Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

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…”

Other strategies 

  • Ask someone (e.g., a departmental colleague, teaching assistant, or Eberly Center colleague) to read through your assignments and point out any wording that might be perceived as unclear or ambiguous.
  • Ask TAs to complete your assignments and report back on any elements they found confusing or unnecessarily difficult.
  • Ask someone (e.g., a departmental colleague, teaching assistant, or Eberly Center colleague) to review your course policies and grading scheme and point out anything that seems unfair or unreasonable.
  • Articulate your performance criteria for assignments and share them with students, perhaps in the form of a performance rubric. While rubrics take effort to create, they help students understand your expectations and help you to grade consistently.
  • Use grading strategies that promote reliability and consistency. For instance, instead of grading one student’s entire exam, you might want to grade one question at a time across the entire class (i.e., grade question #1 for all students, then move on to question #2...) This allows you to focus on one set of grading criteria at time and thus to maintain consistency.
  • Talk to colleagues from the culture(s) your students represent and try to learn more about your students’ expectations about workload, grading policies, etc. If your expectations vary from your students’, make sure you articulate your expectations very explicitly and explain the rationale behind your approach.
  • Don’t assume that if students raise objections or bring complaints it’s a sign of disrespect: try to depersonalize the issue and simply find out more. Early course evaluations are a good way to ascertain whether there is a problem with morale or lack of respect when there is still time in the semester to respond productively.

For help brainstorming or adapting strategies to your own teaching context, contact the Eberly Center in Pittsburgh, the Eberly Center in Qatar, or the Intercultural Communication Center in Pittsburgh.