motivation up and external goal-setting under control. Mar 30, 2016 at 13:32

In most of my student life I have been graded by my teachers, and in most of my lecturer life I've graded the students I teach to, and I never heard complains of my students nor my fellow students that exams were too easy. In fact, I can remember the opposite: students claiming that exams were too hard. Therefore, I don't see any generalised conflict of interests that teachers grading their own students unfairly raise grades.

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