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I'm asking this question for a friend as he is not very familiar with SE sites.

Context:

My friend, let's call him A, has a physics teacher, which we will call B.

A, as the rest of the class, had a mid-semester exam 1 month and a half ago. He thought he failed, as some of other classmates.

A month passed, with Christmas holidays, and A had completely forgotten the whole exam.

However, yesterday, B gave back the corrected exam. My friend, and 1/3 of the class got a <25/100. However, not a lot of students are between 25/100 and 65/100.

A has his final physics exam from B tomorrow. So, he had two days to review and correct his mistakes before the new exam.

As it's the finals, tomorrow will be a big day, accounting for 20% of his entire semester. He feels that the entire situation is “completely unfair”.

Questions:

  • Was it ethical/fair that B gave the grades two days before the exams?
  • How could A, if it has to happen again, handle the situation?
  • Could A talk to B about his feelings?
  • Should A report to B superior about the situation?
  • Should, as a student of another class, handle the role of a “mediator” between A and B?

Comments:

A is in a small french university, where the teachers and students, and the administration know each other really well (think about 90 students in the whole building). A is in his first year in the university, and will probably have this teacher again next semester and next years.

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    A third of the class got less 25% on a test? And the rest got realistic passing grades? Am I reading this right? – Compass Jan 9 '17 at 21:43
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    It's fair, everyone got it back at the same time. Is it great teaching? Not really. – Azor Ahai Jan 9 '17 at 22:04
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    @WayToDoor That's why I said it's not great teaching. At my university, we fill out end-of-term evaluations of our professors. I would explain in that that handing the exam back two days before the final is not very helpful. But isn't really wrong or immoral of him, just poor teaching. There's really nothing you can do but suck it up. – Azor Ahai Jan 9 '17 at 22:07
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    @Compass I have come to believe that a bi-modal distribution is OK and expected. In my first year of teaching I asked a well-respected full professor what my grade distribution means. "t means," he said, tapping the good hump of the graph with his index finger, "that these students get it, and these," tapping the bad hump, "do not." – Bob Brown Jan 10 '17 at 1:00
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    @BobBrown: Sometimes it is "these students come to class and do the homework, and these do not". – Nate Eldredge Jan 10 '17 at 1:12
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Was it ethical/fair that B gave the grades two days before the exams?

I find it unfortunate. However, the question about fairness or ethics does not have a definite answer, as it depends on what was announced in class. If, for example, it was announced that the mid exam was to give the students feedback on their progress, such a large delay was not appropriate. If, on the other hand, the purpose of the exam was to give the instructor a feedback on how the students digested the material, than there is nothing bad about such a large delay. I, personally, would find the latter a bit weird and think that a mid exam which is corrected but not handed back to the students timely is a waste of time for everybody.

How could A, if it has to happen again, handle the situation?

Ask in advance. Ask what the purpose of the exam is. Ask when you can expect the results back (and explain that you value the feedback and that he feedback will be helpful for your learning).

Could A talk to B about his feelings?

I don't think that feelings should be discussed. However, A may bring it to the attention of B that it would have been easier for A to get the feedback earlier (or not at all), and explain how a timely feedback could have been helpful and so on.

Should A report to B superior about the situation?

Not unless B had violated some rule. A prior discussion with B is better.

Should, as a student of another class, handle the role of a “mediator” between A and B?

If A is too angry to discuss the matter properly, a mediator may be a good idea. However, I think that this would look rather unprofessional and that it would be better if A could calm down enough to discuss the matter themselves.

What could be a good idea, is to gather more information from the rest of the class, i.e. what they think about the situation, and then let one or two representatives discuss with B. These guys should be well prepared (e.g. with notes from the discussion of group) and try not to speak for themselves but for the whole group.

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There is a general expectation that students will receive a reasonable amount of feedback from instructors in a timely matter. If a student feels that they are not getting the kind of feedback they need to master the course material then they absolutely should talk to the professor about it. If your friend's only goal is to communicate the situation to the instructor then a good place to note this kind of thing is in faculty feedback and evaluation forms.

If your friend feels like their grade is unfair then they could first raise the issue with the instructor. If that is unsatisfactory then most schools have policies in place to handle grade disputes. However, this is going to be extremely tricky for your friend- relatively few schools have specific policies on the timeliness of grading, and those that do tend to be vague. One faculty manual I found online states:

[Each professor has the responsibility] To grade and return examinations within a reasonable period of time.

Clearly, waiting half a semester to return the midterm is not a reasonable period of time. However, the other top hits on my Google search did not include any language about timeliness at all. If your school has a policy in place such as this then it would be a clear basis to request some kind of re-test or extra credit to improve the grade.

If the course provided a syllabus it would be worthwhile to read it. Sometimes instructors will do something unusual with grading on purpose, and if they state at the start of the semester that he doesn't hand back graded tests then your friend had no expectation of it. For example, lots of instructors will grade exams but keep the physical copies, and leave it up to the student to come examine the test during office hours. I have had a few students surprised in this way because they missed class the day we went over the exam, and they simply did not ever care to come find out their grade.

Beware that college students are generally expected to be self-motivated. Students are generally aware of how well they understand the material, regardless of evaluations by instructors. While it's true that your friend might not have known just how poorly they understood the material, they certainly knew that they did badly.

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    University policies vary a lot between countries and universities: the quote from a US faculty manual might be totally inapplicable in a (small) French university. – Massimo Ortolano Jan 9 '17 at 22:16
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    @Massimo Ortolano Of course. Hence the statement If your school has a policy – David Jan 9 '17 at 22:24

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