Asking the right questions: The hard marker vs. the fair one

If you spend any amount of time around the hallowed halls of a post-secondary institution, you’ll hear someone ask “Is Prof. X a hard marker?” or some similar query or reference to an educator being an easy or hard marker. After 4 years (and counting) of university life, I’ve made a few observation about that question.

First, whether a professor is an easy or a hard marker is, to me, largely irrelevant and possibly an erroneous assumption that such a person exists. What really matters is whether a grader is fair or not in the application of standards. Yes, these standards change grader to grader and are sometimes more subjective than we might like, but in the end, if I try to be objective I have always deserved the negative (and positive) comments I have received. I admit am making these comments as one who gets pretty good grades. I am graduating with a high GPA so you might think I’m simply lucky or the professors liked me. I do think I got along rather cordially with my professors, but I also respect them as the professionals they are and that includes their sincere desire to challenge their students to become better at their craft. I don’t just mean making greater strides at learning philosophy, theology, history, etc., but also as writers, researchers, orators, time managers, planners, debaters, and critical thinkers. An honest professor who is committed to their job will be fair but firm. If they aren’t, then that piece of paper you get won’t be worth a thing (and as word gets out, everyone will know it). I worked my butt off and the effort paid off. Praise be to God for giving me the abilities he did and for helping me through the tough times. As the saying goes, “The harder I work, the luckier I get”.

Why commit to high standards of learning? Case in point is the very question “Is Prof. X a hard marker”. It’s the wrong question and if you don’t’ know that, you need to listen more, think more, and talk less. If you ask someone who gets poor grades and they are not honest with themselves, they may say “yes”, Prof. X is a hard marker. If you ask someone who gets “A’s” and they have a poor self-esteem they may think the professor is an easy marker who is just being nice. Bottom line, the question puts the onus on the eduator not the student. We are looking for an out. It is simply an excuse.

We want to find a way to say “I deserved a better mark, but Prof. X is to hard a marker.” No, they are not hard, they are firm and hold high standards. If you do not believe in high standards of learning and developing new skills, then perhaps, as Dr. Franks, one of my philosophy professor’s wrote, university may not be for you.

Alternatively, if we ask the question, are they “fair”, than we get into a whole other discussion. What does it mean to be fair? Does the professor make their expectations clear or make themselves available to explain them if you’re lost? Do they provide helpful feedback on assignments? Do they apply the standards fairly, while being flexible enough to recognize individual circumstances? I have been fortunate enough to have professors that meet all those criteria most of the time (and if I needed clarification it was just a meeting away). There will always be a certain aspect of personality conflict: your personalities may not mesh well or they may seem like they don’t give a darn about you (it is true that some educators are more interested in research than people) but this is a real world reality that you will just have to deal with it. Learning to deal with conflict in a situation where there is a clear power imbalance is just a fact of life. You may have bosses that mistreat you or who you conflict with and you will have to find a way to manage the situation. Thankfully, this has been rare in my experience.

University in many ways is an intense microcosmic introduction to this thing we call life. You face intense pressure, high standards, expectations and consequences. You must learn to do short and long-term planning. It is also a time to create new social circles and expand your horizons as you learn to balance your personal life with educational demands and possibly work obligations. There is a lot you can learn in the 3 or 4 years you are earning your degree, but learning how to discern an easy marker from a hard one is not a skill worth cultivating.

What does it matter anyway? If one professor is an “easier” marker and one professor is a “harder” marker, are you going to purposely slack off? Are you truly going to do less than your best? Is this what God expects of us? Why are you in school? Is a grade something that you earn or something external that happens to you? If you follow the logic of the easy/hard marker, then you are making the professor the sole decider of how you performed independent of how much work you may have put into the assignment. If you perceive a professor to be a hard marker and you get a bad mark, well, it’s because they are a hard marker – it’s their fault. If you get a good mark from an easy marker, you’ll take the credit, but you can’t honestly say you’ve earned anything.

On the other hand, if we switch our language to a question of fairness, then we can say “I believe this professor is a fair grader” and can then take use the professors standards and expectations to craft an assignment that is entirely our own but fits within the guidelines prescribed. This makes it much more of a collaborative effort. In this model the professor is responsible for setting expectations and standards. This provides a rough framework which the student then fills with his research, analysis, writing, and re-writing and submits it for review. The professor then fairly applies the criteria already set out and the student agrees to the grade decision. This then is a discussion between a seasoned scholar and a beginning-aspiring scholar. It is a chance to learn from each other (yes, I believe that professors can also benefit from this interaction). As the student progresses through his academic career, the standards will change becoming increasingly more challenging to reflect the difference between a freshman and an upperclassmen with 1, 2, or 3 years of instruction behind them.

So, when you’re wondering whether a professor is a hard or easy marker, remind yourself to ask a different question. Do I believe the professor is a fair marker? Do you understand the expectations of an individual assignment? If not, talk to your professor – most will respect you for it, so long as you’re doing it with an honest disposition to learn and you’re not being a sycophant. Can you view these 4 years as a learning experience itself (your program) composed of a series of smaller experiences (courses). To use a cliché, don’t miss the forest for the trees: you are not at school to collect courses. You are there to be informed, taught, molded, shaped into who God wants you to be (even if it is a secular university). Do not let petty question and assumptions such as a question of how hard someone marks derail you from your primary purpose in being at university.