Category Archives: grading

Providing advice to students on requests to ‘bump up my grade’: dealing with grade complaints and requests for extra credit (Part 2)

Following on from my last post, I want to be clear. Students absolutely have the right to discuss their grades with their professors. There are a variety of legitimate reasons for students to contact professors regarding their grades (the most central one being that students should talk to their profs about their grades and feedback with the aim of learning and improving for future assignments). One thing I think I can do better next year is make it much more clear to my students from day one what is and is not acceptable in terms of discussing grades with me (and other professors). This is particularly important in the intro classes.

Students: Below is a list of issues which I think are legitimate issues and questions to raise with your professors and advice on how to approach these issues.

Colleagues:  Perhaps this is a list you can adapt/share/discuss with your own students to save some of the stresses around requests for grade ‘bumps’ in the future and to try and encourage more fruitful and efficient discussions about grades more generally.

  • Questions about how the grade was calculated and a possible mistake (mathematical or otherwise) in this calculation. Note: If you are a student, make sure you have your maths right too before you approach your professor. Be specific about where you think the flaw is.  Did they forget that they gave you an excused absence for a quiz? Did they accidentally input 67 instead of 76 for your midterm? Do not send general emails saying ‘Did you calculate my grade right?’.
  • Questions about an inputted grade for which you did not receive feedback. I have had a few students request to see their final exam or discuss the participation grade they received for their tutorial—grades that are traditionally given without feedback being provided to the student. I feel students have a right to understand why they were given a grade so that they can understand what went wrong and how to improve in the future: Note: If you are a student, ask to come discuss your grade with this reason in mind. Do not send an email asking ‘did I really get that grade? That can’t be right’.
  • To inform the instructor of any extenuating circumstances which may have impacted your grade. This does not mean that a professor will automatically change your grade—but they can put you in touch with services on campus to offer you further support and ensure that you receive accommodations available to students in your situation.
  • To discuss legitimate concerns or confusion about a grade you feel is substantially lower than you deserve. If you feel you have a legitimate complaint about the grade you received, come prepared to have a reasoned, academic, intellectual discussion with your professor. Be prepared to respond directly and specifically to the feedback/critiques you were given. A student coming to a professor and simply saying ‘I don’t agree with the feedback’ probably won’t get very far. A student who comes with a specific concern will be taken seriously. For example, this year I had a student come to me concerned about feedback she had received on an essay that said she had not provided adequate case study material.   She had taken the time to go through her essay and highlight the places she had done this AND she had taken the time to explain to me in further detail why she thought that case study material had effectively proven her conceptual arguments. Through our discussions the student realized that these ‘further details’ should have been included in the paper itself—a good learning moment for how to improve on future assignments.
  • If after speaking to your professor (if you feel comfortable doing so) you are still unhappy and feel your arguments hold still, most universities will have appeals processes that you can look into—wrongs are sometimes committed.  If you are going to take this track you will need to put in the work to justify your complaint.   Your students’ union, student advising office or ombudsperson can provide you further advice. Your TAs and professors should always be your first call, but these offices listed above can also be consulted if for some reason you are unable to approach teaching faculty directly.

Can you ‘bump up my grade’?: dealing with grade complaints and requests for extra credit (Part 1)

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.

Am I unduly fixated with my students’ writing skills?

I had an interesting moment this semester. A wonderfully bright and hardworking student came to me, frustrated with their grades on written assignments. I have to admit, I was frustrated too as they should have been earning higher grades based on their work ethic, intellectual curiosity, and knowledge of course materials. I knew they had a deep and clear understanding of the readings and lecture material based on our discussions in office hours and their contributions to class discussions. To be clear, the student had been achieving good (around or often above average) grades and was at zero risk of failing. The grades they were achieving were grades to be proud of and grades that I’m sure many of their colleagues longed for. I’ve also no doubt that this student will succeed at UBC and professionally once they leave us. But, in the meantime, they should have been achieving great grades. I wanted to be assigning them higher grades, but out of ‘fairness’ I felt I had to mark ‘what was on the page’, even though I knew it was not representative of their understanding of politics.

So, late in term I had a bit of a petulant teen-ager moment and thought “wait a minute I don’t ‘have to’ do anything!”. Part of my job description and (tenure decision) will be based on teaching innovation, my willingness to think outside the box and find better ways of advancing teaching and student learning. So, I decided to experiment. For the next small written assignment I decided to allow this student to respond to the question orally. I arranged a time to meet with them in a separate room with me and one of my TAs. After the student being given a few minutes to gather their thoughts, the three of us had a conversation. The TA and I were able to ask follow up questions, where the student again displayed advanced and often critical insights into the problem at hand. OK, so it wasn’t a totally ‘controlled experiment’ (apologies to my positivist friends) but the grade I gave on the oral presentation was around 10% higher than their average on the written assignments of the same ilk.  This was a pretty small stakes assignment, so the impact on their grade was, overall, negligible. But still…..

What was more interesting to me was the debrief afterwards. I wanted their reflections on how it had gone, what the difference was to them in terms of being able to display their knowledge of politics, and why they believed the differences occurred. Without going into all the details, it became clear that the mechanics of writing, the stresses over getting the grammar/tense/punctuation correct were preventing them from displaying what they had learned. For me, thinking about the purpose of this set of assignments (5 reflexive learning logs over the course of the term) I realized that the way I have structured the assignment might actually be masking what I am trying to assess! In the description of the assignment I am asking students to give me a ‘snapshot of what they have learned’. Yet, sticking with the snapshot analogy, they are so fixated on the lighting, shade and focus of that image that I might not actually be getting a real picture of what they have learned.

This is perhaps more of a problem for international students for whom English is a second (or third!) language, but I am also now wondering if the same goes for my domestic students, for any students for whom the written form is their largest struggle. Looking at my own courses this year, written work accounts for anywhere from 70-80% of their grades. Whilst writing is an extremely important skill (both academically and in terms of wider professional skills), I’m left wondering if I am over-assessing the written form. My primary focus is for students to learn about politics, not (just) write about politics.

I am left asking myself, am I favoring students who for whatever reason have superior writing skills whilst students whose intellectual skills rest more in the oral form or non-verbal creative forms are penalized?   If what I really want to assess is their knowledge and critical thinking skills in regards to political science and communicating that knowledge, is relying so heavily on written work really appropriate? This is not to say that writing is not an important skill. Indeed, some of the writing intensive courses in my home department have proven very popular amongst students. And for students who are maybe grad school bound or seeking out careers in certain occupations, developing these skills is extra-essential. However, can there be more room or at least options for alternative (ie non-written assessments). One of my wonderful TAs has pointed me in the direction of other university programmes where a recognition of problems with written literacy skills in student cohorts and biases towards written literacy in assessments has been addressed; I will investigate further!

Of course, regardless of the potential pedagogical advancements, I have to be realistic. A change in assessment structures to more verbal or more creative modes of assessment does not come without serious repercussions in terms of time. Making a switch would be difficult to do in most undergraduate level courses in terms of human resources—with over 100 students in my own class in how on earth would I manage conducting and offering formative feedback on a series of individual oral assignments? Furthermore, how would this impact them moving forward or in terms of taking future classes where the written form remains dominant? Should I not just continue training them primarily to communicate political arguments in the written form to ensure success in future courses? These are all the questions I will keep struggling with as I rework my courses for next year over the summer. I will report back in future blog posts about my progress on this, but for now will simply end with a thank-you to my student who allowed me to run this small experiment (and allowed me to write about it!) and who has really challenged me to reflect much more carefully on my approach to assessments more generally.