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.