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Sunday, June 6, 2010

Fair or Unfair?

Thinking back on it, most of my teachers seemed to make a sincere effort to apply the same standards to every student in the class, and that satisfied me. What bothered me was when a teacher seemed to be impulsive or biased or inconsistent, leaving me and most classmates wondering exactly how our grades were determined and if, indeed, a student or two were teacher’s pets. As a teacher, I am always amazed when a student accuses me of unfair grading because I really do try to keep it fair. Here are a few situations I’ve either experienced or heard about, and I’m wondering what you think is fair.

1. Two students in the same undergrad class wrote the assigned research paper. Student X met every requirement spelled out in the assignment, made no substantive errors, but demonstrated only a superficial understanding of the topic. Student Y also did everything required, but cited many more good references and displayed an in-depth understanding of the topic. The professor reasoned that since both X and Y did everything required of them, they both got the same grade, an “A”. FAIR or UNFAIR?

2. A Mexican-American student at the local community college took an essay exam in his history class. Upon reading the student’s essay answers, the professor found that his vocabulary, grammar, and sentence structure were so weak that it was impossible to evaluate the substance of the answers. He was about to assign a grade of “D” but, instead, asked to meet with the student to discuss the matter. The student explained that he was born in Mexico, lived there until the age of 10 when his family came to America, and then grew up in a home and neighborhood where Spanish was the primary language. In addition, he is the only one in his family to ever graduate from high school or attend college. After learning about the student’s background, the professor suggested that the student take a remedial class to improve his writing. He also decided to change the student’s grade to “B” so as not to harm his chances of bettering himself. FAIR or UNFAIR?

3. A first-year medical student arrived 30 minutes late to the first two meetings of the required seminar: “clinical interviewing”. The professor spoke privately with her, telling her that it is unacceptable and unprofessional to miss time and disrupt the seminar with her late arrival. She explained that she is a single mother and has many more responsibilities than her classmates, and she asked for the professor’s understanding and patience. The professor told her that if she is not ready to give her full attention to her medical studies, she should postpone the course until she is ready. Despite the warning, the student continued to be late for subsequent classes and the professor reduced her grade from the “B” she earned on exams and graded activities to a “C”. FAIR or UNFAIR?

4. (a) An undergraduate student missed an “A” in a history course by a few points. After receiving her grade report for the semester, she explained to the professor that she had big problems with her boyfriend during the semester which distracted her from her best effort and that she really needed an “A” to get into graduate school. She asked for an extra credit assignment to raise her grade from “B” to “A”. The professor agreed to give her a chance, changed her grade to “Incomplete,” and assigned a 10-page research paper with a 30-day due date. The grade for the paper would then be averaged equally with all her other exam and paper grades in the course. It was determined that if she earned an “A” on the extra paper, then her course grade would be changed from “B” to “A”. Is this arrangement FAIR or UNFAIR?

4. (b) Continuing with situation 4 (a), the student turned in the research paper within the time limit, but it was obvious that she invested very little effort, perhaps assuming a tacit agreement that any paper would be given an “A”. The professor graded the paper an “F”. FAIR or UNFAIR?

4. (c) Continuing with situation 4 (b), per the agreement with the student,
the professor, computed the student’s new grade with the extra credit research paper included, and lowered the student’s grade from the original “B” to “C”.

4. (d) After discussion with the professor who refused to change the grade
back to the original “B”, the student took the matter to the university’s grade appeal process. The provost heard both sides of the case and told the professor to give the student another chance to write a similar research paper, grade the paper, substitute whatever grade is earned for the “F”, and then recalculate the student’s final course grade. FAIR or UNFAIR?

All of these situations have actually occurred, although some minor facts were changed to protect the guilty. It’s obvious that people don’t all agree on what is fair and unfair. I’d love to read your comments regarding this issue.

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