Even after avoiding threats and using reasonable strategies to reduce the number of grade complaints an instructor receives, students will still have questions about their grades. And good for them! A student who is engaged with her grades is an opportunity to help turn a ‘C’ or ‘B’ student into a better student. But this transformation can only take place if an instructor engages with the student in a positive manner. So, to end this three part series on grade complaints, I will now discuss how to successfully handle a student grade complaint. It’s a three step process: sympathize, rationalize, and strategize.
First, sympathize with the student. Students are not coming to complain about a grade because they are scheming to get more points from a weak-willed instructor. Instead, students are complaining because of a difference between their expectations and the result; that is, they thought they were going to get a higher grade. So rather than launching immediately into the reasons why the student received her grade, spend some time sympathizing with the student. Get her side of the story: the amount of work she put in and where she came up short. This can go a long way toward building goodwill, even if the student’s grade remains unchanged after the conversation is over.
Second, rationalize the assigned grade. If the instructor has assigned grades carefully in the first place, this should actually be the easiest step in the process. Start first by talking about what the student did well. That can mean discussing the good parts of a paper or certain trends seen in test questions (e.g., “It looks like you really knew the concepts from chapter 4 well.”). Then move into the areas where the student can improve. Keep the comments positive and focused on improvement. For example, don’t say, “this line of argument was really weak.” Instead, say, “For your next paper, your grade would really be helped by making your argument stronger.” And be specific and exhaustive. Leave no doubt in the student’s mind: the grade assigned was done so after careful and thorough examination of the student’s work.
One helpful strategy may be to point out the student’s overall percentile in the class. I’ve found this to be especially useful in dealing with student questions about final grades. A student might say, “I was just two points from earning an ‘A’!” To which an instructor can respond, “But your overall points put you in the 78th percentile. 22% of the class did better than you. Does that really sound like ‘A’ level performance?” Some students will respond “YES!” but others will understand how they stacked up against their classmates. The most successful outcomes from a grade complaint are ones in which the student feels that the grade assigned was justified, even generous, and also knows what to do for the future.
That future focus brings us to the final part of the discussion; spend some time strategizing with the student to help him keep improving his work. For a test, give the student specific study tips and ways to change his current habits to help his score improve for the next test. For a paper or other type of assignment, give specific strategies for completing the assignment. This is also the perfect time to remind the student of all the help available to him – office hours, meeting with a TA, campus writing help, campus tutoring, studying with classmates or friends. Overall, the student should feel like there is a lot he can do to improve in the future.
Following these three tips should result in grade complaints that are much more pleasant and less combative for both student and teacher. But nowhere in these steps is information about when and how to change a grade. That’s primarily because I don’t believe that grades should be changed. Grades should be assigned correctly in the first place; if they aren’t, then grade changes should affect the whole class, or at least a large subsection of students, and should not be done on a per-student basis. But there is one thing that an instructor should be probing for in the interaction: make sure that the student understood the assignment!
In some cases, the student may have completely misunderstood the assignment. That means that the purpose of the assignment (assessing the student’s learning) was not fulfilled, and that the grade assigned is essentially meaningless. In cases of dramatic misunderstanding, especially for a student who seems highly motivated, it may be worthwhile to offer the student a chance to redo the assignment. This should be done in relatively few cases and only when evidence of misunderstanding is very clear, but grade complaints are an ideal time to get a sense of what the student’s understanding of the assignment was; this information can then be used to decide whether or not to extend similar opportunities to other struggling students. It’s good feedback for future classes as well, to help instructors adjust assignment descriptions to remove misunderstanding and ambiguity.
To conclude this series, let’s consider an adjective that some instructors and students may associate with grade complaints: combative. Each post in this series has been designed to reduce any feelings of combativeness for both students and instructors. Instructors shouldn’t artificially limit student access or threaten to take points away from the student just for asking for grade redress. And instructors also shouldn’t treat students like adversaries when they show up during office hours. An instructor must make students accept and trust an assigned grade in order to effectively teach. Grading is a necessary part of instruction, in part because of the formative feedback it provides to the instructor. If instructors are not able to measure how much their students are learning, then improvement to instruction would be impossible. Thus grade complaints should be treated as an opportunity to create student buy-in, not as a battle over a small number of points that the student thinks she’s earned and that the instructor is hellbent on not granting. Educators should save that kind of combat for struggles with politicians trying to defund schools, not for the students who are just trying to do their best.