Fair decision-making for discretionary decisions and grade appeals

This guide has been created to assist Instructors and Chairs in the task of academic decision-making. It is not uncommon for students to approach their instructor requesting, for example, a review of an assigned grade, or an extension on an assignment. Requests of this nature can arrive via a formal process (like a grade appeal or pre-requisite waiver) or informal (you are being asked to consider a special request). Although every situation is unique, principles of fair decision-making can be applied to any situation. Below you will find a guide on how to ensure that your decision is fair.

Discretionary Decision-Making

The discretionary decision-making technique is key to making fair decisions in the academic setting.

There are several steps to take in the process of discretionary decision-making:

1) Identify the scope of your authority

First, ask yourself: Is there a policy that governs the issue you are dealing with?

Yes: Often you will find that the policy uses words like “may”, “normally”, or “generally”. These words indicate that exceptions can be considered and indicate that the authorized person can exercise discretionary decision-making. Conversely, words like “shall” or “must” often indicate that there is no room for discretion.

No: If there is no policy, determine who is most appropriately positioned to make a decision. This person can exercise discretionary decision-making.

2) Understand what discretionary decision-making is

According to the Ombudsperson of British Columbia:

“Discretion in administrative decision making involves the power to choose between two or more possible courses of action using professional judgment and expertise (2021)”. (https://bcombudsperson.ca/assets/media/Quick-Tips-Exercising-Discretion-Fairly.pdf)

Discretionary decision-making allows for flexibility when a decision-maker is asked to consider unique and complex situations. There is often confusion about how to exercise discretionary decision-making, and much of that confusion arises from the misguided notion that to treat everyone fairly, they must be treated the same.

Why is it not fair to treat everyone the same?

Simply put, not everyone is the same. The equivocation of sameness and fairness is a common but fundamental misunderstanding. Treating everyone the same can in fact create unfairness and perpetuate inequality.

Similarly, definitive stances (ex. “I never grant extensions”) that do not allow for the consideration of extenuating or special circumstances are arbitrary and risk violating fairness principles. In fact, where a decision-maker has been granted discretion, the refusal to consider exercising that discretion may amount to procedural unfairness. 

But doesn’t consistency in a class ensure fairness for all students?

Yes, consistency is essential to fairness. You should not allow irrelevant factors to influence decision-making or apply a rule differently to different individuals without good reason. However, it is not only permissible but essential to consider relevant factors that may be unique to the individual making the request.

Remember, fairness does not mean treating everyone the same, it means taking into consideration all of the circumstances and making a decision that is reasonable and that can be justified and defended.

But what about the “slippery slope” ? (a.k.a. if I do this for you, I will have to do this for everyone who asks) What about setting a precedent that unleashes a tidal wave of requests?

Making a decision for one individual because of their unique circumstances does not mean that you must make the same decision in other cases where the circumstances can be differentiated. Here is how I recommend approaching the decision-making process:

  1. Identify the principles you use to make your decisions. What is the purpose or intent of those principles?
  2. Identify the unique circumstances that have been presented and consider how to apply the principles to those circumstances to reach a decision.
  3. Last ask yourself, would a strict application result in an outcome that is unjust or have a disproportionately negative impact?

In short, know the “why”. If you make an exception, you should be able to clearly articulate your reasons for doing so. This will help you to identify when the same exception is justified in future cases and when it is not.

Principles that may be relevant to a decision like granting an extension may include:

  • The nature of the extenuating circumstance. Was it something that could have reasonably been anticipated? If so, what steps did the student take to try and mitigate the negative impact?
  • Did the student reach out with their request in a timely manner? If not, have they explained why?
  • Did you provide clear guidance to all students about what to do if they encountered challenges? Did you identify your expected timeline for notification? Students cannot be expected to comply with expectations not communicated to them.

Other Considerations:

As an instructor are you aware of the various resources and supports available to students at the institution? If not, do you know where to refer a student to get this type of information?

Please be respectful of privacy and consider how much information you truly require to make your decision. For example, if a student approaches you about a medical issue, you are not entitled to information about their specific diagnosis. It is sufficient to know that they are experiencing health concerns that are interfering with their academic obligations

3) Be Reasonable

Use common sense and compassion and give genuine consideration to individual circumstances to produce outcomes that are appropriate.

Grade Appeals

Grade appeals are a common occurrence in academic settings. Students have the right to ask for a reconsideration of their grade if they meet the requirements. The SFU grade appeal process is outlined in the “Grading and Reconsideration of Grades” policy, a.k.a. T.20.01. All instructors and Chairs should familiarize themselves with this policy.

Of particular note:

  1. Students have the right to ask to review an assignment, test or exam. Specifically, section 2.2.5 of the policy states:
    1. "S. 2.2.5 Upon request, a student shall be given access to his or her own work, as well as information about the evaluation, grading and weighting of it."
  2. If an appeal proceeds to the Chair (or equivalent), the Chair’s role is not simply to review whether the grading process was fair. The Chair undertakes to review the grade itself.
    1. “S.2.5.4 The Chair shall first seek to resolve the concern through consultation with the Student and the Instructor. If the matter cannot be resolved during this consultation, the Chair will arrange for an appropriately qualified person (or persons) to reevaluate the work and establish a grade, or to take such other steps as are necessary. Should the student request anonymity in such a re-evaluation, reasonable steps shall be taken to ensure it.”
  3. Only at a higher level are grade appeals restricted to procedural grounds.
    1. “2.5.5 The decision of the Dean shall be final, subject only to an appeal to Senate. Such appeal may go forward only with the permission of the Chair of Senate on clear evidence satisfactory to her/him that there have been improper procedures in reconsideration as undertaken."
  4. Timing matters. T.20.01 specifies that students should expect responses to their inquiries within 10 days.
    1. “2.5.1 At each step in the process of responding to a student request to reconsider or appeal a grade decision, the Instructor, Department Chair, Dean and Chair of Senate shall respond in a timely manner normally within 10 days of receiving the request."

The Ombudsperson is available to consult with faculty and staff about any student-related fairness issues. If you have any questions or want to talk through a scenario to ensure that you are acting fairly, you are welcome to reach out to Laura Reid, Ombudsperson, by email ombuds@sfu.ca or phone 778.782.4563 to discuss.