Fairness in the Classroom

Many aspects of the TA role may create ethical dilemmas of one sort or another. Your roles as advisor, evaluator, exam proctor, authority figure, and peer present conflicting demands, and so have the potential to create conflict or raise allegations of unfair treatment.

What is "fairness" anyway?

When assessing instructor "fairness," a student doesn't usually consider the intentions of the instructor, but rather his or her perception of the instructor's behavior or policies. Rodabaugh's [1] typology of perceived fairness includes 3 components.
  1. interactional fairness—interaction between instructor and students
  2. procedural fairness—rules for grading and classroom administration
  3. outcome fairness—distribution of scores and grades

Interactional Fairness

Students consider breaches of these principles to be the most egregious [1].


Students expect an instructor to treat everyone in the class equally. Very few instructors intentionally favor certain students over others, but it's probably impossible not to like some students more than others. Differences in liking may foster differences in interactions, such as allowing certain students to dominate discussions. Even subtle differences in how students are treated may lead students to perceive partiality where none exists. To avoid those perceptions, carefully monitor your behavior and interactions with all students.


Students expect an instructor to listen, consider, and thoughtfully reply to their ideas, even when they challenge the instructor's views. An instructor perceived as impatient or demeaning—either directly through comments or indirectly through tone of voice, facial expressions or posture—loses students' respect. Should you experience disrespectful behavior, try to remain civil and calm, modeling appropriate behavior for students. It's always appropriate to meet privately with an offending student to communicate expectations for classroom behavior.

Concern for students

Care about your students and their academic performance. Learn and use their names, talk to them before and after class, answer questions thoroughly, and invite students who appear to be having problems with the course to discuss those problems and potential solutions. Consider student complaints, take remedial action when the complaints are valid, and carefully explain your position when the complaints are not valid.


Above all, be consistent and truthful, explaining your policies, procedures, and decisions and why they are necessary. For example, you can justify a strict attendance policy because attendance is correlated with increased learning and better grades. Explaining the educational goals of various types of assignments can also be effective. Integrity also involves delivering promised rewards and penalties, and if you don't know the answer to a question, admit it!


Propriety means acting in a socially acceptable manner and not offending students' sensibilities. Most students find it inappropriate in most or all circumstances for an instructor to tell an off-color story or joke, or to consistently use coarse language. Students expect instructors to respect their privacy; do not require students to reveal highly personal information in an assignment or class discussion. Most importantly, you must maintain an appropriate social distance.

Procedural Fairness

Students rate principles of "Procedure" second in importance to those of "Interaction" [1].

Course workload

Instructors often dismiss students' claims that the workload is too heavy in a course. While it is true that a reasonable course workload can be perceived as too heavy by students who are employed, involved in extracurricular activities, or are ill-prepared for the course, some workloads can be too heavy. If you feel pressed to include everything you think must be covered in a course, most students will feel overloaded. It's important to consider student class-level and ability when designing a course. A course for the general student population should be less technical than one designed for majors. Many first-year students are learning study skills along with the course content, and the difficulty of the course should be calibrated accordingly.


Three factors help a test appear fair to students:

  1. All the material on the test is relevant to the course's objectives and was covered in lectures, readings or both. If you reuse test questions, double-check them to ensure their currency with revised lectures or changed textbooks.
  2. The test is appropriate in difficulty for the course. Students are especially offended by overly difficult tests that seem designed to flunk people out of a course for the convenience of the faculty, or to adjust grade distribution to faculty expectations.
  3. The test is well-designed, with clearly phrased questions and unambiguous multiple-choice response options.

Provision of feedback

Providing prompt, constructive feedback on the results of tests and assignments is pedagogically sound and helps students perceive you as being fair and concerned about their progress. The feedback you provide should tell students the questions they got right or wrong, but also explain why wrong answers are incorrect—especially for items missed by a substantial number of students. Meaningful feedback takes relatively little time (even in large classes) and greatly increases student goodwill.

Responsiveness to students

In addition to providing feedback to students, you also should solicit and respond to feedback from students. For example, give serious consideration to student complaints that a test question was ambiguous or had more than one correct answer, and take remedial action when such complaints are valid. When distributing assignments, make sure students understand the grading criteria, and be sure to solicit and answer questions about the requirements, procedures, deadlines and outcomes.

Outcome Fairness

If deprived of the grades they think they deserve, students may be tempted to cheat.

Follow institutional practice

A department, college, or university may have specific policies concerning the distribution of each grade that may be given. When there is no formal policy, the actual distributions of grades in similar courses provide informal guidelines. Students compare grades with peers and will likely feel cheated if their grades for comparable performance are lower than those of students in course sections taught by other instructors. Students who feel cheated may reciprocate by cheating.

Use accurate assessment instruments

Grades on tests, papers, and assignments should accurately reflect student performance. Continually review and update assessment instruments to ensure their accuracy. If you reuse test questions, check them when changing textbooks or updating lectures. Questions that are poorly worded, ambiguous, or ask about topics not covered in class or readings reduce assessment accuracy. It's useful to have a student who's completed the course read questions for clarity.

Make multiple assessments

Some students feel they do better on objective tests, and others prefer term papers or essay tests. Consequently, you should provide your students with a variety of ways to exhibit their understanding so their strengths can offset weaknesses. Multiple evaluations also provide more accurate information about student performance than just one measure.

Tell students how they will be graded

The course syllabus should inform students what assessments you will use and the weight each will have in determining course grades. Be clear about how grades will be determined and your rationale for using that grading method. For example, based on preset grade scales or relative ranking in the class (grading on the curve), and your rationale.

Base grades on individual performance

Students want their grades to reflect their performance, not the performance of other students. Grades based on preset cutoffs may be more satisfying to students than grades based on performance relative to the class mean. Students expect to be graded individually for their contribution to group work. Individual performance on a collaborative project could include peer assessments or individual papers based on the assignment.

Don't change policies midcourse

Students expect grading policies to be firm. If you make alterations, you should fully explain and justify the changes. Ideally, the revised policy should benefit students (for example, a new opportunity to earn points toward final grades) but should at least balance costs and benefits.

Sources: Rodabaugh, R. C. (1996). Institutional commitment to fairness in college teaching. In L. Fisch (Ed.), Ethical dimensions of college and university teaching (pp. 37-45). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.