Teaching Tips

Fairness in the Classroom

By Bernard E. Whitley, Jr., David V. Perkins,
Deborah Ware Balogh, Patricia Keith-Spiegel, and Arno F. Wittig

Ball State University

When students submit essays showing a poor grasp of course material, Professor Bovine draws a little cartoon of a bull flying through the air on their blue book covers. A student complained that the drawing insulted and embarrassed her and that she was doing the best she could, not slinging bull. Bovine defends his behavior by stating that students should learn that attempting to hoodwink an expert is a bad idea and not at all appreciated by the recipient. He views his technique as a harmless yet effective way of teaching this valuable lesson.

Professor Reach teaches her upper-division undergraduate Forensic Psychology class at a highly advanced level: She uses a textbook often used during the second year at law schools and although her lectures are well crafted, they are complicated and fast-paced. Students complain that they do not understand what is going on. In a meeting with the department chair, Reach strongly defended her teaching approach as the appropriate way to give the excellent students the edge they need to compete in today's marketplace.

Dr. Two-Standard admits to some frustrated students that she has two grading curves: one for psychology majors and a lower one for nonmajors. She argues that majors should know more about psychology and be better able "to think like a psychologist" than students who are majoring in other fields.

These three cases illustrate situations that most students (and many instructors) would consider to be unfair. Because fairness is a cornerstone of ethical teaching (Keith-Spiegel, Wittig, Perkins, Balogh, & Whitley, 1993), we doubt many college and university instructors purposely act unfairly. However, because fairness is a perception based on interpretations of behavior rather than on intentions, many instructors may inadvertently engage in what students perceive to be unfair behavior. Our purpose is to provide an overview of behaviors that can lead students to attribute (un)fairness to their instructors. Our discussion is based on Rodabaugh's (1996) typology of perceived fairness: Interactional fairness concerns the nature of the interaction between instructor and student; procedural fairness the rules for grading and classroom administration; and outcome fairness the distribution of grades. Each section contains tips for teachers on how to be fair and ethical, and thus avoid as many classroom problems as possible.

Although one might expect students to be most concerned with outcome or procedural fairness because it affects their grades, Rodabaugh (1996) found that students consider violations of interactional fairness to be the most severe. There are five aspects to interactional fairness according to Rodabaugh: impartiality, respect, concern for students, integrity, and propriety.

Impartiality. Students expect an instructor to treat everyone in the class equally. Few professors intentionally favor certain students over others, but it is 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 to perceptions of partiality where none exists. For example, Keith-Spiegel, Tabachnick, and Allen (1993) found that 90% of students surveyed thought an instructor's "being more friendly to some students than to others" was inappropriate in at least a minor degree and 45% thought it was inappropriate under many or all circumstances. Instructors should carefully monitor their behavior to avoid giving the impression of partiality.

Respect. Respect involves treating students politely. Keith-Spiegel et al. (1993) found that 85% of student respondents thought that ridiculing a student or calling a student's comment "stupid" was inappropriate in many or all circumstances. Similarly, Rodabaugh (1996) found that students expect an instructor to listen to, carefully consider, and give thoughtful replies to their ideas when they challenge the instructor's views. An instructor who is perceived as impatient or demeaning, either directly through comments or indirectly through tone of voice, facial expressions, or posture, loses students' respect.

Patience is especially difficult when students actively misbehave in class. However, students also expect instructors to be polite in those situations. For example, 45% of students thought it inappropriate for an instructor to "humiliate a student for falling asleep in class" in most circumstances (Keith-Spiegel, Tabachnick, & Allen, 1993). Instructors who face disrespect should try to remain civil and calm, thereby modeling the appropriate behavior for students. It is always appropriate to meet privately with an offending student, during which one can be more direct in communicating expectations for classroom deportment.

Concern for students. Students expect their instructors to care about them and their academic performance. One can demonstrate such concern by learning and using students' names, talking to them before and after class, carefully answering questions, and inviting students who appear to be having problems with the course to discuss those problems and potential solutions. Concern is also expressed by giving due consideration to student complaints, taking remedial action when the complaints are valid, and carefully explaining one's position when the complaints are not valid.

Showing concern for individual students is especially difficult when teaching large classes. Nonetheless, some measures you can take to make students feel welcome and appreciated are shown in Table 1.

Integrity. Integrity means being consistent and truthful, and explaining one's policies, procedures, and decisions and why they are necessary, so that their fairness can be judged and understood. For example, an attendance policy may be justifiable because attendance is correlated with increased learning and better grades. Explaining the educational goals of various types of assignments can also be effective. Greenberg (1990) found that a complete explanation of policies and practices to students who had initially perceived them as unfair led to acceptance of them. Instructors also should deliver promised rewards and penalties, and admit ignorance when appropriate.

Propriety. Propriety means acting in a socially acceptable manner and not offending students' sensibilities. Students expect instructors to follow the rules when interacting with them, even if the instructor believes there might be pedagogical value in breaking them. For example, 53% of students thought it inappropriate in most or all circumstances for an instructor to tell an off-color story or joke, and 80% thought the same about showing an emotionally upsetting film without warning students in advance. Students also expect instructors to respect their privacy: 88% thought that it was inappropriate to require students to reveal highly personal information in a class discussion. Finally, students expect instructors to maintain an appropriate social distance: 54% thought it inappropriate for an instructor to date a student and 70% believed it inappropriate for a professor to have a sexual relationship with a student (Keith-Spiegel, Tabachnick, & Allen, 1993).

Students rate procedural fairness second in importance to interaction fairness and higher than outcome (grading) fairness (Rodabaugh, 1996). Four factors, based on a conceptual analysis, contribute to perceived procedural fairness in the classroom: course work load, tests, providing feedback, and making provision for student input.

Course work load. Although many factors (e.g., employment, extracurricular activities, low aptitude for the type of work done in the course) can lead students to perceive a reasonable work load as too heavy, some work loads can in fact be too heavy. If the knowledge base is rapidly expanding and instructors feel pressed to include everything they think must be covered in a course, many students may feel overloaded as well. When such pressure exists, instructors should review course content with an eye to pruning it back.

It is important consider student ability when designing a course. A course for the general student population should be less technical than one designed for majors. It is also important to remember that many first year students are learning study skills along with the course content, and the difficulty of the course should be calibrated accordingly.

Tests. Three factors help a test appear fair to students. First, all the material on the test is relevant to the course's learning objectives and was covered in lectures, readings, or both. If one reuses test questions, one should double-check them to ensure their currency when revising lectures or changing textbooks. Second, the test is appropriate in difficulty for the course. As with work load, the proper level of test difficulty can vary as a function of the student population to which the course is directed. Students are especially offended by tests that seem designed to flunk people out of a course for the convenience of the faculty (e.g., to reduce the class size or the number of majors in a department). Third, the test is well-designed, with clearly-phrased questions and, on multiple-choice tests, clearly phrased response options.

Providing feedback. Providing prompt, constructive feedback on the results of tests and assignments is pedagogically sound and helps students perceive instructors as fair and concerned about their progress (Rodabaugh, 1996). Feedback should include not only telling students the questions they got right or wrong, but also explaining why wrong answers are incorrect, especially for items that are missed by a substantial proportion of students. This takes relatively little time even in large classes and provides large dividends in student good will.

Being responsive to students. Instructors should not only provide feedback to students, but also solicit and respond to feedback from students. For example, instructors should 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. Instructors should ensure that students understand assignments, soliciting and answering questions about the requirements, procedures, deadlines, and so forth when distributing the assignment. Students should feel they have reasonable control over their outcomes in the class.

Like it or not, grades are an important component of student perceptions of fairness. Students want grades to accurately reflect performance. If deprived of the grades they think they deserve, many will cheat to obtain what they see as their just due. Following are some guidelines for fair grading from the perspectives of both faculty (Ory & Ryan, 1993) and students (Rodabaugh, 1996).

Follow institutional practice. A department, college, or university may have specific policies concerning the proportion 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 similar courses taught by other instructors. Students who feel cheated may reciprocate by cheating.

Use accurate assessment instruments. Assessment instruments - tests, term papers, homework, presentations, and other assignments - should yield accurate information about student performance. Instructors should continually review and update assessment instruments to ensure their accuracy. For example, questions in test banks supplied by textbook publishers are often written by someone other than the textbook authors. Questions may be poorly constructed when the writer does not fully understand the material or is under time pressure. Instructors should always check test bank questions against the textbook, and instructors who reuse test questions should check them when changing textbooks or moving to a new edition of the current book.

Exam and quiz questions that are poorly worded, ambiguous or were not covered in class or in assigned readings also reduce the accuracy of assessment. It is useful to have a student who has completed the course read questions for clarity.

Make multiple assessments. Some students do better on objective tests, others on term papers or essay tests. Consequently, accurate evaluation of student performance provides students a variety of ways to show their learning so that strengths can offset weaknesses. Similarly, multiple evaluations 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 assessment instruments will be used and the weight each will have in determining course grades. Students should also know how grades will be determined, such as being based on preset cut-off scores or based on their relative ranking in the class (grading on the curve) and the reasons for using that grading method.

Grade based on individual performance. Students want their grades to reflect their performance, not other people's. Grades based on preset cutoffs may be more satisfying to students than grades based on performance relative to the class mean. Students also 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 in midcourse. Students expect grading policies to be firm. If alterations must be made, the changes and reasons for them should be fully explained. Ideally, the revised policy should benefit students, such as a new opportunity to gain points toward final grades. At a minimum, alterations in policies should at least balance costs and benefits.

An excellent means of ensuring that students perceive an instructor to be fair, especially in terms of procedures and outcomes, is a complete syllabus. A syllabus should contain not only an outline of the course but also a complete description of ground rules for the course. In the context of grading, what number of points or percent of the final grade will come from each test, paper, or homework assignment? If contributions to class discussion are graded, exactly what does contribution mean and how will its quality be assessed? If extra credit is allowed, how much is it worth and how do students earn it? Due dates and penalties for late assignments should be clearly described. The syllabus should also contain procedural information, such as how much collaboration is allowed and the kinds of assistance students may receive. The syllabus is a contract between the instructor and the students enrolled in a course. Like any contract, the more complete and explicit the syllabus, the less room for varying interpretations and the less likelihood there is that students will perceive the instructor to be interpreting an individual situation in an unfair manner.

Ethical issues are often seen in terms of outright abuse of power or privilege. However, we have tried to show that where fairness is concerned, many behaviors that teachers may unthinkingly exhibit on a day-to-day basis, such as Professor Bovine's joking drawing on an exam booklet, may be perceived quite differently by students. Similarly, seemingly minor acts, such as delaying feedback on test results or making slight changes in course content and procedures during the semester or quarter, might have major impacts on student perceptions of teacher fairness. Perceptions of unfairness can, in turn, undermine the trust between student and teacher that is necessary for effective learning (Brookfield, 1990). Consequently, one must carefully monitor one's behavior and policies to ensure that they are not only in fact fair, but are perceived as fair by students.

Table 1
Establishing Personal Contact with Students in Large Classes
  • On the first day of class, have students introduce themselves to the people sitting next to them.
  • Tell the class a little about your personal and professional background.
  • Arrive early for class and stay after class so you can talk with students in the hall or in the classroom.
  • Give students your e-mail address and encourage comments and questions. Reply promptly to the student and discuss selected messages with the class (keeping the senders anonymous, of course).
  • Use a remote microphone and audiovisual controls so you can walk around. Ask questions and give students the mike to respond.
  • Have students periodically fill out feedback sheets to express opinions and ask questions about the course. Respond to these during the next class meeting.
  • When you attend professional meetings, especially if you have to miss class, tell the students a little about what happened.
  • Use as many collaborative and small group exercises and discussions as are feasible.
  • Schedule help sessions in which you, not just tutors or teaching assistants, participate.
  • Be proactive about inviting students to visit during office hours.

BERNARD E. WHITLEY, JR., DAVID V. PERKINS, DEBORAH WARE BALOGH, PATRICIA KEITH-SPIEGEL, and ARNO F. WITTIG are Professors of Psychological Science at Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana 47306. They have been working as a group since 1992 on projects related to the ethics of teaching and ethics in the academy.

References & Recommended Readings

Appleby, D. C. (1994). How to improve your teaching with the course syllabus. APS Observer, 7(3),
     18-109, 26.
Brookfield, S. D. (1990). The skillful teacher: On technique, trust, and responsiveness in the
     classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Goss, S. (1995). Dealing with problem students in the classroom. APS Observer, 8(6), 26-27, 29.
Greenberg, J. (1990). Employee theft as a reaction to underpayment inequity: The hidden costs of
     pay cuts. Journal of Applied Psychology, 75, 561-568.
Keith-Spiegel, P., Tabachnick, B. G., & Allen, M. (1993). Ethics in academia: Students' views of
     professors' actions. Ethics and Behavior, 3, 149-162.
Keith-Spiegel, P., Wittig, A. F., Perkins, D. V., Balogh, D. W., & Whitley, B. E., Jr. (1993). The ethics of
     teaching: A casebook. Muncie, IN: Ball State University Press.
Ory, J.C., & Ryan, K. E. (1993). Tips for improving testing and grading. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Palladino, J. J., Hill, G. W. IV., & Norcross, J. C. (1995). The use of extra credit in teaching. APS
     Observer, 8(5), 34-35, 40.
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.

Note: This article first appeared in the July/August 2000 (Vol. 13, No. 6) issue of the APS Observer.