VIGNETTE: Does “Fairness” Get in the Way of Learning and Equity?

Leah Hamilton

My first teaching experiences were TA assignments that largely consisted of grading, with the occasional responsibility for creating new assignments[1]. Usually, the grading for any given assignment was split between the instructor and either multiple TAs or me alone. Many teaching assistants have likely been in this kind of multiple-grader situation and are familiar with the rubrics, standardization, and long instructional team meetings that often result from concerns over “fairness” in these situations. As it’s a word I hear constantly in all kinds of academic meetings about course and program expectations, I want to investigate what we really mean when we say “fairness” and how a focus on so-called unfair advantages draws attention away from the intended outcomes of a course. Additionally, I want to present a few suggestions to free up the time spent litigating course administrative details without either being unfair or lowering the expectations for the course.

In my experience, the word “fairness” is almost always invoked in tension with mercy or grace in situations where a student asks for some accommodation that could feasibly be given. It represents the idea that other students, having done the work in accordance with the written course policy and undergone any associated suffering, will be angry that “lazy” students are getting special treatment. Fairness is invoked as the more justifiable of two evils whenever a student asks for an extension without a doctor’s note, wants a copy of the lecture notes, or sleeps through the final exam. I spent many hours stressing over whether individual emails fell within the precedent we’d set for excuses and extensions, asking for physical doctor’s notes and pretending I had some magic power to spot fakes, and forwarding students to the dean, who would certify their mental breakdown or family illness so I didn’t have to. The student who missed the exam dropped a letter grade in the class, even though it reminded me of the day I had slept through a final in undergrad and my professor let me make it up while he graded everyone else’s. It was Organic Chemistry II, which I later went on to tutor. I don’t know if the grace I was shown was fair. It was an unearned privilege in a class many students didn’t pass. I don’t know if those extra 24 hours would’ve made a difference for those students. But, at the same time, I was going to fail for missing the exam, not for lack of mastering the material—is it really fair, either, to penalize a student by not giving them a second chance to prove themself? Who, really, is being served by course policies that prioritize a definition of “fairness” focused mostly on deadlines and standard policies with built-in judgments about “real” excuses that can be accommodated if the student has time to document them? Who benefited from telling the student in Functional Foods that it wouldn’t be fair to give them a makeup exam without documentation of one of the acceptable excuses?

A lot of these problems stem from a desire not to make judgment calls, as an instructor, about what constitutes a valid excuse or a reasonable accommodation. I think that’s a good instinct. Unfortunately, I think the policies that often follow are detrimental. Leaving the decision up to university policy and requiring someone to fit into an easy paperwork bucket or find time to meet with the appropriate offices when they’re already behind isn’t fair. Removing the burden of deciding from yourself is not the same thing as having fair policies. When I was a TA, I spent the most time litigating the course policies most commonly addressed by disability accommodations: assignment formats, time limits, and deadlines. It’s not fair to change these after the fact, but if some portion of students will suffer or perform worse in the class only because of policies, why not build flexibility into the course from the start? Is it any less arbitrary to draw the line at documented disabilities when the accommodation might help some percentage of people learn better regardless? For instance, many learning disabilities are less frequently diagnosed in women (Shifrer, Muller, and Callahan 2011). Requiring documentation as a prerequisite for flexibility means your course inherits that inequity. I’d much rather spend my time designing better assignments and talking with students about my areas of expertise than trying to grapple with such thorny questions.

The only way I’ve found to reclaim my instructional and course planning time (as well as my office hours and inbox) from endless administrative judgement is to refocus myself on my goals as an instructor—to teach students the course learning objectives (CLOs) by the end of semester and assign grades that communicate how well they learned that material—and accept that any seemingly easy-to-enforce line I can draw will be challenged by an edge case. Linda Nilson’s Specifications Grading (2014) fits well with this philosophy, and since my co-instructor and I have adopted it, we’ve spent far less time answering endless emails about extra credit, missed deadlines, or points back on tests. In Specifications Grading, we tie each assignment directly to a learning objective, we communicate a clear goal that the students must meet to demonstrate their learning (and try to be flexible about the medium or format they use to do so), and if the students don’t meet the goal, then we give them substantive feedback and ask for a resubmission. Resubmissions allow students to improve their grade by demonstrating that their understanding and mastery of the material has improved instead of quibbling about points. Whenever there are non negotiable deadlines or we need to limit resubmissions for the sake of our own time, we can be clear with the students about why and they’re generally more understanding of the importance since we’ve demonstrated that we’re willing to be flexible where we can be. We almost never have students approaching us to argue a grade. Instead, they open office hours with “I wanted to know if I did the statistics right here” or “I wanted to make sure I understand what I did wrong.”

It may seem odd to be arguing against standardization and the identical treatment of all students, but in my experience, it’s not actually possible to be perfectly logically consistent and even-handed with grading. I don’t think I’m alone, either, based on the number of ethical dilemmas I’ve heard discussed at length in teaching groups that boil down to “how can I most fairly enforce course policy?” Pedagogical tools that emerge from a focus on “fairness,” like multiple-choice tests, strict deadlines, and documentation-focused absence policies, distract from the actual stated learning objectives and tie grades to how well students can work the system. Too many times, a seemingly sensible rubric has forced me to give a worse grade to a student whose assignment demonstrated better mastery of the material but didn’t precisely follow directions or wasn’t fully completed before the deadline. I’d much rather tell students that I need them to demonstrate a deep understanding by the end of the class and work with them to get there. In my experience, that requires a lot of flexibility and a continual focus on the CLOs. Sometimes, that means giving every student a second chance so that you don’t have to decide whether sleeping through an exam is a good-enough excuse.


Nilson, L.B. (2014). Specifications Grading—Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time. Stylus Publishing.

Shifrer, D., Muller, C., & Callahan, R. (2011). Disproportionality and learning disabilities: parsing apart race, socioeconomic status, and language. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 44(3), 246–257.

  1. How to cite this vignette:

    Hamilton, L. 2022. Does "Fairness" Get in the Way of Learning and Equity? In: Westfall-Rudd, D., Vengrin, C., and Elliott-Engel, J. (eds.) Teaching in the University: Learning from Graduate Students and Early-Career Faculty. Blacksburg: Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. License: CC BY-NC 4.0.


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Teaching in the University Copyright © 2022 by Leah Hamilton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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