Grade change requests

Deciding if and how to negotiate a higher grade: It’s complicated.

OK, so it happens:  You got a bad grade, or at least a grade that is lower than you anticipated.  It may be lower than you need to graduate, or lower than you need to get into medical school, or lower than you need to land the job with that consulting firm.  Or just lower than you wanted. What do you do now?

As a longtime graduate school faculty member, I am a seasoned veteran of the grading games; I earned my battle scars teaching a soft skills core course  in a highly competitive graduate business school which used a forced grading distribution to boot:  (X% of the class receives A’s, X% receives B- and below, and so on). For those of you students who are prospective grade change requestors, I am  happy to share some some useful tips for assessing the viability of your request as well as creating a strategic argument for a grade change.

First–some important  perspectives from your professor’s point of view:

There really isn’t a giant grade bazaar…

Though your former experience or stories from triumphant friends about  grade change successes may tempt you to take a second look at every grade you get, it’s important to recognize potential pitfalls for students hoping for a second-chance at an A (or a B-or a D, as the case may be).  In his post, Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., summarizes some prevalent faculty perspectives on the new generation of students-as-grade-negotiators. Among recent tendencies that Dr. Riggio has noted are students’ belief that everything is negotiable and that “gaming the system”  is increasingly valued in our increasingly technological society.  (Riggio uses the example of game “cheats” you can purchase for online gaming;  you can use this easily acquired information to beat the system without going through all of the hard work of learning the actual game.  Riggio posits that these “cheats” are analogous to those extra papers or extra work that students offer to do at the last minute to boost their grades.)  Another trait that Riggio identifies is faulty accounting: Students hoping to persuade their instructor to up the grade sometimes rely on fuzzy math to help make the persuasive case.

Remember that your professor wrote the syllabus and the grading criteria for an actual reason.

This syllabus, which identifies course objectives, schedule, and assignment, also includes the basis on which grades will be allocated.  (For the future, plan on looking really carefully at that set of grading criteria at the beginning of the course.  But if right at this moment, you are between a C- and a hard  place, I suggest that you at least become very familiar with how grades were allocated throughout the course.) Here’s a sampling of the types of questions that a solid syllabus should answer for you:  Are grades based solely on quality of assignments and tests?  (“Improvement” is a slippery slope for faculty to measure.)  How about timeliness of assignments ? (How late is too late?)  Is participation graded or not? Does attendance/punctuality count?  Is some of your work team-graded?–and, if so, are you evaluated on your own commitment and contribution to the team?

To summarize, the student who is considering approaching his or her professor with a grade change request should keep in mind that:

Not everything is open to negotiation, you can’t game the system with a special project after grades have come out, and you need to have a quantifiable, sound, argument based on your understanding, at least, of the grading criteria at the readyFinally, let’s take a look at a real-life case, a student whose message to me inspired this post:

Dear Ellen,

Do you have any experience with facilitating a student contesting a grade? I feel wronged on a final grade I received and have an appointment with the two department heads (one of them is a previous professor who has positively commented several times on my work ethic.) But I’m still nervous as I don’t feel that the grade reflects how hard I’ve been working, and I want to go get my MBA so I don’t want my GPA tainted. Do you have any tips? 

– K, Los Angeles

…and my response to K and to all of you prospective grade change requestors out there:

Dear K,

I feel it’s important for you to have the opportunity to discuss your grade. What YOU need to be aware of is the instructor’s grading criteria and to make your argument as specific as possible.  So, for example, if “effort” is your argument, can you match that to a grading criterion? (A lot of times profs do not specifically grade on “effort”, and some specifically say so in their syllabi). I advise you to find a place in the grading criteria where you can anchor your argument for a better grade. (Perhaps you took a greater chance with your project, for example, than the majority of students and believe you may have lost some points on execution unfairly.)  Think about what grade you believe you deserve (honestly, usually just up a half-grade is prudent); apply your  reasoning to that target grade using course criteria, and discuss.  This conversation shouldn’t be confrontational from either side.  You might begin with thanking the professor for meeting and confirming how your grade was determined.  Listen nicely, and then respond with YOUR argument.  Even if you don’t get what you want this time, honestly, preparing for this type of discussion IS good experience. 

Good luck! – EZ