36 Understanding Fairness

A photo of John Daly
Figure 36.1: John Daly

John Daly

Life isn’t always fair. But people believe it should be. People in the working world complain that their bosses play favorites. Children “know” their sibling is the favorite child. This sense that things aren’t fair often pervades classrooms too. When I began teaching, figuring out how to treat students fairly occupied a lot of my thinking. One of my goals as a teacher was to have students come up at the end of a semester and say something like, “I really learned a lot and liked what you taught, even though I ended with a C. It’s what I deserved.”

When people believe the processes used to make judgments are fair, they can live with almost any outcome, even when that outcome doesn’t benefit them.

Here are a few ways I try to demonstrate procedural fairness in my classes.So, being an academic, I went to the research. I found that one kind of fairness is called procedural. Simply put, when people believe the processes used to make judgments are fair, they can live with almost any outcome, even when that outcome doesn’t benefit them. Parents know this: if your kids agree to the ground rules (for example, “No McDonalds” and “Take turns on the Xbox”) before leaving on a road trip, then when what they want doesn’t happen you can reference the ground rule (for example, “Didn’t we agree before we left that house that…”).

First, I am consistent with the rules I establish for the class. I tell students at the start of the semester what they need to get a good grade and then I stick with it.

Second, I give students two chances on each test. Because my major undergraduate class enrolls about four hundred students each semester, I use multiple-choice exams. I have a midterm and a final. Let’s say that the midterm, composed of sixty questions, is scheduled for October 15. On October 22, students can take what we call a retest, composed of different questions covering the same material. Students are required to take only one of the two tests. But we advise them to take both. Why? Because we record only the higher of the two grades. Students get a second try to show what they have learned. This makes the testing process fairer since some of the variability in student performances on exams is due to the particular ways teachers create their exams. It also makes tests fairer in another way. Sometimes students tell me that they had a bad day when the test was scheduled – a boyfriend dumped them, they were sick, they had another exam, and so on. With the retest, I can say, “No problem, just take the retest.”

Parenthetically, retests also offer an academic benefit. Call it the testing effect. Studying for an exam once helps students integrate and remember the content of lectures. Doing it twice helps them integrate and remember even more.

Third, I offer clear and unambiguous instructions for assignments. (Don’t do what a former colleague did: offer vague instructions and then when asked for clarification by students, say, “I can’t really explain what I want but I’ll know it when I see it.”)

Fourth, I try to make sure that students are assessed by what they know and not simply how they can game my tests. In every class, some students will complain that they’ve read too much into some test questions. So, on test day in my classroom, students receive, in addition to the exam and the Scantron, a blank piece of paper that they submit when they are finished. On that paper, students can identify items they felt were ambiguous. For those items, they describe both why they chose the answer they did and why another answer might be the right one. After each test we have a half-day session during which students can drop in and review their exams. If students find that they missed an item they wrote about, they can approach the teaching assistants and show them that, indeed, they knew the right answer. My goal with this method is to make sure we fairly assess what students know rather than how well they can interpret questions. More broadly, I try not to confound the substance of what I assess with my method of assessment – for example, do shy students really need to be forced to talk in front of others to demonstrate their knowledge of, say, economics?

There are certainly many ways to demonstrate fairness. What’s important is to make sure students always know that you care enough to be fair in how you judge them.

A photo of UT Rio Grande Valley campus with overlayed text reading, "Information, especially in technical fields, can become obsolete, but a teacher's inspiration often last a lifetime."
Figure 36.2: UT Rio Grande Valley
A photo of John Sibert
Figure 36.3: John Sibert

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