March 12th, 2013

The ‘I Deserve a Better Grade on This’ Conversation


It’s a conversation most faculty would rather not have. The student is unhappy about a grade on a paper, project, exam, or for the course itself. It’s also a conversation most students would rather not have. In the study referenced below, only 16.8 percent of students who reported they had received a grade other than what they thought their work deserved actually went to see the professor to discuss the grade.

Even though faculty might not want to increase the number of grade conversations they have with students, there is an interesting question here. Why didn’t more students come to talk about the grade they didn’t think they deserved? Maybe they really didn’t have a problem with the grade but only wished they had done better. That might be true for some students, but this study tested (and verified) two theoretical frameworks that identify some of what makes these conversations difficult for students. They need to persuade the teacher, who has complete control over the grade, to change his or her mind. The grade decision has already been made, and most teachers feel some pressure to defend their decisions. Teachers also know how badly students want good grades whether they deserve them or not.

According to the theories that this research attempted to test, students must also behave in a socially appropriate way or they risk jeopardizing their overall relationship with the teacher, which may influence the grades they receive on subsequent assignments. One would hope that experience and maturity would enable teachers to maintain their objectivity, but students are often personally vested in their grades and are not always sophisticated communicators. They may be defensive and angry and unfairly accuse the teacher. Most of us have had a few conversations like this, which is why most of us would rather not discuss contested grades with students.

But these exchanges can be moments of learning for students and teachers, and they need to be thought of in that way. Teachers need to begin by listening to student objections and concerns about the grade. If it’s a case of “you don’t understand how hard I worked on this paper,” it’s an opportunity to discuss how difficult it is for teachers to assess effort and how grades are more about performance than effort. It’s also an opportunity to ascertain whether the student understands the feedback that has been provided. Can he or she read the teacher’s comments? Does the student understand how and why the partial credit is awarded? If a problem is persistent through the performance, can the student identify unmarked examples of it?

It’s possible the grade should be changed. Teachers need to have these conversations recognizing that grading (especially lots of it) is not an infallible process. It is probably best to let the student make the case for the change, ascertain whether the feedback provided is correctly understood, but defer the decision to change or not change the grade until the work can be reviewed without the student sitting across the desk.

The learning potential of these conversations is a function of how forward-looking they are. “So, what have you learned from this experience that will help you with the next assignment?” “What are you going to work on?” Here, depending on the student, it might be wise for the teacher to provide some guidance. “Let me identify three things to work on. All three would significantly improve the quality of your work, and if there is improvement in these areas, that will definitely be reflected in your grade.”

If the student has conducted himself or herself appropriately in the conversation, that deserves a comment. “I appreciate the maturity you’ve demonstrated in this conversation, and although I’m sure you’re disappointed that I haven’t changed my mind about your grade on this paper, I do think these conversations are very important.” And they are important. Teachers need to know when a student thinks a grade is unfair. They need to review their decisions, and they need to try to help the student understand why the grade stands.

How do teachers make it more likely that students will discuss concerns about grades and discuss them constructively? Teachers talk more about the importance of these conversations. They invite students to come to the office to talk about grades the students don’t think they deserve. They explain why these conversations are challenging for students and teachers, and they give students good advice about what to say and not say about the grade they want changed.

Whether you’re the teacher or the student, these aren’t easy conversations. It’s not in either party’s interest to back down. But that need to defend a position should not become an obstacle that compromises what both parties can learn from these conversations.

Reference: Henningsen, M. L. M., Valde, K. S., Russell, G. A., and Russell, G. R. (2011). Student-faculty interactions about disappointing grades: Application of the Goals-Plans-Actions Model and the Theory of Planned Behavior. Communication Education, 60 (2), 174-190.

Reprinted from The ‘I Deserve a Better Grade on This’ Conversation. The Teaching Professor, 26.2(2012): 3.

  • I found this to be an incredibly important piece. Communication between students/profs, particularly about the nuances of grades, is so under-discussed. Bravo for raising this topic. I would venture a guess that many students would struggle to articulate (or even consciously identify) that they feel their own lack of communication ability is one key reason they do not challenge grades. I definitely agree that power distance plays a huge role, but I believe as students' communication skills decline, these conversations will become fewer and fewer. I also would find it interesting to analyze e-mailed conversations as opposed to those that occur face to face. I suspect while many students dislike e-mail because it is so wordy in comparison with texting and instant messaging, they would probably choose that medium over an actual conversation due to discomfort.

    The discussion aspect of this piece is key and there are relevant tips. I think what all faculty have to remember is that we cannot talk down to students in these conversations or give an overtone that would indicate condescension. We can all slip into it (I've been there!), but if the student perceives a partnership in the exchange, then the conversation not only stands to improve their grade, but their communication skills as a whole.

    I agree with the author that we need to bear responsibility for opening these doors, in our syllabi… and in our messaging when we return assignments. We need to then view the conversation as critical communication practice for the student. They could very well have to challenge or question an evaluation from a boss at some point, so interaction that could help prepare them for that experience would be incredibly valuable.

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  • ?lknur Bozbey

    Maryellen, thank you for this interesting article you have shared.

    I am an academician and I believe every student should be encouraged to see the graded paper, because it is a part of learning process. It is also invaluable for the teacher as you have mentioned. Unfortunately, in some cultures, teachers may find this insulting because they do not ever want to be questioned by their students.

  • Maggie Davis

    I enjoyed reading this article because it does highlight an important area for faculty to consider. I know that it is much easier to have these conversations with students as you gain experience as an educator. When I began teaching 12 years ago, I would react defensively when students would question their grade on an assignment or exam. Over time, those conversations became easier because I understood the importance of giving students a voice in this conversation so they could better understand what they did well and areas for improvement.

    I also think you made an important point that as faculty, we need to recognize that we are fallible. I know when I have to grade many papers, I have to take a break because I find myself becoming either too critical or too easy in my evaluation of student work due to fatigue.

    I appreciate you bringing up this important issue.

  • I've had success with my grade dispute policy. It lives in the syllabus and I explain it on the first day of class. Here is the language from my Principles of Microeconomics syllabus. (this is not specifically for paper grading, but it could be adapted)

    "Grade Disputes
    Sometimes you might interpret a question differently than I intend. If you have a dispute or disagreement with a particular question’s grading, please observe the following procedure:
    1. Observe a 24 hour “cooling off” period.
    2. Submit in writing an explanation of your argument/dispute/ disagreement. Include supporting evidence from class resources.
    3. Your case will be reviewed by our next class period. You can set up an appointment to meet with me to discuss my response.

    This process helps me improve the way that I write and grade questions. It is not meant to be scary or argumentative.

    **If your only dispute is an incorrect calculation of your grade, let me know as soon as possible. A submission in writing is not necessary.** "

    By explaining the process on the first day of class, students know that it is okay to approach me with grading issues. Given that they must initiate the process in writing, emotions don't seem to be as high and the reasons for the higher grade are more finely articulated. Sometimes the process results in a grade change, sometimes not.

    • Ms. R

      I really like the phrasing you have used here, and I would like to adapt it for my own high school students. It's a very calm professional way of handling things, which models more for the students than simply how to handle a grade!

  • myrlene

    the reason we believe this student deserve