Equity Theory and the Classroom

Equity theory essential tries to explain how people view their effort versus what they received in return for their effort. A more straightforward way to state this is that people monitor whether they think their situation is “fair.” Students, especially children, are positively obsessed with fairness

In equity theory, inputs are anything that person believes they are contributing to further the organization. It could be experience, performance, education, time, etc. For children, many of the examples listed so far may not be applicable. For students, inputs might be appropriate behavior, completing assignments, staying on task, etc.

Inputs & Outputs

Outputs in equity theory can involve pay, working conditions, job status, achievement, etc. Outcomes are essentially what an individual thinks they are getting back from the organization in return for the inputs. Outcomes for children can be such things as special privileges, good grades, praise, etc.

According to equity theory, what happens over time is that people compare the inputs to the outputs over time to see if they are balanced and fair. If they are people are satisfied, if not there could be problems. How we decide what is reasonable is by comparing our input to output ratio with someone else’s. These people are called referent others.

Returning to the classroom, children determine what is fair not so much by some external standard but by how they are treated when looking at how others are treated. If one student does not have to do homework and another does, the student who has to complete the task can only say it’s not fair compared to the student who did not get the assignment. If both were required to do homework, they would need a different argument than comparing themselves to each other.

The Results of Comparing

Three situations can result from the comparison of one’s self to others according to equity theory. When people believe the input to output is fair, it is called a state of equity. When a person is convinced that their inputs are less than the outputs when comparing, this is called over-reward equity. When the inputs are more than the outputs, this is an example of under-reward equity.

If people feel over-rewarded, they seldom complain or show concern for this. This is similar to what can be seen in children who are favored in one way or another. An exception to this may be if the over-rewarding causes social tension. Then some people and many children may sacrifice the excess reward to regain harmony and group acceptance.

In terms of under-reward, people tend to become frustrated and focused on the injustice of their situation. One practical solution is a passive-aggressive one and involves reducing the inputs. If working long hours is not being rewarded, a person can reduce their hours to the minimum. By doing this, they can gain time that was not reaping any additional salary or praise. Children will also work less if they are not convinced it will make a difference in their academic performance.

However, one common problem people had when they compared themselves to others is that they tend to overrate their performance and underrate their peers’ performance. This means that a large amount of frustration people have is their misperception of the situation. Therefore, it may not always be fair to address another person’s or student’s sense of unfairness.

Points for the Classroom

There are many ways a teacher can be fair or unfair. However, two common problems are marking assignments and classroom management. If these two teaching duties are not done in a fair and balanced way, there could be push-back from the students in terms of their views of equity.

Teachers have to be careful about how they approach marking or grading. Tests that are considered too hard can lead to problems of under-reward. Subjective assignments, such as essays that need grading, require tools such as rubrics to increase the consistency of the marks.

Policies must also be consistently enforced. If there is a penalty for late assignments, it must be applied every time and not based on one’s emotions or situation. It only takes one exception to encourage everyone to demand the same. Otherwise, it is not fair. When it is necessary to discipline students, the penalty must fit the crime regardless of who was involved. In general, when exceptions are made, it can lead to problems, and when inconsistency reigns supreme, it can lead to the same frustration as found in under-reward.


Being fair is an expectation of teaching but is not always easy. Students, like employees, want to work in an environment that is considered fair. Therefore, teachers need to be aware of the consequences of unfairness and how it may manifest itself in the classroom.

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