Stories from
the trenches

Why do students say my class is unfair?

International faculty member, CMU-Pittsburgh

I was surprised at first when students at Carnegie Mellon wrote on my course evaluations that my assignments and grades weren’t "fair." In my country, students don’t complain about unfairness: they just don’t expect fairness! And they would never question the instructor’s authority. It was difficult not to view my students" complaints as disrespectful.

It took a while, but I’ve come to realize that my students’ behavior isn’t a matter of disrespect so much as a response to a different set of circumstances. In my country, the educational system is based on standardized exams, so instructors have less direct control over student grades. And since these exams test problem solving and memorization, subjectivity in grading isn’t an issue. Here in the U.S., instructors create and grade exams, so their assessment of student work matters. Students get upset if they think instructors are unclear or their grading is subjective. Recognizing these differences, I’ve adapted. I try to spell out the goals, parameters, and grading criteria for assignments and to make sure exam questions are as clear as possible. And I make sure students know I’m bending over backwards to be fair and consistent. For example, when a student asks me to extend a deadline or give extra credit, I say: “In the interest of fairness, I can’t make an exception for one person…”

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