December 14th, 2015

Contested Grades and the “You Earned It” Retort


female professor looking over glasses

A common rhetorical move we professors make when students object to a grade is to reframe the discussion. We’ll say, “Let’s be clear. I didn’t give you this grade. You earned it.” And if it were appropriate we might underscore our zinger with a smugly snapped Z. But stop and think about it. When we make the “you earned it” move, it’s simply an attempt to shift the debate away from the fairness or interpretation of our standard and onto students to justify their effort by our standard, which really wasn’t their complaint.

I’ll admit, too, it feels good to make this quip, but it’s also a bit of a lie because it assumes a lot of things that just aren’t so. It assumes, for instance, that my standards possess a crystalline lucidity that students always understand (and not just on the day I explained them). Imagine how it sounds to a student when I say, “I covered this on the very first day” or “It’s right there on page 14 of the syllabus.” Unless my standards have been front and center at all times, this will sound exactly like what it is: a fine print “gotcha.”

The “you earned it” comment also assumes I never once had to make any subjective borderline calls while grading. And who can say that? Nobody’s standard or rubric is definitive. Fuzzy borderline calls are what we’re paid for. Otherwise, we would have been replaced by Scantron robots long ago.

Or think of it this way. Most university professors have a great deal of freedom in selecting the material, the course design, the text book, the teaching methods, and the grading standard and its application. Sometimes we can even dictate the time of day the course is offered and the classroom. All down the line we get to make subjective decisions about how the game will be played. But when a student cries foul, we jump back into objectivity. “These are the immutable standards,” we say. “If you failed to live up to them, that’s on you.”

And let’s face it: anyone who thinks his or her standards are beyond reproach has never had colleagues apply them in a grade-norming session. Here’s what you’ll hear:

“I don’t like this word. I would have put it another way.”
“I don’t see much of a difference between excellent and good.”
“I wouldn’t have set the rubric up this way. Too few categories.”
“I’m sorry, but grammar and presentation really do matter.”

The parsing of meaning, the hair-splitting, and the tedious wordsmithing that accompanies one of these sessions are all the proof you need that assessing student efforts is never objective. If our colleagues can so easily misconstrue our standards, imagine how students see them.

There’s just no getting around it: we are all biased judges. And students know this. Yes, we had them do some work in relationship to a standard. Yes, we tried to apply that standard fairly and make it as clear as possible, but in the end the system we subjectively put in place played a not insignificant role in giving them that grade. It must be especially galling to students when we pretend to be impartial functionaries constrained by objective standards at the end of a process that we owned and designed. They probably feel exactly like we do when a dean or administrator shrugs and says, “I don’t like it any more than you, but the policy is the policy. My hands are tied.”

Maybe we should retire the “you earned it” zinger. Sure it feels great to say when my standards are challenged, but it only serves to sour the conversation and exasperate students. Moreover, it’s probably never once motivated students to change their attitude or approach toward learning, which is really what we want. In the end, taking the time to go over our standards and why they matter—even if it’s for the 20th time—is always a conversation worth having. It’s what makes us educators rather than evaluators.

Steve Snyder is a professor of humanities at Grand View University.

  • Dale Kenison

    As a science instructor, I have to disagree somewhat. Nearly all of our performance assessments are purely objective – very little subjectivity, some perhaps in certain assignments or interpretation of inaccurate spelling in lab practicals. Students in my courses earn points on each quiz, exam, assignment, virtual learning homework, etc. The points add up and are divided by the total possible They get the grade they earned!

    • John Schiel

      False objectivity. You make the call on partial credit and certainly the lab report grading is subjective. You also decide on questions and their level of difficulty on exams and quizzes. Most teachers I know also bump some students who are close to a borderline in points. A grade is the teacher's professional judgment. There is no getting around this. A teacher should be willing to take ownership of it and not attribute grades to some "objective" standard they have the power to manipulate.

  • Amen. Showing disrespect to students hurts all teachers, not just you. Your classroom is not a pulpit and your syllabus is not scripture. Treat people the way you want to be treated.

    • Tom L

      I don't see how holding students responsible for their own actions (or inaction) is disrespecting them. I'm grateful for the teachers who were honest with me when they told me that my work wasn't good enough. That's what forced me to improve. I may not have liked hearing it at the time, but it was for my own good.

      • Felita S.

        Absolutely! I could not agree more–yes, as professors it is our responsibility to provide clear and concise messages relative to the academic and behavioral expectations of our classroom. However, we are also responsible for holding students accountable, whether it speaks to a grade or quality expectation. The real world will not provide the leniency of the aforementioned, but I would imagine there are those rare exceptions.

  • Jeff Sommers

    I've used the "You earned this grade" comments many times over and will continue to do so. Here's why: I hear it most often in this context, "Thank you for giving me an A!" And my response is invariably, "You earned that A." This article presumes the grade discussion is always a contestation by the student. I see the validity of the commentary, but I'm unwilling to give up my use of the phrase. I won't say, "You're welcome" to the expression of gratitude because it implies to me that the grade was a gift I bestowed upon the student. "You earned that grade" seems to me to be just the right thing to say, laying the responsibility–and accomplishment–right where it belongs–at the student's feet.

  • Deborah

    I also use the "you earned it" response and here's why. The students who most frequently do not turn in work on time, do not come to me for help prior to an assignment being due, and wait until the last minute to talk to me (as in my grades are due the next day) are those that most often challenge their grades. I tell all my students throughout the semester that I am here to help them succeed. They are welcome and encouraged to run rough drafts of papers by me prior to turning them in for a grade (I teach composition and world literature). If they do not take advantage of the help I offer and then complain after the fact about their grade, then they have, in fact, earned it.

    • Cindy

      I agree with you. That is most often my experience. If students turned in all of their work or asked for help a week before the assignment is due, then they would most likely experience success. I believe the comment from students is that I arbitrarily hand out grades. I record the grade they earned and when a student turns in inadequate work, I afford them the opportunity to redo it. very few of them take me up on the offer.

    • Martha

      I totally agree. Most students who complain about their grades are not complaining about the finer points of my grading standards. The majority have missed deadlines, skipped tests, submitted papers that violated the main well-elucidated point of the prompt. I get very few complaints about "why did you take some points off here." Usually the complaints are that my course is "harder" than other comparable courses at the school or that it's "not fair" that they can't have extra credit work when their grades are low.

  • averagephysicsprofessor

    This article fails to point out the obvious. Students can discuss and ask about the grade, however, in the end the judgment call is up to the professor. They need to accept it and move on unless a University policy has been violated.

  • This is a worthwhile conversation. I think there is a place in the middle that needs to be met. It is true that students earn their grade. But it is also true that our standards as course instructors are our standards that are likely not universal among our colleagues.

    So what is that middle ground on which to have the conversation with students and colleagues. I suspect it is context dependent. As commented by readers above, students who do not take the time to seek help or input before a deadline or exam earned their grade by making that choice. On the other hand, students who have put in the effort to figure out how to best prepare themselves for an exam of essay are probably deserving of a more nuanced response. In addition, we do need to encourage students to have a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset and I think discussing a grade in terms of what the student earned facilitates the development of a growth mindset.

  • Tom L

    I also use the "you earned it" response and will continue to do so. Studies have shown that people with an external locus of control (things happen TO them) are less responsible and less successful than those with an internal locus of control (they MAKE things happen). Also, the students who complain about their grades are always the ones who skipped class, blew off assignments, etc.

    With that said, I'm happy to discuss individual assignments with students and explain why I assigned a particular grade. More importantly, I'll help them determine what they can do to improve the quality of their work.

    At the end of the semester, I send out this pre-emptive email to all of my students:

    You're welcome to use it.

  • I'm glad for conversations about grading, but the problems are deeper than just rhetoric. If grading really is subjective and arbitrary, then maybe we need to stop doing so much grading and spend our time on meaningful, useful feedback instead. That's what I do: all feedback, no grading. I teach writing, so that is a more natural choice perhaps than in other subjects, but it works for me. Students do their own grading based on completeness of their work, and as for quality, that is something I communicate with a vocabulary bigger than the Tarzanesque ABCDF. I give my students voluminous feedback, they do their own grading, and the results are better than anything I ever saw working within a traditional (punitive) grading framework. Details here:

  • This is a worthwhile conversation. I think there is a place in the middle that needs to be met. It is true that students earn their grade. But it is also true that our standards as course instructors are our standards that are likely not universal among our colleagues.

  • jeffaa

    @OnlineCrsLady: I too teach writing and use a system similar to yours. I applaud you. "Neil": This would be a worthwhile conversation if didn't assume that instructors don't have department, college, and district or university system wide standards to fulfill. If an instructor does not have these, then it's time to find somewhere else to teach. Also, I clarify standards, those with expected learning outcomes of my department and my own, at the beginning and in the syllabus. These can be clearly pointed to when a student wants to know why they received a certain grade. I think it would be more helpful to address why so many students feel so entitled to hold us to their own arbitrary standards, rather than meeting the expectations set for them by collegiate level curriculum?

  • Susan Spangler

    To all who disagree, please read Alfie Kohn's work on grading to more fully understand the arbitrariness of grading. And thank you, Dr. Snyder, for writing a piece that challenges commonly held notions about what grading really means for people who have bought into this flawed system.

  • Karen Sykes

    As one who values a positive approach with students, I tend to utilize “you earned it” when referencing a strong grade. It empowers students to realize their efforts actually make a difference in the outcome. I’ve found this practice to be successful and agree that “gotcha” zingers do not generally motivate students.

  • Jay

    I find 'you earned it' particularly unhelpful. Presuming the best case, the student does not know why they received the grade they did, and wants to know why what they did not warrant a better grade.

    I mostly get these types of comments on exams.

    In all cases, I take the students behind the proverbial curtain. I tell them why I think the question is important, what I am asking, and what key words, phrases or constructions I was looking for to indicate that they had the right information or process in their head. Then, given that information, I evaluate their answer again in front of them. Then they are at least clear on where things went wrong for them.

    Students will often protest that they know the information and demonstrate to me that they do. I also remind them that an exam is not a discussion. I can not ask follow up questions or follow hand gestures. It is an atomic snapshot with an exact beginning and end. While the student might indeed be able to talk through examples and demonstrate additional knowledge, they needed to master it in time for the exam.

    Usually once I explain the rationale for the question, what I was looking for and why, and remind them that I can only look at what they wrote on that day at that time to judge their level of understanding, complaints begrudgingly evaporate (with varying degrees of grudgy residue) because they understand the process. They can see I was not just annoyed, short on time or spilled my coffee, but that I carefully and rigorously evaluated their answer in order to come to a rational opinion.

    In few cases that has not resulted in satisfactory results. In those cases I usually then say that if partial credit is a problem – we don't have to have it. An all or nothing exam/final is much, much easier to grade and I would be happy to provide one if they would prefer not to rely on my ability to rationally and reasonably evaluate their answers in part. I have not yet had a student ask for no partial credit on an exam.

  • Alicia Layne

    I agree with reviewing and making performance standards very clear to the students from the beginning and throughout the course. It is the art of giving negative feedback that would make a difference in someone's life. One role of the educator is to help the student succeed in life and not wallow in the deep pit of failures.

  • David

    Article is a bit too self-righteous. Sometimes it is the absolutely best answer.

    I think that many of us who use it are careful to use it only in those circumstances when there is a clearly objective reason why the student earned the grade that was assigned. I know that I would never say it to the student who just happened to be one of the top students in the B range. In fact, I usually tell those students to search their exams for a place where I might have been unnecessarily harsh in grading.

    The students who deserve to hear this are the ones who earn lower grades because they do not submit assignments on time or miss multiple quizzes or something of that nature.

  • Donald Paul

    You have to assume students talk. If you get into a lengthy debate or give inconsistent responses to the same question (as this is what we are discussing…the same question), then be careful if you teach in a litigious state. You will be opening opportunities for discrimination if you do not treat all students equal.

    In business to business, it you have a discrepancy, then you refer to your contract. Also if you treat one customer different from another giving one a comparative advantage, then you have violated the Robinson-Patman Act, and if sued, your losses could be great (you better have liability insurance if you teach).

    So in conclusion, if you give special consideration to a particular student, you better be prepared to defend your position in front of the entire class. If you can't, the don't do it.

    Lastly, I practiced extra hard and spent a lot of time at batting cages when I played baseball, but was never quite as good as as the first team. Should I have asked to get 4 strikes before I was out instead of 3…..I don't think so. Students efforts are tied to learning and if the syllabus is clear enough, they earn the grade, we do not give them anything except knowledge, motivation, inspiration, our wisdom and our guidance….but they still earn the grade.

    Those are my thoughts.

  • John Huonker

    My own memories of being a college student include many of the seemingly punishing comments made by professors in response to my behaviors–how dare they! But I am convinced those comments were all game-changers. My attitude became, "I'll show you…". To me it would have been a shame not to receive these sharp-tongued comments. I worry that those of us who teach may be trying a bit too hard to soft pedal our comments. I would agree that not all students will respond positively, but it may well be what others need. The art here is to be able to differentiate between those who can benefit from such comments and those who will not. Does this constitute unequal treatment? Part of the larger question to me is whether professors risk being seen as humans with strong views and opinions and who may not truly be able to claim objectivity.

    Do we with a focus on technique take the life out of a classroom?