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If a college professor has a clear rubric for their expectations for an essay, is it unethical -- or even illegal -- to grade certain students harder than others?

A few students I know are in a college English course. They are producing better essays than other students, but have recently been making C's instead of A's because, as the teacher says, they are "held to a higher standard" than other students.

Is there some action that can be taken to remedy this issue? They aren't out for blood, just the grade they have worked for.

Edit: Thank you all so much for the replies! For clarity: we are residing in the U.S. and the professor himself sent an email explaining that their writing is exceptional and as such he will hold them to a higher standard than their peers.

  • 6
    I'd be surprised if that's illegal, but IAANAL and I'm especially unfamiliar with European law. However, it sounds to me like this is a case of student A doing better work than student B but student A consistently receives lower grades than student B. If student A's work is objectively better then student A may have a case to make as part of the institution's own grievance process. – tilper Mar 21 '17 at 16:48
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    If there are witnesses who can confirm that the professor said this I'd consult a lawyer if I was one of these students. Teachers are free to challenge their students but grading has to be fair. – Roland Mar 21 '17 at 19:11
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    "grading has to be fair" - I am not sure if everyone agrees (even after factoring out that "fairness" can mean many different things to different people). – Dirk Mar 21 '17 at 20:43
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    You don't mention why the professor has higher expectations for some students than for others, but if this is in the US, I would wonder about consistency with Title VI (which protects against discrimination by race, color, or national origin) or Title IX (which protects against discrimination by sex). – JeffE Mar 21 '17 at 21:45
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    These higher standards piss me off. So basically if you are too smart you can't get the grades required to get into graduate school. Teachers literally pretend grades don't matter when in fact the only reason they got to become professors is because they had almost perfect grades. – Jacob Murray Wakem Mar 22 '17 at 16:58
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It is legitimate if, in a single course, there are two "classes" of students taking the course for different forms of credit (such as a course with undergrads taking the course for undergrad credit and grad students taking the course for grad credit, or majors taking a course with students majoring in something else), it is legit for the prof to deliberately and transparently hold the different "classes" of students to different standards. This should be made clear to students registering for the course and should be made clear on the first day and on the course syllabus.

The best and most legitimate way to make this distinction is, even if the course is taught together with the same prof, is for the different "classes" of students to register for, what appear to be different courses with different course numbers in the school catalog or schedule. So seniors would be registering for ECON 458 and grad students would be registering for ECON 558. The "two" courses happen to be about the same topic, meet in the same room at the same times, are are taught by the same prof. But that prof can assign assignments to the students expecting grad-school credit that is not assigned to the undergrads. And that prof can apply a stricter measure of performance to the grad students.

Other than that, the same standards should be applied to every student throughout the course.

  • 4
    I would only add that this makes sense if and only if the courses have different numbers. Otherwise, someone could just go into a course, get an A because they were in an unrelated major, then change majors to the one that would have been harder. We do that for our second year courses (two separate courses for majors and non majors) and there's no confusion down the line / gaming the system. – user0721090601 Mar 23 '17 at 22:21
  • i sorta agree with you, but to a lessor degree. it makes the best sense to have the courses listed in the catalog or course schedule as different numbers, but sometimes the best thing doesn't happen. at least when i was in grad school, there were some senior electives in my major that were eligible to take for credit toward my MS. they didn't have different numbers, but my status was different than the undergrads and the prof knew that. we grad students had a different "burden". – robert bristow-johnson Mar 23 '17 at 23:20
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Potential discrimination issues aside (that is, assuming the professor truly has everyone's best interests in mind and merely wishes to motivate particular students), have you considered that the professor may not rely strictly on individual assignment grades when determining a final grade?

That is, a professor could grade high-performing students strictly to keep them focused and engaged, but adjust their final grade to reflect their performance versus peers. One could argue whether that approach is good pedagogy, but I doubt it is unethical: different students have different needs.

I think there is a lot that is unknown about these circumstances from your question. I would advise students that are concerned about their grading relative to their peers to address the professor directly and politely: with curiosity rather than accusation, and assuming best intentions from the start. There should be no need to escalate the issue unless there are clear indications of bias based on protected categories or other impropriety.

  • I do this to a slight extent. My top 2 performers on any assignment determine the curve. I have occasionally graded these two people a bit harder than I would normally to increase the size of the curve for other students. If, at the end of the semester, I see that these students were harmed by that practice (i.e. didn't get A), I would adjust them upward and reconsider the practice in the future. But this has never happened. – Dawn Nov 18 '17 at 16:08
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Does the professor have the right to require students to improve during the class? If so, yes, he has the right to grade the student more strictly. If, however, he is a hired educator and evaluator with a responsibility to accurately report the student's level of ability, then no, he does not have the right.

When deciding your answer to the above, it may help to consider the opposite scenario. One student is not skilled at writing, due to lack of ability or quality education. However, he works hard, is sincere about asking for feedback and responding to it. At the end of the term, his writing is still of below-average quality. Is it ethical for the professor to give, as the saying goes, an "A for effort"?

The answer is not simple, and it cuts to the core of "what is a grade?" I sympathize with the idea that a grade is the professor's way of giving feedback. However, grades used as a determining factor in career prospects, and for this reason I believe a professor has a moral obligation to grade objectively.

2

Questions about law are off topic here, so I will interpret this question in terms of the culture of academia. In academic culture, this is the sort of decision that is left to the individual professor's discretion. The professor feels that some students have different needs from other students, the professor can adjust their grading to meet those needs. This would fall under the principle of academic freedom.

Is this professor's grading approach ethical? Is it effective? I don't think we can judge these questions without knowing what is happening in great detail. That's one of the reasons why professors have academic freedom.

To answer the later parts of your question, if students are unhappy about the professor's grading policies, they should politely and thoughtfully share their concerns with the professor. They should also listen carefully to the professor's reasons for his policy. Students should also read the syllabus and see what it says; the syllabus is often considered a binding contract.

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    This would fall under the principle of academic freedom. I disagree. If I'm understanding correctly, the professor has effectively said "student A's work is better than student B's, but I'll give student B a better grade than student A because my expectations of her are higher". I'm sorry but I don't think this is fair, ethical, or falls under academic freedom, any more than deciding a student's grade based on a coin toss falls under academic freedom. A grade is a formal assessment of performance. ... – Dan Romik Mar 22 '17 at 8:25
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    ... Your notion that different students have "different needs" in the context of a grade assessment is baffling at best. – Dan Romik Mar 22 '17 at 8:26
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    I disagree. Academic freedom means academics are free to be wrong. That would include grading by coin toss. "Fair and ethical" are not normally restrictions on academic freedom. See, for example, holocaust deniers who have kept their faculty positions. – Anonymous Physicist Mar 22 '17 at 9:40
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    @silvado Universities generally don't consult Wikipedia when making decisions about what does or does not fall under the rubric of "academic freedom". At my university, grading standards are definitely considered an academic freedom issue. – JeffE Mar 22 '17 at 20:37
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    @JeffE I'd say grading standards in general yes, selectively choosing which students to apply them to not... – silvado Mar 22 '17 at 21:27
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Response, inspired by a comment of @Insulin69:

Indeed. As long as the interface seen outside are only the grades, there is no way for the student to demonstrate their prowess by the quality of their work.

Such a grading system is highly counterproductive and pseudo-pedagogical. It is ok to make higher grades difficult to reach: but, if so, it should be applied across the board aiming at a consistent standard across the class and - ideally - across cohorts of different years of the same class.

  • Exactly. Access to grad school depends on grades. Discriminating better students like described by OP (with the caveat that we don't have all facts) is not only counterproductive but possibly also illegal. – Roland Mar 22 '17 at 18:05
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You didn't ask this, but it's possible that such behavior could violate your school's grading policy, regardless of the ethical and legal concerns. The central problem is that grades absolutely do matter to students, and they have a reasonable expectation to understand how they will be graded.

For example, the first google result that came up for me states:

Instructors are obligated to evaluate each student's work fairly and without bias and to assign grades based on valid academic criteria. (my emphasis)

https://clas.uiowa.edu/faculty/teaching-policies-resources-grading-system-and-distribution

To be frank, there's a lot of fuzzy and subjective reasoning that goes into grading, and it sounds like this professor's subject might incorporate more of this than usual. Actually finding an administrator who was willing to do anything beyond having a talk with your professor (i.e. formal sanctions) is going to be nearly impossible. Typically the notion of "bias" in grading policies refers to grading some students easier or harder because of discriminatory characteristics like race, gender, or sexual orientation.

Also, your professor's grading might be based on perfectly objective and fair criteria that is not the overall quality of the student's work. For example, a workshop class whose purpose is to refine student's writing style or skill is going to focus heavily on the revision process. The point here might not be to produce masterful essays, but to critically examine and improve your own work. A great essay with minimal evidence of revision is not going to score well in that kind of situation.

2

Using the specific individuals performance as reference standard for that individual is a good idea to encourage improvement, but it is a really bad idea in this case as the grades are important later on. After all, there won't be an asterisk on the diploma explaining the C is actually an A. So the students should be measured by the same criteria as the other students. Measuring students with different yardsticks is bad practice. It punishes good students in the job market and makes it appear as if the professor is afraid of a ceiling effect.

If the professor still wants to encourage improvement, there are a couple of better options. E.g.,

  • Give the A and explain in writing below the grade that the students aced the course, but it's due to the level of the course and they are capable of much more. Then explain how they can improve.
  • Offer a letter of recommendation if the students excel beyond what is usually needed for an A.
  • Increase the distance between a C and a B, and even more between an B and an A for all students. It will still allow mediocre students to get their C's and D's, but getting B's and A's will be much more difficult — for all students. This had to be done for all future courses, otherwise your grades are influenced by which kinds of students take the course.
  • Offer an advanced course.
1

If the grades are readjusted for final course grade, it may make sense.

Suppose there is a subset of students who are turning in solid A essays by the overall class standard. One way of giving them feedback on which essays are better or worse would be to spread out their grades over a wider range.

If that is what is happening, it might be better to take the time to write a note saying what is good about a given essay and what could be improved.

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