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

 

Enforcing a "bill of rights" is too open to interpretation (e.g., what does "fair grading" mean?). Instead, we list common mistreatment areas -- what some might call "academic malpractice" -- to help students gauge their situation. 

 

We defend professors' "academic freedom", and recognize normal imperfections inherent in teaching. Many professors agree the below items go beyond academic freedom and normal imperfections. 

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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 manually-graded items prone to grading mistakes

    • 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 / notice needed to complete work

      • Ex: Giving 3-hour exam in 1 hour or 20-hour project in 2 days (w/o adjustments)

      • Ex: Posting assignment on Sunday due Monday (w/o prior notice)

    • 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, like proofreading the prof's 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 available 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

    • Repeatedly 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

 
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Severe cases

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

 

Academic mistreatment is about 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 thus normal. But a doctor's actions rise to malpractice when 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 includes many aspects of how professors operate their class, determine grades, treat students, and more. Academic freedom is essential to retain good professors and ensure students get a good education.

However, academic freedom is not the freedom to do anything. It's important to know what items are protected by academic freedom, such as:

  • Expressing any ideas related to the course

    • Even if unpopular -- truth may not always be popular

  • Covering topics related to the course​

    • Even if beyond the listed topics -- courses naturally evolve​

  • Determining how a class is run​​

    • Even if unusual -- variations may lead to innovations

  • Determining grades

    • Even if methods seems strict -- no universal standards exist​

Practices likely protected by academic freedom

Below are behaviors some would question but that are likely protected by academic freedom. 

  • 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 optionally-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 10 years. ​

    • Having large grade variations among different sections/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 finding a replacement​.

 

Even if something is protected by academic freedom, you can still suggest improvements. Options include a polite email or conversation with a professor, sending 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 academic mistreatment, which unfortunately is common. 

To know what is academic mistreatment, students must 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 agree to a learning experience within the university's framework. University learning is not private tutoring, nor are students customers who can demand specific service. The university framework typically includes:

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

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

  • Student responsibility to read policies, participate, and study -- without hand-holding

  • Acceptance of normal imperfections in the teaching process -- no class can be perfect

Below are areas where students often have improper expectations. 

  • Not allowing the professor to control the flow of class

    • Ex: Student expects to speak at any moment, on any subject, for any amount of time, or demands immediate answers to questions. 

    • Professors need to control the flow of class to achieve teaching goals

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

    • Profs don't have infinite time, need not reply to questions covered in the class, syllabus, or previous posts, and may use other communication forms

  • Believing entitlement to as much help as needed to understand the material​

    • College is not private tutoring. Profs should provide reasonable help given the class size, units, and prerequisite knowledge. Students needing more might seek other help (classmates, tutors, etc.)​

  • Expecting special accommodations​

    • Except for certain school-approved disabilities, profs need not accommodate every situation (e.g., work schedules, travel plans, etc.). If they can, great, but numerous exceptions become unmanageable.​

  • Objecting to reasonable changes in a syllabus​

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

    • Profs need to make adjustments based on class performance, changing resources, new ideas, illness, etc. 

  • Recording a professor​, or using electronics (phones, laptops), without permission

    • Unless the school has an overriding policy, profs decide what happens in their class, including whether they'll be recorded (which can stifle free expression)​​, or whether electronics can be used (which can distract)

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

    • Profs usually hold the copyright on their materials, and such posting violates that copyright​

  • Abusing grade appeals via excessive, minor appeals​

    • Grading is imperfect; students should be reasonably confident an error has been made, and such error is enough to warrant a regrade​

  • Believing high effort deserves a good grade​

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

  • Objecting to a professor seeming rude or unkind​

    • Being polite or kind might be desired, but isn't required, and some profs aim to toughen/mature students, preparing them for real-world success 

  • Believing students should contribute to determining their grade​

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

Of course, professors would do well to be open to hearing student opinions too.