Weeks of intensive lecturing, writing, marking, examinations etc, whilst often rewarding is, well, just hard. Even after a successful semester with few problems, one can’t help but take a few moments to do a wee dance (either in your head or in your office) after that last lecture is given. There is often a huge sigh of relief, especially at the end of semester two, once those final grades are submitted, when one feels their summer work agenda can really begin. I’m pretty sure my students feel the same. And whilst I too did a little jig at both of these moments, my transition into the summer term wasn’t without its own frustrations. For a few days after the grades were submitted, I actually dreaded opening my email, which slowed the beat on my post-semester dance.
I’m not alone (I checked) in receiving emails from students who are upset by their final grade once these are posted. They often feel these are unfair (for a variety of reasons) or they are desperate (for another set of reasons) for their grade to be ‘bumped up’. Sometimes I get a straight up, no holds barred ask for an increase in grades. This is often the case if a student has just barely missed out on a pass, though I’ve also had this request from students who were sat just below an A-. More common, however, are the requests from students to be allowed to do ‘extra credit’ in an effort to get the grade they really wanted.
In this first of two posts, I will explore this problem from the instructors point of view, with my next post offering advice to students on how to deal with grade concerns professionally (while the blog is primarily aimed at teaching staff, I know some of my students sometimes peruse the blog).
Prevention: modelling and encouraging self-reflection and accountability
I’m not one for sporting analogies, but in this case I do think that the best offence is a good defence. I think there are many simple things that we can do to reduce the amount of grade disputes and complaints we receive in a way that also improves student learning and accountability. Yes, students earn the grades they are given; they are adults and need to take responsibility for their own learning. However, most of are these are young adults and part of our role could (should?) be modelling/teaching what accountability for one’s actions looks like in a professional setting. The term ‘life skills’ makes me squirm, but is apt here I suppose.
- Do ‘progress’ check-ins with students throughout the semester. This need not be laborious. Encourage students to calculate their grade for the class at pivotal moments during the semester. Take these times as opportunities to invite students to your office hours to discuss any grade concerns. Of course students should be doing this anyway, but I’m often shocked by the number of students who don’t seem to have a clue where they actually stand in the course going into the final and then come to me at the 11th hour shocked that they might possibly fail the course!
- Have students set learning goals at the beginning of the semester via a self-assessment form*. Collect these and return to students mid-term, after they have an assignment or two in. At this stage ask them to reflect on whether they are meeting their goal, if they need to set new goals, why they have achieved what they have, and what they can do to set a new course at the mid-term.
- Identify students at risk and reach out to them personally. This takes more effort than the above to options of course. It may be something that a senior TA could do. Students with poor attendance or a failed assignment could be emailed directly and asked to discuss their progress with you or the TA. If this seems too ‘hand-holding’ for some, another more feasible option is to have whoever is marking simply write ‘please come see me’ at the end of any assignment that is below a certain grade. I will say that this tactic has both worked (and slightly backfired) for me this year. After taking this track following one the intro writing assignments I ended up having weeks where I was holding upwards of 12 ‘office hours’ as students took me up on my offer! Whilst time intensive (and something my TAs will help more with next year) it did lead to improved performance (and thus less frustrating marking) on subsequent assignments. It also helped me identify a few student wellness/mental well-being issues that may have gone undetected otherwise.
Responding to requests for increased grades and extra credit:
Many of the requests I have received for increased grades come with a back story that often pulls at the heart strings. I’m not going to write here about perceptions of if these are legitimate or not—I’m rarely in a position to judge the veracity of these. The point is, even at my most crankiest of ‘cranky-professor’ moments (which I like to think are actually pretty rare, but maybe ask my students) I’m also human being, and saying ‘no’ to a student who seems to be writing from a place of total desperation can still be tough.
The pressures students face from family and society may be very real or FEEL very real to them. We don’t know their mental state, their financial situation, the list goes on. Plus, whilst we know that failing Intro to XYZ is not going to dramatically change their life course, to some students a failure or not getting that A is the end of the world to them, in that moment. I’ll never forget the student who upon getting a respectable B+ in a challenging course said to me ‘getting that grade made me feel like a horrible person’. Dramatic? Yes, from my perspective. But it is easy for me to say that from the position of secure tenure track job in which I get to spend most of my time doing interesting things I want to be doing. For a young person, uncertain about their future, unsure of what their skills actually are and what they even want to do with their lives, a ‘bad grade’ (particularly on an assignment they were excited about) can be a blow.
Again, whilst we are not trained counsellors, there is much we can do to support students in taking ownership of the grades they have earned, and reflecting on their own behaviour. Hopefully if we teach this to them at early in their undergraduate degrees, they will carry it forward with them. Here is are some of my strategies for dealing with requests for extra credit or grade ‘bumps’.
- Request, when possible, that the student come to office hours to discuss the issue face to face (perhaps with the exception of them pointing out a minor typo/grade calculation via email). This generally means that I am only discussing grade issues with students who have a legitimate concern—who are prepared to have a reasoned discussion with me. I still get students coming in who don’t really have a reasoned argument, but these students are generally highly stressed or very desperate so they are willing to make the trek to my office, which allows me to then direct them to other support mechanisms if needed. Sometimes this can be assessed via email of course—I do send some students straight to student services depending on the content of their original email.
- Help the student make a plan on how they will deal with the wider problem. Sometimes this is a simple academic issues that I can provide advice on (study habits, writing structure, time management etc). However, grade requests are often coming from place of panic or because a student has not made use of services that support mental/physical health issues faced by students. I remind the student that problems that have impacted their grades in my course are probably affecting their grades in other courses, so the best course of action is to get professional advice on how to deal with their academic/health/financial problem holistically. I’m not in a position to do that, the best place they can get help from these other student services. Whatever the problem, make sure the student leaves the office knowing what they should be doing to rectify the problem.
- Remind the student that there were multiple opportunities and supports in place to help them improve their grade over the semester. Talk to them about this—did they make use of the resources available to them? If not, why not? What lessons can they take from this moving forward?
- Remind the student that it would be unfair on their peers if their grades were simply ‘bumped up’ or only they were given extra credit opportunities. Ask them what they would think if it was the other way around—if they were in a class where only a small number of students were allowed to improve their grades, or the Prof simply raised the grades without extra effort. A simple ‘logic/fairness’ check usually works on students—and this technique can also sometimes lead to students opening up about issues they hadn’t raised before. I had one student say to me ‘Yes, that would seem unfair to me, unless I knew that they had been looking after a sick parent all semester’. Again, this allows me to move into a conversation directing students to the appropriate support services.
- When in doubt, ask a senior colleague. Sometimes you just need a reality check. I had a request this year to which I repeatedly said no. The student kept protesting and emailing. I started doubting myself. ‘Am I just being totally heartless, unreasonable jerk here?’ I asked myself. A two minute chat with a respected senior colleague saved me hours of self-doubt and stress.
- Related to the above (note: I did not on the above occasion feel threatened by the student), don’t be afraid to tell you department head/line-manager if you are being harassed or threatened by a student. I don’t think this happens very often, but it did happen to me once to me early on in my career and I have heard some pretty upsetting stories from other colleagues. Sometimes we suffer from a ‘I should be able to handle this and if I say anything I will look weak’ mentality—especially as untenured faculty. Frankly, that is garbage. If you at all feel threatened or bullied report it immediately and be insistent on support and action from your institution.
* I have a form that I use with my first year students for this—please email me if you would like to see a copy. It is by no means perfect, but I’ve found it useful.