A Different Take on Classroom 'Fairness'

January 27, 2006

When David Horowitz talks about fair treatment of students in the classroom, perceived political bias is front and center. But put a bunch of professors together to discuss that subject, and grading tops the list.

At a session entitled “Perceptions of Fairness in the College Classroom,” at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities in Washington Thursday, faculty members pondered the student who works his or her tail off, but never quite edges out some talented peers who rarely study but ace the test nonetheless.

When that hard working student gets an 89.3 percent, and 90 is an “A,” wouldn’t it be fair to just give him or her a nudge over the bar?

No way, according to Nyenty Arrey, assistant professor of chemistry at Capital University, in Ohio. Arrey was one of the faculty members talking justice at the “Perceptions of Fairness in the College Classroom” session of the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities in Washington Thursday. “I grade by the key,” Arrey said, referring to a strict scoring system he set up. Faculty members at the session commonly cited grading, to no one’s surprise, as the prime contributor to feelings of injustice among students.

The remedy, according to many of the faculty members present, is to lay down the law early in the class. Arrey said he lays out a detailed rubric on his syllabus, and directs students to it. “You need that,” he said. “If it’s not clear, students will use that against you.”

Kim Kenville, assistant professor of aviation at the University of North Dakota, didn’t completely agree. “See, that’s just insane,” she said. “There has to be some flexibility.”

Trent Snider, a chemistry professor at King's College, in Pennsylvania, questioned whether giving hard working students a little boost -- or the occasional rounded-up grade – is so bad. “I would rather have that student that works nine hours and gets a C+ than one who works one hour and gets a B+,” he said. “Do those students really deserve to be graded the same?”

Even so, Snider said that, when setting up his syllabus, he errs on the side of making his grading policies look more difficult than they might end up being. “If you’re [really tough] on your syllabus, if you back down, nobody will complain,” he said. “But you don’t want to go the other way.”

David Kravitz, associate professor of management at George Mason University, said that the effects of feeling unfairly treated have been documented in studies of workers. “Their performance goes down, and they are more likely to leave [their jobs],” he said, adding that there is no real data on how feelings of injustice affect students. “I think it’s reasonable to think that the same principles carry over to the classroom.”

In Array’s opinion, no professor should alter the grading rubric to impose their own sense of justice. “The students won’t be equal [in life after college] either,” he said. “Plus, it’s not how many hours you spent with your book open, it’s what you got out of it.”

Kenville said that she encounters a bump in the fairness road whenever she assigns a group project. “When one student in a group isn’t doing anything, do they all deserve the same grade?” she asked. In an effort to remedy the problem, Kenville is borrowing a teaching lesson from The Donald. She developed a system that will allow students to vote members of their project groups out of the group if they don’t pull their weight. She has not used it yet, but said that she will for the next group project.

Kenville also asked her colleagues how to deal with a student who she thinks has a learning disability, “but obviously doesn’t want it documented,” she said.

Mark Sheppard, vice president for academic affairs at Shepherd University, in West Virginia, said that if a student “doesn’t want it documented,” then, as far as the institutions is concerned, “they don’t have it.”

Of course, what conversation about classroom fairness would be complete without a bit about Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights? Kravitz said that, obviously, the political leanings of a professor should not color their grading. “The question, in some ways,” Kravitz said, “is can professors have an opinion.” He said that, in a chemistry class, perhaps, political opinions could rightly be called irrelevant, but “not in a sociology class. Whatever the case, it’s important to let everyone know they’re welcome in the conversation.”

Apparently, faculty members have feelings too, and some of them turned the conversation about unfairness away from students feelings, and toward their own. A few faculty members bemoaned “entitlement culture” among students. A collective groan overtook the room when one faculty member described a student who, rather than complaining to her face, “caught up with the president in the dining hall.” 

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