Fair classroom practices disarm threat of evaluation retaliation

While tuition inflation presents a challenge for many college-bound students, an area of growing concern for many universities is “grade inflation” — in part caused when instructors grade more leniently to discourage students from retaliating by giving low teaching evaluations.

Washington State University researchers say instructors can stop worrying about evaluation revenge as long as they use practices in the classroom that students perceive as fair.

“We’ve long known there’s an association between expected students’ course grades and how they evaluate teachers. However, our study is the first to show that grades influence evaluations much less, if at all, when students can see what fair processes instructors use to assign grades,” said lead author Thomas Tripp, Carson College of Business associate dean, WSU Vancouver.

Tripp conducted this study with former WSU doctoral students, Lixin Jiang, University of Auckland; Kristine Olson, Dixie State University; and Maja Graso, University of Otago.

“Faculty may not feel a need to award artificially high grades if they knew how students’ perceptions of justice might influence this relationship,” Tripp said.

Fairness is more than grades

The researchers found students’ perception of fair classroom processes revolves around four essential teaching practices: (1) following the course rules by using grading rubrics that match stated criteria, and by aligning their course presentation and expectations to the syllabus; (2) obtaining student feedback and incorporating their interests and voice; (3) being aware of bias and grading blindly; and, (4) correcting grades by providing policies for make-up work and absences.

But students’ concept of fairness extends beyond just grades, the researchers found.

“We were a bit surprised to learn of other criteria that students defined as “fair,” including how well the class is run and how much the professor goes out of the way to help students,” said Tripp. “We can see how these are important to students, but they don’t fit any definition of “fair” that we know of.”

“The most interesting thing we found in our study is that perception of fair process completely eliminated the threat of student retaliation via low teaching evaluations,” Tripp said.

Recommendations for instructors

Based on the findings, the researchers recommend instructors follow specific procedures to ensure a fair classroom.

For instance:

Use grading rubrics consistently and share them with students. Course policies, such as late assignments submissions, should be in writing and included in the syllabus. Instructors should include grade-appeal procedures in their course policies, and if possible, have their students submit their appeals by their student ID numbers rather than by their names. Should a grade appeal move up to a panel, the panel could include students to increase representativeness.

Fair processes worth the effort

“While adding such processes may seem like a lot of work, we believe instituting fair processes is the superior option for several reasons,” said Tripp. “Rampant use of grading leniency may contribute to grade inflation, which is advancing each decade and diminishing the power of grades to motivate students to work harder.”

Tripp said by ignoring fair classroom processes and by grading leniently, instructors risk creating perceptions of both unfair outcomes and unfair process, a deadly combination that is associated with lower student evaluations of teachers.

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