Grade This!
April 8, 2011 12:41 AM   Subscribe

What's the best way to approach a teacher about what I feel is an unfair grade?

I got back my final paper for a class I'm taking and received 46% on it. I wasn't expecting a stellar mark, as I worked on it in the last couple of days before it was due, but I'm still left feeling angry at how a teacher can give me such a poor grade on a paper which I handed in on time and to which I gave a decent effort (despite the time crunch).

A lot of marks were taken off for not using APA format correctly (I feel like I'm formatting-dyslexic, if there is such a thing) otherwise, only one section had notes about where I went wrong in the paper (a section wasn't as thorough as it should have been).

This class has been extremely frustrating for me: I ace the exams which are mostly multiple choice plus a few short answers, yet on written assignments I've gotten very poor marks. I'm a good writer in general and in other classes I get A's or B pluses on my papers.

An important thing to note is that my teacher employs a graduate student as a marker. On two previous assignments where I was likewise puzzled by my poor grades, I approached the teacher and asked for clarification about why I got the grades I did, and even she seemed flustered about why the marker gave me the particular grades (in both cases, she bumped up my marks--but just a bit).

Frankly, I'm angry to be in this position yet again, and I need some advice about how to best approach my teacher in a level-headed way. I'm not the most social or assertive person, so I feel like I need a script going into a meeting with her.

If she isn't helpful, I realize I can go to the department chair about the matter, but I wan't to see how far I can get by talking to the teacher at this stage.

Phew. That felt good to get off my chest. Thanks for any advice :)
posted by oceanview to Education (37 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You mentioned that not using APA format cost you a good chunk of your score, and that previous papers were given low scores. Were these papers also poorly formatted? Did you get dinged on formatting previously in this class? As a teacher, when I give work back to a student, I expect them to read through my comments and do their best not to make similar mistakes on the next assignment. If your teacher (or their grad assistant) has marked your paper similarly in the past, it really is on you (formatting-dyslexic? really?) to put in the extra effort to not continue to make the same mistake.

If you feel you've been wronged, by all means, talk to the teacher, but make sure to ask as questions instead of making statements. Ask the teacher to explain the grade, and make it clear that you are confused as to why your score was so low.

Keep in mind, though, you've already said you put it together last minute, and you didn't follow the formatting rules. Already, you know two reasons why you didn't get a high score. If you want to get a higher score on the next assignment, you need to fix those things.
posted by Ghidorah at 12:52 AM on April 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

If your university has a writing center (most do), are you using it?If you are, make sure that you tell your teacher. If not, start using it!

Also, be sure to ask if you can make revisions. Your professor might be more inclined to give you a boost if you show an understanding of the problems that were present in the first draft.
posted by charmcityblues at 12:58 AM on April 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm still left feeling angry at how a teacher can give me such a poor grade on a paper which I handed in on time and to which I gave a decent effort

Nobody owes you a grade only for being on time and making an effort.

They owe you a grade that relates in a way you can understand to a rubric that they can show you.

So, go and tell the teacher you were surprised by the grade, and that you realised you don't understand how the marks are arrived at for this kind of work. Ask them how much of the grade is for which different things, and what you would have to change to produce a high-scoring paper in the future.

If it does turn out that the student doing the marking has been unfair, it should become obvious during this conversation; if not, at least you'll have a much clearer understanding of where you went wrong.
posted by emilyw at 1:15 AM on April 8, 2011 [24 favorites]

I'm still left feeling angry at how a teacher can give me such a poor grade on a paper which I handed in on time and to which I gave a decent effort

First off, don't take that approach. Neither handing something in on time nor putting in a decent effort should automatically give you a good grade, if the work itself's not up to scratch. And as you say here, you pulled it together in a couple of days and messed up the APA formatting.

That isn't to say you shouldn't speak to your teacher about your grade - but you need to do it from the position of 'I don't understand why this only got 46%', rather than 'I am entitled to a better grade than this'. Students who take the latter approach are frustrating as hell to deal with, in large part because you can't actually help them improve their work to get the grades they want.

Is there a grading criteria list anywhere, the kind of thing that says what's expected at work of each grade level? If so, check the comments you got against that before your meeting. Didn't get enough comments? Ask the teacher to point out where you're going wrong. Is it unclear how many points were deducted for formatting issues? Ask about that. Have you taken the feedback from your previous work on board, and don't understand why your grades aren't improving? Ask about that too.

Go into that conversation prepared to listen and learn, and without the presumption that your work gets the grades you think it should. If the teacher can't explain your grade in a way that tells you what you need to do in order to get a better one, then you can think about taking this further.
posted by Catseye at 1:24 AM on April 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

If it's appropriate (check the syllabus for info) talk to the TA who marked the paper, not to the main prof. Approach it as a case of "Can you help me see how I can improve for the next paper", not "Why did you give me this mark?" Take your paper with you to the meeting, and ask the TA to point out examples of what s/he says you did badly, and to give you examples of how it could have been done better.

Make sure you really understood the assignment. In my classes, students only get less than 50% for an essay if they totally missed the point, cheated, or wrote completely unintelligibly so I don't even know if they missed the point or not.

Make sure you know what the essay was supposed to be assessing. Was there a rubric? What was covered in the lectures directly previous to the essay being assigned? Figure out what the professor was trying to find out if you learned. And then figure out whether your essay demonstrated you had learned those skills/knowledge.

If the TA isn't much help, or you disagree with their decision after you have spoken with them, then approach the prof.
posted by lollusc at 1:37 AM on April 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

Oh, and if you do have to talk to the prof, not to the TA who actually marked the work, send a copy of the essay with the email where you set up the meeting. That way the prof will have time to look it over before the meeting and will have clearer answers to your questions.
posted by lollusc at 1:39 AM on April 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Adhere to the format. It is the most basic thing in the world. Not doing that signifies to the marker that you don't care enough. Complaining at the end is time-wasting for everyone. Show you care about your assignment in your assignment itself.
posted by mleigh at 2:09 AM on April 8, 2011 [5 favorites]

I'll start by saying, sorry, you're not going to like what I have to say. To be quite honest, your anger is misplaced IMO. If you were going to be angry at anyone, it should be you. Starting a paper two days before it's due does not constitute making an effort. Not bothering to format it in the required way (which I'm sure has been explained to you, as you are already aware you don't follow it) does not constitute making an effort. No one owes you a decent grade for just bothering to hand in what sounds like a pretty lazy effort, actually.

I would definitely ask whoever graded the paper where you can improve but I wouldn't suggest to them that there is anything wrong with the mark. The good thing is you can learn from this. Take on board their comments, give yourself adequate time next time and learn and implement the right format. For someone who says they're normally a good writer, it's a shame to have such rookie errors let you down when they can be so easily avoided. Better luck for next time.
posted by Jubey at 2:19 AM on April 8, 2011 [13 favorites]

Nobody owes you a grade only for being on time and making an effort.

Yup, sorry - your complaints sound unfair to what education, learning and assessing is all about. It's not about you trying hard. You didn't prove your learning in an assessment, probably because you didn't begin work on it until the last minute, and didn't follow the format that obviously has been required for a number of tasks before this one.

Slight derail: The questionable part of this situation is that the lecturer outsourced the marking and then changed the externally applied grade. I do external assessments for universities and I would be pissed off about this happening. An outsourced marking task is to create a ranking of students across a large, anonymous-to-the-marker cohort. Changing the marks distorts the rank and undermines part of the reason external markers are used: she/he won't take into account subjective, personality driven markers [you, apparently for 'working hard'] known to the lecturer, but focus on the work in front of them. The external marker should not be hired if she/he cannot be trusted to have their marks accepted. So, the 46% should have stayed and the lecturer should have done as Jubey suggests above - explained areas of weakness and provided cues for improvement in the future.
posted by honey-barbara at 3:03 AM on April 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Background: I teach and mark computational biology at the undergrad/postgrad level.

If you're going to argue for a higher grade, you're going to need a reason other than 'I think I deserve it'. As others have pointed out, 'I handed it in on time' and 'I gave it a decent effort' are likewise not good reasons to give someone a higher grade. Sorry if this sounds harsh.

Ask the teacher for more feedback on what you should have done and make a list (i.e. to get a better mark should have done X, Y and Z). Now you have two approaches. Either you can argue that you did, in fact, do X Y and Z (and maybe the marker just didn't recognize it), or you can argue that X, Y and Z are not good criteria for marking the paper.

The first approach is much easier, so if, after finding out what X, Y and Z are you feel that you can make a convincing argument that you did them, do so.

The second approach is much harder - getting someone to admit that they are using inappropriate criteria for marking is always going to be a hard sell. Plus, if the course was well-organised, then there is probably an explicit set of marking criteria that are written down somewhere (in a course handbook, maybe), in which case you don't really have much of a leg to stand on.

I'm not the most social or assertive person, so I feel like I need a script going into a meeting with her.

Do as much of this as possible via email. Your teacher will probably be much easier to get hold of by email, and you'll be prepared by the time you have a face-to-face meeting.
posted by primer_dimer at 3:14 AM on April 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yeah, you didn't give "a decent effort" - your "time crunch" (aka poor organisation, poor planning, or slackness) is not your lecturer's or TA's problem, and part of the "effort" you should have put in is to use the correct citation style. You did the bare minimum of work - which may have felt like a lot of effort because you compressed it into 2 days instead of 2 weeks or whatever - failed to follow the required style, and received an appropriate mark.

(And we've all - including myself - been there and done that. Personally, I was always impressed how highly marked my last-minute papers were…)

Luckily, AskMe can help you with the "formatting-dyslexic" part. Learn to use a reference manager (e.g. EndNote, Sente, etc) and a suitable word processor. The beauty of these is that you don't have to worry about formatting - the reference manager does it for you, including building the correctly-formatted bibliography at the end.

You could talk to the lecturer - but until you sort out the two issues you've already identified (time & style; the "grad student as a marker" isn't your issue), you're going to keep running into the same problem. You'd be crazy to go to the dept chair until you can show that you've at least attempted to sort out your own already-identified issues.

(That said - & I hate myself for saying this - if your university/faculty gives a 'conceded pass' for marks between 47% & 50%, it might be worth approaching your lecturer. But be equally prepared for your mark to be bumped down because you obviously didn't put in the effort or follow the style required…)
posted by Pinback at 3:20 AM on April 8, 2011

Using the right format is one of the recurring requirements in any paper-producing academic activity. And the specifics are always different. JAMS just says 'use Chicago Manual of Style this and that' and lets you fiddle. You submit an article that's not done right, and it may well end up refused just for that reason. Early Music tells you "we do footnotes like that" and gives you some examples of their styles. CUP uses American and English styles and a bunch of solutions depending on the area, provided in lengthy styles sheets and explanations...again, you fiddle for yourself, only to get a residue of formatting bloopers pointed out by a patient editor at the end. The point is always:

Even if you're a top-notch researcher, it is required from you to be consistent in formatting; this is a skill that needs training; it's boring and hard to do well; you need to develop a mindset early on that guides you through this chore.

So your paper was partly to grade that. You failed the assignment. I'm sure it hasn't anything to do with whether it was a TA or your professor who gave the mark.

If you'd like to approach the problem in a constructive way, you should ask your professor whether he has any time to discuss your paper, and ask him what changes in your approach he recommends. But just don't complain, it's gonna backfire.
posted by Namlit at 3:22 AM on April 8, 2011

Are you sure that the written comments are actually the sum total of problems the paper had? It could be that those were just the easiest and quickest comments the grader could make.

That there is a grader (usually) implies that there are a lot of students whose work is to be graded. And grading essays takes a lot of time. It could be that the main problem is that the grader didn't make it explicit why you lost all the points you did -- maybe there was some far more important flaw that just didn't get expressed in comments?

So, again, I nth that you should approach the grader or the teacher for help understanding what went wrong. Where "what went wrong" means what you did wrong. Maybe you really do deserve a much higher grade and this was all a mistake -- even so, you certainly won't get anywhere by angrily protesting that effort + punctuality = good grade. No one in an academic setting enjoys that attitude.
posted by meese at 3:54 AM on April 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nobody owes you a grade only for being on time and making an effort.

This. A Thousand times.

I have had to have this discussion with some of my students this semester, as they were mistakenly under the assumption that they deserved "A" grades because they put their best effort into the work. If I were to put my best effort into playing in the NBA, I would still be a horrible basketball player, despite my effort and intentions. This would not in any way make me deserving of a multi-million dollar salary as a professional basketball player.

In general, you will receive the grade that you have earned. You admit that you actually put very little effort into this essay. You wrote it at the last minute and didn't bother utilizing the required formatting guidelines (that's a pet peeve of mine, all that you have got to do is follow the directions). As a result, you earned a failing grade.

Now this does not mean that there might not be any mistakes in your grading, however, you need to approach this from the vantage that you would like to know "why" you received this particular grade. Do not be antagonistic, or presume that you deserved a different grade. You might get a grade increase, but at the very least you can find out what you need to do better on your next assignment.
posted by anansi at 3:58 AM on April 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

Formatting references are so much easier these days, I don't think you are going to get any sympathy from anyone old enough to be your professor. If they have written a thesis, they have wrangled with a million little cue cards filled with references. You should be able to get a short explanation for the popular citation styles from the school library. Most schools also have student access to reference managers through the library, they can help you get started.
posted by Gor-ella at 4:46 AM on April 8, 2011

It takes a long time to mark poorly formatted work...the marker of your paper will take one look at your paper, know it's going to take a lot longer than average to mark and not like you before reading the first sentence. They get paid per paper not per hr...

Look at it another way - you wouldn't expect to be able to hand your boss a rushed job, "sorry I didn't have time to format" presentation/report/deliverable and expect them to think you'd done a good job because you tried to put something together...It's just not acceptable.

So get the format right. And that way you are showing you are capable or reading the requirements and following them and you won't piss off your marker.

If you have consistently been graded poorly in this class there is more wrong with the papers than formatting. You are clearly not delivering on the requirements in a significant way, aside from formatting. So you need to find out what the requirements are, how you have failed to deliver on them again and again and then start to deliver.
posted by koahiatamadl at 5:03 AM on April 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

In the real world, there are still standards which have to be adhered to for papers, presentations and work - be it IEEE standards, MIL spec, APA, or in my current case, a corporate mandated style (based loosely off of APA).

If I fail to format materials properly, they won't be released to internal clients, effectively making them late. There is no grade in corporate America, but it shows up both in performance reviews as well as through a negative impact in the expert/client relationship. At the end of the day, that shows up negatively in my performance review. See the financial incentive for me to do it right?

Now, for you. You actively pay for this person to grade the paper. Screw off enough, and you'll get the fun of repeating the course - effectively having to pay twice for the grade. You paying for the course doesn't mean that you get to dictate the terms, it means - you either make the most of what the professor has to offer and you bust your ass according to their rules, or whine about it and eventually suck it up because you can't be bothered to understand that improper formatting does actually have a financial impact on you.

TL;DR: Learn to play by the rules and format properly. In the long run there is a financial impact for failing to do so.
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:23 AM on April 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

As a university professor myself (although in math, not exactly "paper writing"), I always hear the students out when the come to me with a complaint with a grade. They almost never like my answer though. I put the solutions to the tests and quizzes on the website, and first ask if they checked that. If they didn't I send them away until they can convince themselves why they lost points on a problem.

If your instructor doesn't have at least a sample of an "A paper", then you are justified in having her explain why the marks were lost. You must approach her with humility though. Take the attitude of "I just want to know why marks were lost", not "I deserve a higher grade, take another look at this".

Lastly, your "best effort" doesn't matter. You even say that you only started the paper a couple of days before it was due, and you didn't follow the style guidelines. You then go on to say that you did put in a great deal of effort. I see this a lot from students; they try to lie to themselves saying that they are doing a lot of work when they aren't, presumably to try to make themselves feel better about being unable to learn certain topics. ("But I do all the homework problems you assign!" "Really? Did you try number 9 out of this 70 problem assignment?" "No, I didn't get that far.")

It's ridiculous. Effort really means nothing. This isn't high school anymore.
posted by King Bee at 5:41 AM on April 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Talk to the teacher, but don't ask to have the grade changed. Just tell her you're concerned about getting a grade that was so low. It was a wakeup call that you need to make some serious improvements in the class. So, you'd be interested in any advice she has on how you should do things differently to get a better grade on papers in the future.
posted by John Cohen at 5:43 AM on April 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Agreed with John Cohen 100%. Take your paper to the prof and say "I was stunned by my grade and realized I need to really step it up in this class. I want to do well. Can you show me specific things that will help?"

Don't ask for her to review the grade, don't ask for sympathy, but focus on how your grade can improve between now and the end of the semester. I think triage is the best way to go forward from here on out.

And if your instructor thinks that 46% was absurdly incorrect, she'll either tell you or keep it in mind at the end of the semester. If she thinks the 46% was an appropriate grade, she'll probably appreciate you not trying to scrape more points.
posted by amicamentis at 6:11 AM on April 8, 2011

From the stories I've heard among acquaintances who teach, students contesting crummy grades is as common as ramen. If you approach your instructor with the attitude that you deserve a better grade, or the belief that you can negotiate one out of her, she won't take kindly to you.

Instead, meet with her with the attitude that you want to do better, and you'd like her to help by explaining what led to your low grade and what specifically you can improve. If you get good marks on your other papers, maybe she sees something that your other teachers are missing or ignoring - and, perhaps, her feedback can get your other papers from As and B pluses to all As.

And then, if you really want that better grade and want to prove you deserve it, offer to rewrite the paper. Use correct APA formatting and put a slower, deliberate effort into it. You might not get this opportunity if final grades have been turned in for the term, or if your teacher just doesn't like the idea, but it doesn't hurt to offer. Many of my college professors offered us the opportunity to rewrite papers that we bombed, sometimes for a lowered maximum grade or something similar.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:34 AM on April 8, 2011

No one has suggested that you ask the instructor for a grading scale. You need to know how your papers are being graded before you write them, so you can meet the objective markers of an A paper.

For example, in one class I took, you started with 50% for turning in the paper on-time. For every point you made, of which five were required, you got up to 10% depending on how well you argued the point, whether you used the citation correctly, etc.

In another class I took, you started with 100%, and every error you made lost you between 2% and 5%, depending on the nature of the error.

Ask your instructor nicely for a grading scale, because you want to understand why things you thought were good weren't counted as much as things you didn't realize were so bad. You want to understand why you failed this paper, so you can go on to be a successful student. You don't want to be a grade-grubber.

And, for goodness sake, if you can't manage to use APA correctly, let a machine do it for you:
posted by juniperesque at 7:44 AM on April 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

Your paper sucked because it was a slap dash affair and not even formatted correctly. you don't deserve a better grade.

What you do deserve is a meeting withthe professor to go over her grading strategy or rubric, and the mistakes made in your recent paper so that you don't make them again and turn in shit next time.

Sorry this is harsh, but thems the breaks.
posted by WeekendJen at 8:16 AM on April 8, 2011

You don't go in to the professor's office and say "I want a better grade on this paper". So does everybody who got less than 100%. If a student comes to me saying this, I'm immediately on the defensive.

What you want is to go to the professor and say "I want to know what I did wrong on this paper so that I can improve my future work". Finding out what you could have improved may at least help your anger. And this will make your professor want to work with you to do this. You may even get a few points back, although don't count on it.

I understand that it's frustrating to get back work with a low grade and not many comments. But I think a lot of graders -- especially graduate students -- realize that most of the students are probably not going to read the comments, and therefore feel like writing them is a waste of time. (I teach math. Instead of pointing out precisely what students did wrong on their exams, or asking my grader to do it on homework, I distribute solutions to the problems. Unfortunately your professor can't do this.)

Also, please don't go to the chair. The chair does not want to hear about grading issues like this and will probably defend the professor's right to give whatever grade they feel is fair unless the grade was given for some non-academic reason like the professor being prejudiced against some minority group you are a member of.
posted by madcaptenor at 8:19 AM on April 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm a grad student who grades papers and deals with student complaints about grades.

If a student comes to me and says something like what John Cohen suggests, I will put in as much effort as the student is willing to match to help that student on their next paper. If they come meet with me right after the assignment is given I'll talk with them about the development of their ideas and structuring their paper. If they get a draft done ahead of time, I'll sit with them and look through it and talk about how they can edit their own work. If they give me some sample citations I'll let them know whether they're using the right format, or I'll point them towards the the most relevant resources. This is above and beyond what I'm actually required to do, but I want to help students learn and succeed if they show they're willing to try hard.

If a student comes to me and says something like: I wasn't expecting a stellar mark, as I worked on it in the last couple of days before it was due, but I'm still left feeling angry at how a teacher can give me such a poor grade on a paper which I handed in on time and to which I gave a decent effort (despite the time crunch), I will show that student the grading rubric and mince no words in telling them how their paper was woefully inadequate on each point of the rubric. I will then send them on their way and be both unsurprised and unsympathetic when another failure of a paper crosses my desk a few weeks later.
posted by ootandaboot at 9:11 AM on April 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just popping in to say that while this is your final paper for THIS course, unless you're about to graduate, everyone's made tremendously good points/tips that you can use to talk to the TA/Instructor about future papers in other courses. Generally the requirements for a "good paper" are similar across the board in a particular department. In fact, you may run across the same TA a few times in the course of your studies, so knowing his/her particular style of marking, or the rubric that the TA or instructor likes to use can still be incredibly helpful.
posted by miss_kitty_fantastico at 9:19 AM on April 8, 2011

All good advice above about getting a grading rubric and comparing it with your work to see where you went wrong.

BTW it's a waste of everyone's time to take a grade dispute to the department chair (unless there has been misconduct like discrimination). An academic authority structure is not like that of a corporation: the instructor of a course has the final say about his or her course grades, and no one else can change them - not the chair, not the Dean, not the University President.
posted by philokalia at 9:31 AM on April 8, 2011

Background: I’m a graduate student in Biology; I’ve graded a lot of papers, mostly for laboratory Bio.

Here’s what you don’t say: “I understood – or thought I clearly understood – the prompt, and I believe I responded to it appropriately. My organizational structure was clear (and as instructed). My arguments were sourced in the text/data/appropriate sources, which were clearly identified. I introduce my thesis in context at the beginning, and repeat it and summarize the supporting material at the end. The logical connections between statements were clear. The notes say my third argument wasn’t really fleshed out (okay, I sort of punted there) and I admit my formatting was not up to guidelines, but I think I earned more than a 46%.”

I kind of want to focus on things other than your attitude, because a lot’s been said on the subject and there may be things other than your attitude going on. But, being on time and “making an effort” are minimal requirements. That’s what gets you better than a zero. Which you did get. (As an undergraduate, I remember turning in a paper and noticing the paper before mine in the stack was titled “An F is better than a Zero”. Which is true. Though I wouldn’t be giving the grader ideas like that.)

One of the reasons – besides the red waves of frustration beating against our eyes when we hear stuff like that – that the graders here are focusing on your attitude is that the information you’ve focused on gives us a hint as to why you may not be performing to your expectations. And that hint is that you really haven’t absorbed what’s expected of you in collegiate writing, and your attitude is preventing you from learning. The message that’s important for you isn’t “Your attitude stinks, kiss off!” but that it obscures anything else that may be going on.

Because, all that said, 46% is pretty darn low. If I gave a student a 46% on a paper, I would be prepared to defend it in detail. Maybe you got dinged 50% up front for something. Maybe all that “little stuff” with formatting added up. Or maybe there was actually a mistake! It’s possible! Speaking as someone who’s been on both sides: there are some weenie graders out there. But if you’re going to understand this grade, you must understand that the value of the paper is what’s in the paper itself.

TL;DR : What’s right with your paper itself? What in the actual text would have earned you a better grade? You are graded on the paper itself, not the circumstances of its construction. Both TA and Instructor of Record will be much more responsive to questions and efforts to improve than to expressions of entitlement.
posted by endless_forms at 9:44 AM on April 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

Your anger is unlikely to affect your grade in a positive way. Take the paper to the prof., ask for clarification, and ask if there's anything you can do to affect your grade. Make your case based on your understanding of the work, as demonstrated in the tests, and the content of the paper. The amount of time you spent is not a guarantee of a good grade, nor is handing it in on time, though you might note that in passing. The best case scenario is that the prof. lets you re-submit the paper, properly formatted and revised.
posted by theora55 at 9:46 AM on April 8, 2011

It sounds like you can't edit your own work very well if you continue to make formatting errors and weak arguments that lead to poor grades. Many people have trouble editing their own writing, so for the next paper you REALLY need to do the following:

1. Get a friend in the class to trade papers with, give each other two or three days before the due date to look over your drafts and make comments
2. Use your university writing center in addition to or in place of #1; make an appointment in advance, don't wait until the last week of term when they're swamped.
3. Give yourself a due date 24 hrs before the actual date and stick to it. Sit down and read your writing again when you're fresh, and have had a chance to put it down overnight. Make changes.
4. Make sure you have an appropriate style manual or a thorough online resource for the MLA stuff with examples; just a one page quick guide is not going to cut it when you have tricky things to cite, like edited compendiums of primary sources with commentary.

If you do all those things, and you're still getting bad grades, then I think you should take it up with the grader for further explanation. Until then, you're wasting other people's time.
Also, grading student writing is HARD and sometimes it is good practice to have a second grader who is blind to the first grade take a look, and see how the scores agree. Rubrics are essential. If the student grader's marks do not agree with the rubric or what the instructor thinks an A looks like, then maybe it really is them and not you. However, your grades on papers for other classes are no indication that you should be getting As on these papers. Standards between fields and courses vary widely and it's up to you to make sure you understand them and can meet them at the start of term.
posted by slow graffiti at 10:31 AM on April 8, 2011

46 is a very low score. I regularly grade papers at the graduate level, where the requirements are a bit more stringent (but the population is a bit more selected), and I very rarely give out a grade within 20 points of that. The people who receive those grades do not stay in the program.

I agree with everyone here who has said you should approach this as a learning exercise with the instructor. If your paper has been poorly graded she will see that and correct it. You should not, however, confuse her previous attempts to justify someone else's work with implicit criticism of that work. It can be hard to know what was in someone else's head.

I fear, though, as others here do, that your paper was just not very good. My evidence for this, and I admit that it's a bit scant, is that APA format is really not difficult to apply. It should take no more than a short hour to convert a raw, 20 page paper to one properly APA formatted. Unless your subject matter is very unusual, I have a hard time reading your gripe about APA as anything other than an admission that you simply chose to disregard the very basic formatting and citation strictures it imposes.

Good luck!
posted by OmieWise at 10:45 AM on April 8, 2011

Heh. When I arrived at college, I thought I was a good writer: I'd always done well in English class, got a 4 on my AP exam. And wow, did I find out I was WRONG. Writing in high school and writing in college are very, very different things. When I got my very first ever D+ on a paper, I put on my big girl pants and went to see the prof during office hours with paper in tow, doing my best not to cry. I asked where I went wrong, and the wonderful man sat down with me and showed me just what I was missing. Which as a lot. I rewrote a portion of it and asked him to review it to see if I was on the right track for the next paper. Lo and behold, he let me rewrite the entire thing and resubmit, resulting in a B+. Next paper: A-. This taught me that sincere desire to improve + not letting my ego get in the way tends to make your superiors pleasantly disposed towards helping you. This has (mostly) held true in my professional life as well.

Also, as a former English teacher, add me as another data point in agreement that the world does NOT owe you better grade, grading papers takes a ton of time (for which one is not well-compensated), and chances are your slapdash last-minute effort showed throughout. Why should the grader spend more time marking up your self-admittedly slapdash paper than you took to prepare and write it?

If you're smart and can take a deep breath, this will be YOUR "put on the big boy/girl pants" moment and take advantage of this teachable moment to take your school work and self-discipline to the next level. Approach the prof saying that you have questions about what needs to be improved apart from the formatting issue. Be humble. Take notes. Practice. Use the writing center. Apply to the next assignment with a will. You WILL do better and your papers will be a much more accurate reflection of what you know.
posted by smirkette at 11:30 AM on April 8, 2011

This depends on what the usual marks are in the type of course you were in, but I agree with those above who say that 46 is a lower mark than I would usually give without some Bigtime Problems being present. Bigtime = paper is half as long as it should be, paper has no thesis, paper rambles and doesn't ever try to support its thesis, paper unintelligibly written, etc.

Formatting is very important in some disciplines, and I can imagine a marker making it count for a lot - but I can't imagine that you've gotten a failing mark purely because of the formatting. I would guess that formatting could take you from an A down to a C or D, but not from an A to an F. So either the graduate student grader is really doing something weird here, or else there are significant problems with the paper beyond the formatting.

Maybe what you have done is to write a C paper, but with the penalty for formatting, it's reduced to an F? If you were guessing, honestly, what do you think the quality of your paper was before the penalty for wrong formatting? A B or B-?

Things to think about:

Did you have a clear thesis, which is an answer to the question asked, stated in the first paragraph?

Did the rest of your essay build a case for that thesis, providing evidence from the required kinds of sources, or examples/case studies/etc of the right kind? Was all of this arranged into clear conceptual chunks, one paragraph or so per chunk, with a clear progression through the paragraphs?

Did you consider appropriate counter-arguments or potential problems that a reader might raise about your sources or examples, and show how you can respond convincingly to those?

Was it written clearly? Was it the required length?
Did you meet other stated requirements (for example, if the assignment calls for 3 sources that are not Wikipedia, did you actually have that number of sources)?

I agree that you should go talk to your prof (set up an appointment by email) after thinking about these things. A 46 is a low mark, and either there's a reason you got it or else you should bring it to her attention. It is possible there was a mistake.

Email: Dear Prof X, I have received my final paper grade and looked over the comments, and I have some questions I'd like to go over to understand why I received such a low grade. (I am attaching a copy of the paper to this email.) Is there a time on [day] when we could meet? Thank you, Student

In person: I understand that my mark was reduced for incorrect formatting. But I want to understand the rest of the grade. Here is the marked copy of the paper with comments from [grader]. I know we've talked before about [grader]'s marking of my papers, and in the past it has been low. Now [grader] has given me a failing mark, and I want to understand why. [The professor will take it from here, probably. Just hand them the paper and they'll look through it and try to figure out what the grader was thinking. It might be obvious - maybe you don't have a thesis, or whatever. But it might be that the prof will decide there was a mistake. You just sit tight, let the prof think, keep cool.]
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:30 AM on April 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Another thing - there's no way for us to know what grade your paper deserved, so everyone here is just guessing. But if you really are in a situation where you're acing all the tests, and you ace writing assignments in other courses, and you're making roughly your normal level of effort on the writing assignments in this course, and even the prof has acted as if you should be getting better marks on the papers -- it really is possible there is something wrong with the grader's methods. It is often the case that grad students will grade harder than profs, since grad students are so intensely into editing their own work they will edit student work in the same hyper-intense way.

Let's consider that grad-student-grading-badly scenario -

If that's what is going on, all the students in the class should be getting the same kinds of very hard marks on written work. At least this means a level playing field within your class, I don't know if that's much consolation. If the prof knew this was the situation, s/he could just curve the paper grades.

If others aren't getting the same level of scrutiny as you, I wonder what the explanation could be. (Again assuming that your work is fine - which, again, we in this thread have no basis for judging.) It's possible that the grader has some pet peeves that he/she is taking out on you -- for example, really crazy about APA formatting; really hates run-on sentences; really hates essays that sound too casual; thinks the topic of [whatever] is a bad topic; or you've relied on a source she considers to be unreliable, etc. No way to know unless the prof has some personal insight, which s/he may not be able share with you.

If the grader is too harsh, or worse, inconsistent, the prof is in a difficult position. S/he can't just change everyone's grades without recalling all the marked papers and re-grading them herself, because s/he doesn't know if the grader was consistently too harsh or just inconsistent; recalling and re-grading would cause a huge flap and take a ton of time, which s/he probably can't afford. Plus the prof has a default position of respecting the marks the grader has given, because changing them in a large-scale way undermines the position of that grad student in the department (thus it's something s/he would try to avoid doing unless the evidence were crystal clear).

The prof has two options - one is to boost the grades of students who come in to mention it (especially students who are otherwise excellent students acing the course). The other is to change the weighting of grades so that for example tests count for more and papers count for less in the final grade.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:49 AM on April 8, 2011

(I describe the above so that you have a sense of what the prof might be thinking as s/he sits quietly in your meeting. If your work is actually fine and deserves a passing grade, s/he will want to give you a passing grade. But there are the two other considerations to balance: wanting to be fair to the other students who might have also gotten lower grades than they deserve but who didn't complain, and wanting to take action in a way that doesn't publicly undermine the grad student grader. So if the prof decides that your grade needs to change, s/he might sit there for a little while and try to decide how to handle it.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:00 PM on April 8, 2011

I have to disagree with a lot of the comments here.

I'm coming at this as a professor who teaches massive courses, and I can't have students approaching me or my TAs to "discuss" why they got X mark on a paper or an exam essay. We explain what our standards were and, in my smaller courses that do entail actual written assignments, I give over huge amounts of class time and office hours to try to make sure that everybody knows what the standards of the assignment are.

If students then flub this evaluation opportunity and are not happy with their grade- and let's be completely un-deluded here and acknowledge, all of us, that nobody in the history of higher ed has ever asked to "discuss" a paper with a professor when what they really mean is "I am unhappy with my grade}- then the burden is on THEM, given that standards had been spelled out beforehand, why they met those standards and why they deserve a higher grade. THAT is what you would take to your prof if I were your prof.

When students approach me with "I want to know how I can improve," I ask them to leave and come back when they've formulated, IN WRITING since the ASSIGNMENT is about WRITING and it ARGUING your grade ex post facto. "I want to know how I can improve" is a bullshit simpering alternative way of saying "I want a higher grade." It also says, and this really pisses me off, that you deserve private tutoring from me when I have hundreds of other students who've performed competently and don't get that leg up "for next time."

Maybe all of this just reflects my abnormally insane student numbers, but the last thing I want to hear from a student is pretty much everything I've read on here. If you want a higher grade, prove that you deserve the higher grade.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 12:42 PM on April 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

Okay, if you're formatting dyslexic, take the time to create an APA template in whatever writing program you use, or look for one online. If you turned in two previous papers that were supposed to use APA, and still didn't bother on your final paper, I'm not surprised you got dinged heavily for that. I've had classes where papers that were not written in a particular way were not accepted at all. This should all have been spelled out for you, grading included. Look through your syllabus or project assignment or wherever you were given the program for the paper, and figure out what you have and have not done. If your grade still seems low compared to the requirements, then talk to your professor with specific examples and questions.
posted by oneirodynia at 2:35 PM on April 8, 2011

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