What is academic mistreatment?

What's OK, and what's not OK

CSA aims to protect and promote student academic rights. Generally, students have the right to:

  • Fair grading

  • Reasonable policies

  • Appropriate coursework

  • Competent professors

  • Decent access 

  • Good advising


We don't emphasize a "bill of rights", which is too open to different interpretations (e.g., what does "fair grading" mean?). Instead, we list common areas of academic mistreatment -- what some might call "academic malpractice" -- to help students gauge their situation. 


We distinguish mistreatment from "academic freedom", and from normal imperfections inherent in teaching. Many professors agree the below items go beyond academic freedom and normal imperfections. 


Areas of academic mistreatment

Common areas of academic mistreatment appear below, grouped into the categories of general academic rights.

  • Fair grading

    • Very poor specification on how grades will be determined

      • Ex: No info in syllabus or stated

      • Ex: Drastic change mid-term​

    • Not fixing grading errors

      • Ex: Denying valid requests having substantial impact

      • Ex: Built-in retaliation (lose points just by requesting)​

    • Not enabling students to detect grading errors ​​

      • Ex: Not letting students examine grading on items prone to error (excludes multiple choice or similar)

    • Lengthy grade feedback delays

      • Especially if needed for later assignments ​

    • Grossly substandard grading

      • Ex: Huge inconsistencies, scores with no indication of how graded, non-academic criteria

    • Docking grade for matters beyond student's control

      • Ex: One cellphone rings, everyone's grade lowered​

      • Ex: Partner doesn't turn in assignment, or secretly cheats

    • Penalizing a student for cheating who denies it, but prof doesn't follow university's process​

  • Reasonable policies

    • Penalizing entire class for behavior of few students

      • Ex: Refusing to answer questions because one student was rude​

    • Heavily penalizing late class arrival although beyond student's control

      • Ex: Previous class distant, or had exam that ran late​

    • Requiring attendance outside scheduled hours, without reasonable alternatives

      • Ex: Keeping students long after class' end time

      • Ex: Holding class meetings not in schedule

    • Gross abuse of financial conflict-of-interest

      • Ex: Professor requiring own book (or friend's) that is clearly bad quality, excessively priced, or unneeded 

    • Refusing to allow makeup work for serious documented illness or emergencies

      • Ex: Hospitalization, death in family, car accidents​

    • Refusing to adjust to serious technical problems

      • Ex: Turn-in system down for many hours before a deadline

      • Ex: Exam system repeatedly crashing during exam​

  • Appropriate coursework

    • Assigning work outside of a term's dates

      • Ex: Before term's first day, like over summer

      • Ex: After term's last day, like after finals week but before prof must submit grades

      • Ex: After term's last days, giving everyone "Incomplete" grades and doing grade changes later

    • Grossly exceeding university's own work-hours-per-unit policies

      • Ex: 4-unit class with expected 12 hours/week, but regularly giving 20+ hours/week ​

    • Heavily relying on material/skills not in prerequisites and unreasonable to expect

    • Giving insufficient time to complete work

      • Often due to prof being disorganized

    • Not providing fair ability for students to turn in work

      • Ex: Distant turn-in spot, limited turn-in time windows, faulty turn-in tool

    • Giving extensive class points for non-academic tasks

      • Ex: Unrelated surveys 

      • Ex: Personal favors for prof, like proofreading a book unrelated to the course

    • Excessive departure from course's catalog description

      • Ex: Politics in a math class

      • Ex: Going far into advanced topics

      • Giving exams wildly departing from topics covered in any part of class (lecture, book, homework, etc.)

  • Reasonable access

    • Not providing reasonable ability to enroll into required classes

    • Providing grossly insufficient teaching/grading resources

    • Frequently cancelling class

    • Prof often arriving very late, leaving very early, or using very weak substitute

    • Repeatedly not notifying students of cancelled class period

    • Holding classes in a place with insufficient ability to view or hear

    • Failing to be accessible to students outside class, when universities requires it

      • Ex: No office hours or frequently cancelations

      • Ex: Not responding to emails or forum posts or unreasonably delayed replies

  • Competent professors​

    • Grossly deficient communication

      • Ex: Due to accent, voice level, grammar, behavioral issues, etc. ​

    • Unable to manage a class

      • Ex: Disorganized, doesn't follow own policies, has unreasonable policies, unable or unwilling to interact with students, etc.​

    • ​Repeated demonstrated incompetence with course's topics

    • Berating students

  • Reasonable advising / curriculum

    • Telling a student they are on track to graduate, then later the student is told otherwise

    • Changing course numbering, prerequisites, or graduation requirements in a way that unreasonably burdens existing students


Severe cases

Issues are not black-and-white. Ex: Some "inconsistent grading" is unavoidable.   


Academic mistreatment is not about borderline but rather extreme cases, beyond normal imperfections.

One might liken it to medical malpractice. No doctor is perfect, and medicine is an art. Non-ideal treatment is common. But a doctor's actions rise to malpractice when widely-accepted standards of care are not met and cause substantial harm. 


Likewise, no professor is perfect, and teaching is an art. Imperfect classes are common. But sometimes limits are breached, where most other professors would say "That's not OK".  Without oversight, academic mistreatment is surprisingly common. 


Academic Freedom

What is academic freedom

A fundamental teaching principle is that of "academic freedom," often defined as the right of university professors to express ideas without interference.  That freedom extends to include many aspects of how professors operate their class, determine grades, and more. Academic freedom is essential to retain good professors and to ensure students get a good education.

However, academic freedom is not the freedom to do anything. Thus, it is important to know what issues fall within academic freedom versus beyond. 

Items widely considered to be part of academic freedom include:

  • Expressing any ideas related to the course

    • Even if unpopular, because truth may not always be popular

  • Covering topics related to the course​

    • Even if beyond the listed topics, because courses naturally evolve​

  • Determining how a class is run​​

    • Even if unusual, because variations may lead to innovations

  • Determining grades

    • Even if methods seems strict, because no universal standards exist​

Practices likely protected by academic freedom

Below are behaviors some would question but that are likely protected by academic freedom. One could still ask for change, but expectations of change are lower. In contrast, one expects that academic mistreatment cases should be resolved, at some level. 

  • Grading

    • Giving entire course grade from one exam 

      • Graded work during a term helps students learn. But even in grade-from-one-exam courses, ideally option graded work and sample exams would exist.

    • Giving no grade feedback prior to drop deadline

      • Feedback helps students make an informed decision.

    • Accepting exam item regrade requests but regrading entire exam

      • This common policy has logic, but borders on retaliation, often done to discourage regrades. Professors: Imagine you notice the IRS under-refunded you this year, but if you report it they'll audit your last 5 years. ​

    • Having large grade variations among different offerings of the same course

      • A sign of an immature department who can't get faculty to coordinate. Unfair to students who happen to enroll in the more-harshly-graded section.​

    • Keeping a professor with terrible evaluations and no other indications of being a good

      • Departments often don't want to deal with firing someone or of finding a replacement​.


Even if items fall within academic freedom, you can still suggest improvements. Options include a polite concise email or conversation with a professor, an email to a department chair/vice-chair, and completing end-of-term course evaluations. 


Hopefully, your professor and/or department is open to constructive suggestions. 


Proper expectations

CSA aims to address extreme cases of academic mistreatment, which unfortunately is common. 

To understand what is extreme academic mistreatment, students must first have proper expectations about the college experience. Student sometimes misunderstand the professor/student relationship and assume rights they don't have. 

Students who enroll in a university are agreeing to a learning experience within the university's framework. University learning is not private tutoring, nor are students customers that can demand specific service. The university framework typically includes:

  • A limited amount of instruction and assistance -- not an unlimited amount

  • Assessments and grades based on the professor's standards -- not the student's standards

  • Student responsibility to read policies, participate, and study

  • Acceptance of normal imperfections in the teaching process

Below are some areas where students often have improper expectations. 

  • Not allowing the professor to control the flow of class

    • Ex: Expecting the professor to stop immediately to answer a question, speaking for a long time, sharing info unrelated to the class, interrupting without permission, etc.

    • Professors need some control of flow to achieve their teaching goals

  • Expecting replies to every email or discussion board post​​

    • Professors don't have infinite time, professors don't need to reply to questions already covered in the class, syllabus, or previous posts, and professors may require communication in other ways than email

  • Believing they are entitled to as much help as needed to understand the material​

    • College is not private tutoring. Professors should provide a reasonable amount of help given the class size and units. Students needing more might seek help from others, like classmates, tutors, etc. ​

  • Expecting special accommodations​

    • Except for certain school-approved disabilities, professors do not have to accommodate every situation (e.g., work schedules, travel plans, etc.). It's great if they can, but having dozens of exceptions can become unmanageable.​

  • Objecting to reasonable changes in a course syllabus​

    • Ex: Adding a few homeworks, removing a quiz, minor tweaking of an exam's grade weight​

    • Professors need the ability to make adjustments based on how the class is performing, changing resources, new ideas, illness, etc. 

  • Recording a professor without permission​

    • Unless the school has an overriding policy, professors generally get to decide what happens in their class, including whether they'll be recorded​​

  • Using electronics (like phones or laptops) during class without permission​

    • ​Unless the school has an overriding policy, professors can establish rules to improve the learning atmosphere, like no electronics

  • Posting a professor's materials (slides, exams, etc.) online (e.g., to sharing sites) without permission​

    • Generally, professors hold the copyright on their materials, and such posting violates that copyright​

  • Abusing grade appeals via excessive, minor appeals​

    • Grading is an imperfect task; students have a duty to be confident an error has been made, and such error is substantial enough to warrant a regrade​

  • Believing high effort deserves a good grade​

    • Grades are based mostly on demonstrated knowledge/skill, not effort​

  • Objecting to a professor seeming rude or unkind​

    • It might be nice if all professors were supportive and kind, but that's not required, and some would argue that such methods toughen/mature students, preparing them for future success in the real world. 

  • Believing students should have a say in determining their grade​

    • In some ways, that's akin to a patient telling the doctor what to do​

Of course, students should ideally be welcome to voice their opinions, hopefully with some humility, to improve the experience. And course evaluations are designed to assist with that too.