I know that we have to be meticulous in pure mathematics courses, and I appreciate that. Comparing a particular course I took recently to the other pure math courses I've taken before, it appears that the marking has been unnecessarily severe. I had assignments which weighed 25% of the total mark, but the marker could almost arbitrarily pick what we would have had to specify in solving a problem. For instance, sometimes there were points in a proof for which it was not clear at all whether or not they should have been specified, since they were either evident (clearly, there were parts in which the marker was very fault-finding, not like in most other pure math courses I had taken) or were previously proved in class or in a previous assignment. The marking scheme was entirely up to the TA who marked the assignments, so that he decided which questions to mark or not to mark. There were usually 20 to 25 total marking points in each assignment, but some questions were deemed to weigh only 2-3 points, and the TA could easily deduct 33-66% of the mark for missing / skipping minor details of the problem, whereas the entire answer / main point was correct. The instructor had admitted during the course that either more total points should be introduced or partial points (such as 0.5) should be given, but that didn’t happen. Some questions weighed disproportionately many points, such as when in one assignment, which consisted of five questions and which was marked out of 25 points in total, one of the questions was worth 9 out of 25, and it was not the most time-consuming question. In the final examination, the marking style similar to that of the assignments was applied, and I’m convinced that it was too harsh.

I've discussed the exam results with the instructor, and I'm still convinced that the marking was not always quite appropriate. I also wrote an email to an advisor and he said that I could write a petition to reconsider the marking. But should I really do this? I feel that the department would not perceive such an action very kindly, and some talks in the department would probably follow. So I'm not sure if it's worth it.

Should I just move on and forget about this?

  • 3
    I've discussed the exam results with the instructor What did the instructor say?
    – Nobody
    Apr 30, 2017 at 5:32
  • @scaaahu He gave me a few marks back, but that didn't make the marking completely fair.
    – sequence
    Apr 30, 2017 at 6:13
  • 6
    Yes, this can be a hard problem. Unfortunately, many (not all) students very, very often feel strongly that they deserve grades they do not (in the experienced view of the instructor) actually deserve. On the other hand, unfair grading does exist, especially when teaching assistants are immediately responsible for a large fraction of the grade. I must agree with @scaaahu: what did the instructor say? You have answered, but it can never be completely fair, unfortunately. Good luck.
    – thb
    Apr 30, 2017 at 12:01
  • @thb, in my case, this is the first time I really feel that the marking was unfair, and probably other students of this course think so as well. This hasn't been the case before at all. Also, do you mean that that TA's are prone to harsh marking? Why would this be the case?
    – sequence
    Apr 30, 2017 at 18:05
  • 1
    Not a full-time academic but a part-time adjunct instructor, I should avoid offering opinions regarding professors, so you may discount my reply accordingly! I would only say that, over a period of years, a professor spends so much classroom and office time in the presence of undergraduates that he or she can hardly help but to notice what confuses undergraduates and what does not. Thus, it isn't so much a question of remembering one's own undergraduate days as it is a question of having interacted, teacher-to-student, with so many undergraduates later.
    – thb
    May 7, 2017 at 14:25

3 Answers 3


I disagree with aparente's suggestion that filing a petition is a good way to get the department to improve.

Generally speaking, an instructor has a lot of latitude to determine how grades are determined in their class. You can challenge your grade by a petition, but whoever considers the challenge will be inclined to defer to the instructor's judgement, unless the grading was blatantly unfair or unreasonable (some universities use the standard "arbitrary and capricious"), such that the grade wasn't really related to the quality of the students' work. A grading scheme that is just "too harsh" or "too picky" isn't likely to meet that standard.

It also isn't really a good way to bring the issue to the attention of the department, due to the adversarial nature of such cases. If the grade is upheld, as I suspect it would due to the required standard of proof, people may tend to view it as "the instructor is right and the student is just whining". It will also focus the attention on you personally, instead of on the fact that this is a general problem affecting many students.

I would suggest instead that you mention this issue in your course evaluations, and encourage other affected students to do the same. Explain the issue in detail and as objectively as you can, keeping the focus on how this affected the quality of the course, rather than on how it impacted your own grade. If the department cares about teaching quality, this will encourage the instructor to work on this. If they don't, then there is probably nothing you can do about it in any case.


Assuming you in the USA, I find many students to be too focused lately on the "points" they get within the class. The thing is for most universities your final letter grade is decided by the instructor and not necessarily based strictly on how many points you got in this assignment or that. In other words, it is based on quality of students' work, participation etc. not only the numbers you accumulated in class.

This is not to say that grades in class are worthless, they are not the only measure whoever. You are much better off discussing your answers with your instructor during office hours. If not to recover points it is to let him/her know that you know better than what you got evaluated for.

Submitting a petition for within-class grading is a seriously bad idea. Departments do not usually dictate how professors grade assignments/exams. In addition, you were alienate your instructor.

The only exception to the above is if (after you got your final letter grade) you felt you were personally being discriminated against. That is: your grade is significantly less than others of similar or less performance than you in your class, not that you feel you deserved a better grade.

One question though: what is this instructor's final letter grade policy? does s/he use a curve? in many cases instructors are harsh graders because it is on a curve which means you are graded in relation to your peers.

  • I'm in Canada, the instructors do not use letter grades in my university, but they use percentage points. Curves are used sometimes, but not in this class I think.
    – sequence
    May 2, 2017 at 15:07

If I assume you are in the U.S., given the situation you described,

there is no reason not to follow the procedure the advisor described.

Although no one here can decide for you, what I can say is that there is an objective consideration in favor of filing a petition: to help your department improve.

If you decide to file a petition, I recommend keeping that motivation clearly in mind for the writing of the petition and for any discussions you may have with the instructor or department administrators. In other words, it's best not to project concerns about your grade as your prime motivation.

If you are undecided whether to file a petition, it might be helpful to meet with a department administrator first, to ask for guidance. This can help you pick up on subtle things such as staffing issues that the department is already aware of, for which a solution is already in the works. Also, the administrator may decide to look into the situation without your having to file a formal petition.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .