About fairness in grading

Fairness in grading is very simply defined at James Madison University, by two principles adopted after study by a joint student-faculty task force:

  1. Grades are assigned as listed in the course syllabus or as amended by the professor with appropriate notice.
  2. Grades are assigned in the same manner for all students in the class.

See the JMU catalog’s “Academic Policies and Procedures” section for details.

Notice some of the practices that are immediately ruled out by application of these two principles:

  • “Extra credit” based on an assignment given only to students who ask for it. That violates both principles.
  • Special concessions for students who, individually or as part of a family, make a contribution to the university (for example, sons and daughters of large contributors, student athletes or unusually talented scholars).
  • Grade assignments based on subjective factors not listed in the syllabus – for example, assigning an “A” to someone who earned a “B” because of a feeling that the student really knew the material better than test scores indicated or assigning a “D” to someone who earned a “C” because of a feeling that the student didn’t really learn as well as the test scores indicated. Once grade cutoffs are set, they must be uniformly applied in keeping with the syllabus.
  • Assignment of unwarranted grades because of the student’s plans to go to law or medical school, or to prevent a loss of financial aid.
  • Assignment of unwarranted grades because of student threats of litigation. As it turns out, courts are highly reluctant to intervene in grading disputes. In the rare event that a grading dispute makes it to court, a faculty member who has failed to follow internal policies (in our case, the two listed above) will have a far weaker position than a faculty member who carefully followed them. In other words, if you say “I’ll sue if you don’t give me an ‘A,’” you make it especially important for the faculty member to stick to the grading scale.
  • Using favoritism in penalizing late work – for example, assigning late penalties to one student but waiving late penalties for another student in the same circumstances.

If you believe that you have been graded unfairly, there are grade review and grade appeal procedures in the JMU catalog. They are followed with a great deal of care. However, you should be aware that there are only two grounds for a grade appeal:

  1. The grade was assigned in a manner other than that listed in the course syllabus or as amended by the professor with appropriate notice.
  2. The grade was assigned in a manner other than that used for other students in the class.

All of this sounds fairly formal and bureaucratic, I realize. But consider what would happen if faculty members did violate the two standards of grading at JMU. Then the syllabus would provide no reliable indication of how you would be graded. Favoritism and discrimination would be definite possibilities. When the student-faculty task force issued its report on grading, it wanted to head off any possibility of these unethical occurrences.

If you would like to have the two principles of grading revisited, please contact the Provost of the University to propose a new task force. Until they are amended, however, I will follow the current principles quite carefully.

In conclusion:

I have been teaching full-time in colleges and universities since 1979. In that time I have taught thousands of students. I have insisted on high standards in my own grading and recordkeeping. I have fully investigated any claims of miscalculation and taken appropriate action. But:

I have never granted secret extra credit to students who approached me, and I never will.

I have never assigned unwarranted grades for sons or daughters of prominent contributors, student athletes, unusually talented scholars or anyone else. I never will.

I have never assigned grades based on subjective feelings through points not documented on the syllabus, and I never will.

I have never assigned unwarranted grades because of a student’s graduate school plans or financial aid status, and I never will.

I have never assigned unwarranted grades because of a threat of litigation, and I never will.

I have never shown favoritism in assigning late penalties for work not turned in on time, and I never will.

If you ask me for extra credit or favoritism, I will turn down your request and refer you to this statement.

If you ask me to check a grade for scoring errors, I will quickly and cheerfully do just that.