"This is not grade school; there are no effort marks" seems like a bad response...
December 6, 2011 8:04 PM   Subscribe

Teachers & Academics: what are your tricks for dealing with difficult / entitled students?

I'm a tutor at the college level in North America. I get a handful of students that come to me after a test or essay, complaining about their mark. (It's not always the same students.) I hear such things as "I get good marks in other courses, why did I fail this?" or "I tried really hard on that essay" or "My friend read it and said it was good!". And obviously these things are not factors that actually impact the quality of work on the current test/paper, but these are the things I hear.

The stuff that's actually wrong with their assignments / test answers usually involves a lack of clarity in explanation, insufficient detail, not including something critical, lack of logic or coherence, or out right incorrect statements. I include lots of feedback on tests/assignments, so it's not like these students don't know why I docked them marks.

But still, they come a-knocking. They want a better grade. They're not prepared to defend why, other than "I worked really hard!" or "I pretty much said the same thing, it's close enough!". A lot of these students are ESL, which I'm sympathetic to. Ours is a fully English university, with writing / language resources available for free, but the assignments do require a high level of English ability. (I do think this is a reasonable requirement for earning a North-American post-secondary degree in our field though.)

I feel old and crotchety. I see this as a ridiculous sense of entitlement. But I don't want to feel this way. I think these are overall decent kids, and I want to believe they genuinely want to learn and improve. But I'm also not willing to budge and give them more marks, because I feel it's unfair to the students who DID get the point of the assignment/test, and that ... well, that it's just not right for them to get a better grade just because they came and whined.

So please help. How do I deal with these students and still keep my cool? What do I say to them to basically re-iterate what I've already written in their assignments, and get it to stick? How do I respond to these "but I tried!!!" kinds of comments, kindly and politely? How do I restructure my instinctive "are you fucking kidding me?!" mentality when they come with their requests, and stop seeing them as entitled brats?
posted by MouseOfHouseofAnony to Human Relations (36 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Offer extra credit. Doesn't have to be outrageous, but often the chance to earn some extra points leads to practice and practice leads to improvement, which will lead to them understanding what was wrong with their work in the first place. You're asking how to make it stick. I'm afraid helping them learn is the only surefire way.

Unless, of course, the point is just to wag your finger and make them unhappy because you're tired.

I agree that there's a sense of inflation about English skills. People start thinking because they can form sentences that they can write, and no one likes to think they need help in basic areas. And writing skills on a higher level are undervalued. It sucks.

On the other hand, my professor hasn't deigned to write tips for improvement or criticisms on the last half the quarter's papers that I turned in, and I am desperate to improve. I find that the writing labs are really focused on grammar and such, and not so much on laying out a clear argument, and the tutors (what we call those people here; you are a professor, they are tutors) are poorly trained and have trouble teaching what they can already do well.
posted by thelastcamel at 8:14 PM on December 6, 2011

One possibile way to obviate having to step through the failures of each particular student (and the subsequent arguments and grade grubbing) might be to distribute (without names of course) the best response from the class, with your comments. This could highlight what you were looking for, and what a correct answer really looks like, without having to justify each and every subpar response you marked down.
Essentially you're giving them something to compare their work to first, before they come whinging to you, which may stop some of the pre-emptive, irrelevant (but my friend said it was ok) blow back you're getting. Also, it gives you a tangible counter example of what they specifically failed on, if and when then they do come to you.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 8:31 PM on December 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: my advice:
- don't offer extra credit for whining. It just encourages more whining. And it's not fair unless all students have the same opportunity.

- I never let students argue with me about their grades. If they feel they were graded incorrectly, I ask them to submit a written explanation of why they feel they were graded incorrectly and return it along with the original assignment. In those cases where there really was an error (it happens) I give them the appropriate points. This does two things:
- it weeds out the students who just want to wear you down to try to get more points.
- It takes you out of the situation where you feel like you have to make a decision on the spot just to get them out of your office or end the conversation. This sort of situation rarely leads to a good decision.
posted by chbrooks at 8:46 PM on December 6, 2011 [65 favorites]

Best answer: Never, ever offer extra credit unless the option is on the syllabus and it applies to everyone, not just the grade grubbers.

These are writing assignments, not grade grubbing, wear down the poor instructor with your constant complaining assignments. Do what I do: If you want to complain about your grade- and "discussing" means complaining, every time every time every time forever and ever- then they have to put their concerns IN WRITING. Full stop. Get out of my office, we are not "discussing" your score, put your complaint in writing.

You're letting them abuse you. Stop letting them.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 8:49 PM on December 6, 2011 [9 favorites]

You can state on prior to giving assignments or have whoever gives out the assignments state that "lack of clarity in explanation, insufficient detail, not including something critical, lack of logic or coherence, [and] out right incorrect statements" will be docked points and that how hard you work is not directly proportional to the grade you will get. You can work hard and produce a terrible result if your hard work isn't directed at the important parts of writing.

Another tactic, if they still come to you, is to sit back and cross your arms. Tell them to explain why they deserve more points if they did make these mistakes. Say something like, "you are aware that we grade based on the objective result, not your subjective vision of your work-product, correct?"

Also, never offer extra credit. It's just a bad policy here and encourages grade grubbing.
posted by mewohu at 8:51 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: One way is to make students create an additional written document after meeting with you that explains why they believe their essay meets the requirements you've discussed in the session with you. Tell them you'd like them to first point out the standard and then point to specific evidence in their paper that they've met it. That will first get them off your back in the immediate moment. It will also force them to do a little bit of work on their end; the problem with office hour discussions about grade complaints is that it's very little work on their end to complain endlessly until they wear you down. Writing out a persuasive objection puts the ball back in their court, which will lead many of them to reconsider how much they really care about the issue. Very few students will do this. Those that do will have done a fair amount of additional effort, and you can give them a few extra points without feeling like you've compromised your standards.

Do you enforce a cool-down period between receiving the papers back and when they can talk to you? And refuse to talk about grades in the lecture hall immediately before/after class? The cool down period puts a buffer between those immediate "this isn't fair!" response, and forcing them to come to your office hours to talk puts another layer of friction between you and the students to ensure those with complaints need to make an effort to see you. Not because you don't want to deal with their complaints, but because it cuts down on general whininess.
posted by lilac girl at 8:55 PM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

"So, let's start out: why did your assignment get marked down?"

Let them know from the very beginning this is how any discussion about their work will begin. Make them tell you what they did wrong. This will make them, first, figure out what they did wrong, and, second, it will put you in the position of explaining and clarifying rather than justifying. When you feel like you're justifying your score, rather than explaining it, you're already in a bad position.

Another thing that is really valuable is to give them multiple assignments with room for improvement. Work into your syllabus that students will be allowed to re-write an assignment. Or make a re-write necessary. Have there be multiple assignments like this. The student has impetus to improve, and you're able to focus on doing better in the future rather than bickering about a grade in the past.

...Of course, it depends on your kind of school. If you're at a small liberal arts college, it makes sense to give millions of assignments. If you're at a giant school with hundreds of students, you'd be crazy to do so. Where you are determines what you should do. You should have a mentor or other members of your department who can help you better understand school atmosphere.
posted by meese at 9:03 PM on December 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

Is there any way you can implement first drafts or prospectuses for essays? I give out first draft grades that don't count towards their final grade, but do give them an idea of how the draft would be graded as a final version. This gives me the chance to be harsh on their first drafts (many of my students get D's on first drafts), but they feel like they have the chance to improve it. I am sometimes pleasantly surprised at how much students are willing to admit that their first draft was disorganized, unclear, etc.

If this is an epidemic, I might also suggest that you require them to write up an argument about why they should get a better grade, based on the feedback you provided. If you provide a page of feedback, make them write a page about where/how they specifically think they did the things you critiqued them on.
(As I wrote this I see other people have suggested the same..)

I also give a handout to my whole class with general guidelines for an A, B, C grade paper, which specifies that a paper that meets the basic requirements of the assignment (length, some sort of thesis, supporting points) is only worth a C. B or A grades depend on having a sophisticated thesis or analysis, excellent transitions, few to no unclear sentences, etc.

It also really depends on what class you're teaching. Sadly, any class that is a general requirement or a pre-req for bigger things will have a lot of students that come in seeing your class as a waste of time and as a hoop to jump through rather than a learning experience. This doesn't mean they're terrible humans, just that college students don't always appreciate the big picture of learning to think/write critically, especially the first time they have to do something that's challenging and doesn't give them immediate effort-gratification.
posted by nakedmolerats at 9:12 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I rarely, if ever, give in to student whining. Offering extra credit is problematic because the student should have given the effort of the extra credit project to the ORIGINAL project and not gotten a weak grade in the first place. It also creates more work for you, as the grader, and places a burden on the "A" students. Why should they bust ass, when the weaker students just need to whine for comparable grades?

My syllabi are pretty explicit and my red pen is cruel. Students need to work and work well for their grades. In all seriousness, you are not doing them, the students, any favors by enabling half-assed work.
posted by jadepearl at 9:13 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, in terms of the entitled brats issue, some of them are absolutely just entitled brats. But most of them have grown up in an education system where this kind of whining works, either on their middle or high school teachers or on other university teachers. Maybe the whining itself worked, or maybe they had a teacher who encouraged discussion and grade revision in a "prove to me why I'm wrong" way and that philosophy got muddled around in their heads a little so when they try to use it on you it comes out wrong. A lot of them probably have parents who adopted the "it's not your final grade til you explore all options" mentality. It helps me to think that most of the students that do this don't know their actions are inappropriate, which means they're not trying to take advantage of me.

Another thing that came to me is how you can transition students from thinking about this particular assignment to the next one. Work with them to develop a plan about how to do better on the next paper, given the feedback they've gotten on this one. Recruit them to identify goals and how to reach them as much as possible. That reminds them that they have the power to control their grade by doing better next time, and don't get fixated on trying to eek a few more points out of you on this one.
posted by lilac girl at 9:28 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: How do I restructure my instinctive "are you fucking kidding me?!" mentality when they come with their requests, and stop seeing them as entitled brats?

Do you have pets? A dog or a cat? You know how dogs and cats beg for food? That's what the students are doing—making noise and getting in your face and hoping it gets them what they want.

When dogs and cats beg for food, it's not a desirable behavior, but it's not exactly their fault, either. They have an evolutionary drive to seek food by whatever means necessary. They know that food comes from you, so they try everything they can think of to get your attention and shape your behavior towards dispensing kibble.

If you can see grade-grubbing students as creatures exhibiting a behavior that more or less naturally arises out of their personal history and environment, like pets begging for food or rats frantically pushing levers in a Skinner box, you may be able to reduce the sense of personal disgust at their brattiness.

You know how you get cats and dogs to stop begging for food? You completely ignore the behavior and never reward it with food. It's probably impractical to completely ignore your students, but aim for a bland, minimal response. The more you defend your own grading decisions, the more you fuel their argumentative or bargaining tendencies. Yes, ask for their grade-change arguments in writing, which puts the burden of proof on them. Then respond with a one-line email: "The assignment was graded on the merits of the work in relation to the course objectives. The grade stands." You can also cheerfully offer to talk over their preparation strategy for the next assignment during your regular office hours. (In my experience, students rarely take up the offer.)

Anecdotally, when I was teaching writing-intensive college courses I found that grade challenges dropped to zero after I started handing out a fairly detailed set of expectations for student writing at the start of the semester. It was a one-page handout describing in general terms what an A paper looks like, what a B paper looks like, etc. In commenting on papers, I was careful to use language consistent with this handout.
posted by Orinda at 9:39 PM on December 6, 2011 [7 favorites]

Nthing that you not offer extra credit just because someone is coming to your office upset that they didn't get the grade they wanted. This is not "helping them learn," unless what you want them to learn is that they really are entitled to that A they wanted and all they really need to do is complain to the teacher if they didn't get it the first time around. This might make them happy in the short term, but in the long term it is not helping them or anyone else who is going to have to deal with them in any capacity. Remind yourself that in addition to teaching them the course material on your syllabus, the way that you respond to their grade disputes can help them learn they have to own the consequences of their actions (or lack thereof).

Some students are talking to you not because they want to understand how they can do better in the future, but because they want you to give them the grade they want, now. You just have to get comfortable with the fact that no clarification or discussion on your part is going to make such students happy ... but that's okay. You don't have to make them happy. You don't have to continue justifying a grade until they are satisfied with the explanation. Students should feel welcome to come talk to you if they want clarification of something you've written, or if they would like to understand the types of things they might do to improve their work in the future ... but these talks should never be framed as an opportunity to negotiate for a new grade (or as a forum for you to have to defend the grades you have already given). Point students back to the criteria you have laid out in your syllabus and any assignment sheets you've made, refer them back to the feedback you've provided, be willing to clarify any points of confusion if need be ... and that's enough.

It's always helped me to remember this: Lots of students want an A, but my job isn't to give them that A. My job is to provide them the opportunity to earn it. Not through extra credit after the fact, not through complaints, not through last-minute negotiating, but by meeting the criteria laid out at the beginning of the semester such that by the end they've actually learned what the course was meant to teach them.
posted by DingoMutt at 9:45 PM on December 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

Lilac Girl brings up a good point. The teacher that I respected most required you to submit not only the written explanation of why you would like a better grade, with the caveat that it would be disposed of immediately for errors in grammar or logic, but also a written plan or draft for the next assignment (which was simple because this sort of assignment was weekly or more frequent in her classes, and you would be expected to have the next assignment in progress by the time you were appealing the previous one.) due that week. If you repeated mistakes even when going through these steps with her, you got a LOWER grade on your next assignment. "Grades are a reflection of learning. Negative consequences are a reflection of repeated mistakes."

Or, to be short: the way to deal with entitled students is to set limits and stick to them. The stricter, the better.

You are NOT a mean person for setting limits, even if your students are not used to them.
posted by SpecialK at 9:45 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

What do I say to them to basically re-iterate what I've already written in their assignments, and get it to stick? How do I respond to these "but I tried!!!" kinds of comments, kindly and politely?

For papers, sit them down and completely tear apart their arguments. Point out every logical flaw, false statement, rambling sentence, and the like. Then you can explain to them that they got a B or C paper because of all those above. Point out enough flaws and they will see that they really didn't try hard enough. Just writing it in their papers isn't enough, because how many do you think actually read them after they've already gotten the grade??

One of my writing TAs did this with a draft for a paper I wrote in front of the entire writing discussion section in my freshman year of college. He even had the section help in tearing apart every aspect of the paper. I ended up with only having 1 argument in the entire 10 paged paper left standing. Embarrassing?? Yes. Did it crush my slight sense of cockiness when it came to writing? Hell yes. Did I do better in the class? Definitely.
posted by astapasta24 at 9:53 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Whatever you end up deciding on this issue, please do not see yourself as old and crotchety. This is a subtle tactic of an entitled generation, actually, to act as if standards are old-school. We aren't old and crotchety, we are the old guards that are protecting something precious for society at large which cannot be bought simply with tuition dollars. That is the mindset that we battle against. Those who are willing to sell their birthright for a bowl of something warm and cheap will often not understand this.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:58 PM on December 6, 2011 [17 favorites]

Best answer: Because you're a tutor, it sounds like, and not the person actually grading: I have done some tutoring and had people just as frustrated with the answer keys and stuff on the practice materials. I usually came back to the same thing: "Yes, you worked very hard, and that's why you're getting better and better at this. Nobody's ever perfect; *I'm* not perfect at this. It's not that your effort wasn't 'good enough', it's that you just need to keep doing it and keep getting better. Now, here are the areas we can see progress in, and here are the areas we're going to focus on next."

Take the focus off "I lost points here and therefore they think I am bad at it but I tried and I'm totally not bad at this" and onto "this reflects an area that just needs additional development". Granted, I found that with the ones I dealt with, it might have sounded entitled at first, but there was a lot of anxiety behind it, feeling like they weren't going to be able to keep up at the level they were supposed to, that sort of thing, and just some general confusion as to why they, who had always been rewarded in the past for their intellectual prowess, were getting really awful practice test score.

I also usually end up with a discussion at some point about how, like, in high school, the standards were at one level, and maybe they did great there. (Well, probably they did, with the sorta stuff I tutor, which is grad school entrance stuff.) In early undergrad classes, the standard is a step up from there. Later undergrad, another step. Graduate school, another. I try to emphasize that it's not about showing that anybody's a failure; you've just already succeeded at that lower-level stuff. Which really proves that yes, you can kick it up a notch and do great at this higher level of expectation, too.

I had a key where I could specifically point to why something was a better answer and whatever, though. If you're doing a lot of writing stuff, I might suggest that it could help some of them if they could be provided with some examples of academic writing at the level they're supposed to be achieving. I know that in my own graduate work, it was really hard to figure out what I was supposed to be aiming for until I'd found some examples of the sorts of documents I was trying to write.
posted by gracedissolved at 10:01 PM on December 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

One of my colleagues, who offers extra credit (I do not) says that his students will work very intensely on "extra credit," work which, if it had been applied to the original assignment, would have obviated the need for extra credit.

Some students are, as said above, just whiners. I once helped a student as an undergrad writing tutor, for far longer than the 15 minutes suggested by the Writing Center (no one else had come by that evening). He apparently said to a mutual friend of ours that I was "a dick." Good to know he appreciated my helping him raise his grade on that assignment.

Finally, if/when you get "I pay $xxxxx to go here" (by which they usually mean their parents or loans provide that much) and are thus "entitled" to better treatment (or any of this other spurious student-as-consumer stuff), respond with what another colleague of mine told me:

"You pay a doctor a lot of money, but you don't want him to tell you that you are in good health when that's not the case. Likewise with teaching: you pay me [indirectly] to evaluate you. I am trying to be honest about that evaluation, which is: ...."
posted by dhens at 10:09 PM on December 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

Speaking as a high school teacher, I see the same thing, and really the answer is the same as what others have said. There are multiple chances to improve though, as there are far more assignments given in a high school class than in a college class.

However: multiple drafts are great - the best essays I get are the ones where we do multiple drafts and the first few aren't even graded. They're just marked up. It takes time, but some of that can be peer editing, or you can ask them to go to the writing centre on campus.

I don't know that it's helpful to think of them as "entitled brats" - but their behaviour is certainly annoying. Help them figure out what college writing looks like: give them clear examples and rubrics, and ask them to complete required, ungraded drafts.

nthing the idea about having them submit their complaint in writing when they want to argue about a grade is a good idea.
posted by guster4lovers at 10:14 PM on December 6, 2011

Best answer: In addition to some of the things above, I try to acknowledge what they're feeling and then redirect it. For the students who say, "But I tried really hard this time!" I say, "If I could give As for effort in college, I'm sure you'd get one. However, that's not how it works at this level. Let's look at what will help you do better next time." Often, that includes pre-final-draft work that they failed to complete when I asked them to. I ask, "Did you read through the examples in the textbook?" or "How did you demonstrate X?" or "Did you visit the writing center or have a friend read over this?" or "Remember that draft I asked you to complete? You would have gotten these comments on that draft had you actually submitted it."

For some classes on some assignments, I do allow rewrites. However, to be eligible for a rewrite the student must have completed the whole assignment (met minimum page counts + any other requirements like drafts, outlines, or peer conferencing) and turned it in on time. If they don't do those basic things, they aren't eligible for a rewrite because why should I spend extra time re-grading something they didn't bother to do with sufficient effort the first time around. These criteria weed out the lazy ones and the ones who thought they could do the assignment hours before it was due without the recommended/required preparation work.

Then I average the grade on the rewrite with the original grade. That keeps them accountable for doing well on the assignment the first time. If I sense that they're trying to BS me at any point in this process, I also have them write a paragraph saying what they changed and why. They have to resubmit the original graded paper with the rewrite so I can compare them, and they aren't guaranteed a better grade.

'Tis the season for student complaints. I've had some doozies this semester already, so I think I may cover my desk with bubble wrap this week so when I bang my head on it, it won't hurt as much...
posted by BlooPen at 10:41 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Yes, you worked very hard, and that's why you're getting better and better at this. Nobody's ever perfect; *I'm* not perfect at this. It's not that your effort wasn't 'good enough', it's that you just need to keep doing it and keep getting better. Now, here are the areas we can see progress in, and here are the areas we're going to focus on next."

You need a model essay or handout with descriptions of what A, B, C, D work looks like, and you need to frame your discussion with students as "discussion" that's aimed at improvements for next time.
It's also helpful to remember to point out what they have done right. If they got a B, they did a lot of things right, even though there's room for improvement; it's worth pointing out whatever you can find that is a good idea, nice phrase, good structure, clear transition, etc.

Something else that is helpful is sometimes to have the student write an outline of their argument up on a chalkboard and walk you through what they were trying to do in the paper. This helps you to separate your comments about their argument, their essay structure, and their nuts-and-bolts writing, and it brings the paper more to life in their mind. (It's most helpful to do this after someone has written a first draft of a paper where they'll be turning in a second draft.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:43 PM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've often found that getting the student to try to recreate their argument, talking through it and putting an outline up on the board (in my office), makes them see places where it's not clear, places where their evidence isn't strong enough, etc. This kind of meeting does take time, though.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:46 PM on December 6, 2011

Examples, examples, examples.

It is extremely difficult for students to meet your standards when they don't have a concrete example of what you are looking for. Showing them A papers as well as grading drafts (so that they know what they are doing wrong before it is too late) help tremendously.
posted by Shouraku at 11:46 PM on December 6, 2011

I am not a teacher (IANAT?)- just pointing this out because it seems that it hasn't come up yet, and it's certainly something people were aware of happening when I was at uni in the humanities and something I assume is still widespread now.

Namely...keep your eyes open for students who appear not to have written their own work, or to have had their work very heavily "edited" by someone else. Sometimes, a student asking for very detailed feedback on why they didn't get an A might be doing so because their work was written (or very substantially re-written) by someone who promised them a particular grade, or even because it comes from a paper bank (these were maintained by frats, sororities, and church groups at my uni) and they know that it got an A in a similar class several years ago. They might be looking for substance for their complaint to the writer, or acting out of frustraton that they didn't get what they paid for.

I would add, here, that while some people back in my day outright bought papers in order to get out of doing the work needed to write them, some of the students (especially the ESL students) back in my (ancient) day who did this actually went through apparently 'legitimate' writing-help services, even the writing center at the university itself! They honestly thought that the person who 'revised' their 2-paragraph incoherent text into a 4-page essay with just enough grammatical awkwardness to look like their work was providing a service that everyone used! The writing center people were totally complicit in this a lot of the time. That's my way of saying that everyone else's advice of erring on the side of assuming the best still applies.

A student who can't do some of the things the actual teachers (IANAT) in the thread suggest - outlining their argument on a blackboard, explaining what parts of the paper got marked down and why, etc. might need a talk about really basic writing requirements, like writing your own work and keeping outside help within limits.
posted by Wylla at 3:39 AM on December 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: But I don't want to feel this way. I think these are overall decent kids, and I want to believe they genuinely want to learn and improve.

Your regard for them is contingent on their desire to learn and improve. A lot of people don't take up higher education because of a desire to learn (this sounds crazy to those of us who love learning--teachers are often people who love learning). People are in uni because their parents require it, because it's a prerequisite to a job, because they couldn't think of anything else to do....they're trying to check off the check boxes to get to the next thing. And, sadly, they're not wrong. Most organized things in life (tasks at a job, evaluations, school assignments) are a series of check boxes -- with little regard for quality, engagement, enlightenment.

These are overall decent kids--but they don't genuinely want to learn and improve.

When faced with someone I don't like, I try to remember that I don't know everything about them -- I'm only focused on judging them for what I'm paid to judge them for. Maybe that one plays amazing classical music. Maybe that one takes care of her grandmother at night. Maybe that one was kind once...saved his sister from a fire. I try to remember that there are things that would surprise me to know about each of them.

Ironically, it makes it easier to say no to whatever they're whining for. I'm just saying no to what they want--I'm not considering them a bad person for all time.

My friend says something funny--not sure where he got it ... "I'd love to want to help you..."
posted by vitabellosi at 4:30 AM on December 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

Make copies of A, B, and C papers.
When the students come to complain, tell them "I want you to see some examples of A, B, and C work."

99% of the time, the student realizes where they rank and shuts up.
posted by k8t at 4:59 AM on December 7, 2011

Among things I've done over the years:
1) Create a form "request for change of grade" which includes questions like: why do you think your assignment should be judged by criteria other than those used with your fellow classmates?

2) Intentionally overlook certain errors so that the first thing I do on complaints is "notice" these errors and suggest that their grade might go down if I regrade.

3) I do give "extra credit" assignments, but they are available to the entire class, not just the complainers.

4) Hand out a FAQ on the first day of class that gives answers to the usual grade queries and then ask whether they've read it when they complain (usually they didn't.)
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:06 AM on December 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Make copies of A, B, and C papers.

If NA = USA, remember that you have to blot out the students' names. (Thanks, FERPA officer Joe). Another helpful barrier to the whiners is to require in the syllabus that requests to change a grade come within 7 days. Students tend to show up with a load of old assignments once they realize they aren't doing well enough.

I like to have a rubric and leave the top nebulous. Having A = checked all boxes minimally implied by question is unsatisfying. It's nice to keep a few points for exceptionally good responses without incentivizing people to write unnecessarily long answers or feel like they have to read my mind.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:14 AM on December 7, 2011

As a tutor, you might not be able to do some of this, but impress upon the students that school is about learning, and as you learn, you get better. If it is creative writing, then each assignment should be about trying not to make mistakes, making some anyway, and then learning from that. And the grading should reflect that, which is why midterms and final exams are supposed to be scored with more weight than regular assignments.

I would ask them to explain what "tried really hard" means. This may be illustrative.
posted by gjc at 6:43 AM on December 7, 2011

Best answer: Oh, man, is this familiar to me. So familiar that I wonder if you're tutoring where I teach (does the term grease trucks mean anything to you?). Here's what I do when they come whining to me.

First, understand that this is not a problem that they created. They're perpetuating it, sure, and they clearly share some of the blame. But they have been taught to do this. They have been taught to whine, and, more importantly, they have probably been taught that satisfactory completion of all the assigned work merits an A. One of the first things I do is show them what the grades actually mean (your college handbook or course catalog might have this information). That satisfactory completion of all work gets a C. That a B is for good work and a B+ is for very good work. That an A is reserved for excellent work. Even the whiners rarely have the balls to argue that their work is "excellent."

Then, I explain to them what I see as a difficult but fundamental truth about writing - that your writing must stand or fall on its own. That they write a paper, and then that paper moves through the world on its own. They don't get to travel with it and explain how hard they worked, or what they really meant to say - the paper is the paper, and that's what's graded. I emphasize that this is difficult for everyone to accept, and that it can be frustrating. I explain to them that writing well is very hard, and, unfortunately, the only way to get good at it is to do a lot of things wrong for a while and have someone tell you everything you're doing wrong. I acknowledge that that sucks, but insist that it's just the way it is, and tell them some stories from early in my writing career to underline that nobody is exempt from this.

It doesn't always work, but when it does, I think they've learned something more important than anything I can teach them about how to write.
posted by Ragged Richard at 6:57 AM on December 7, 2011 [6 favorites]

But I don't want to feel this way. I think these are overall decent kids, and I want to believe they genuinely want to learn and improve.

One thing that's helped me, silly as it sounds, is to remember that each one of them is a separate person. When I'm teaching, and certain kinds of irritating/pointless behavior are repeated, I catch myself thinking, "There you go again," like it's someone who keeps doing the same thing.

Also, the literal-mindedness ( "I pretty much said the same thing, it's close enough!") is something a lot of students probably more or less believe. They may really not be aware of the level of nuance and subtlety involved in writing a college essay. They don't know that getting an A involves doing something non-obvious. Or, they know that but can't imagine how to find that non-obvious something. Yes, you can show examples of A papers and point out things you would like to see more of. I have a friend who will actually give out tips with paper assignments. ("There's a trap with this type of question; don't fall into it." "Such and such a form of argument is fine but by the end, you must have taken it to the next level.")

Some people still aren't going to come up with A or even B+ papers, though. If you are a teacher, the way you think about writing essays is different from the way some students think. You probably think of papers as a chance to show your stuff or even to play a sort of game with the professor. Someone who doesn't think that way is going to look at an A paper and think the writer is lucky to get those ideas, or just very talented, and they may think it is unfair to require those kinds of flashes of brilliance. Some people, you can prod into writing on a more creative level but some you can't. Those people will keep coming and complaining.
posted by BibiRose at 8:29 AM on December 7, 2011

There's some debate in writing circles about the usefulness of giving sample essays. Too often students just try to match their writing and organization to that of the sample without doing the harder work of figuring out *why* something is stated a particular way or organized the way it is. I'm all for clear statements of grading criteria, which I often give in the form of a checklist that they can use in the revision process. I don't think using samples from the beginning is the best way to help students learn *how* to go through the writing process or develop skills for writing in unfamiliar genres or to unfamiliar audiences.

However, one of my colleagues has started using sample papers at the stage between the first and final draft as a way to help students assess where their draft is and where it needs to go during revision. I think that is more helpful than providing samples from the beginning because the students have to work through the drafting process on their own but also learn how to revise more effectively.

Be very careful about using real student samples and get some guidance on how to use them appropriately without violating privacy laws.
posted by BlooPen at 10:18 AM on December 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you ALL for the very helpful responses. I've already implemented some of these ideas, and feel less frustrated already.

@Wylla: YES. If there's one thing that irks me more than grade grubbing, it's plagiarism. I am merciless when it comes to this.

@Ragged Richard: Sadly, I don't think we're at the same place. Sad because Grease Trucks sound delicious, and sad because this means the problem is widespread.

Currently I'm just a grader, and have no input over how/what things are assigned. But in the future, if/when I have more of an instructor role, I've learned I should:

- Make a rubric of what gets a C, B, A grade, leaving the A section just a little vague.
- Have more than 1 written assignment if possible, with the first being worth less, so students have a chance to screw up, learn, and improve.
- Consider showing examples
(made up, probably, to avoid privacy issues) to demonstrate the differences between bad and good writing/test answers.
- Only accept grade appeals in the form of detailed written requests, no badgering instructors or tutors in the lecture halls or hallways.
- Remember that students will have different priorities than I do, and there's nothing wrong with that. There's also nothing wrong with assigning grades based on MY priorities

Thanks again. Please keep the ideas coming if you have them.
posted by MouseOfHouseofAnony at 11:18 AM on December 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is related to the suggestion to only accept written appeals of grade requests: one way to frame this is to tell the students your policy is that you do not "discuss" grades. You will consider written appeals if a student believes his/her assignment was graded incorrectly, but you won't have any grading discussions.
posted by medusa at 11:25 AM on December 7, 2011

One more thing that from a student perspective would help as well: If there are multiple assignments and someone comes in try to give them clear guidelines about HOW to improve. "I tried really hard" also means "I put more hours into this but I didn't really know what I was doing so my grade didn't change and this is why I'm back. " And of course your bolded items are great as well.
posted by raccoon409 at 3:26 PM on December 7, 2011

I'm grading for a course I'm not teaching, too. I made up a rubric to have at hand while reading each paper during the last round of grading, with criteria (things like "clear thesis," "correct grammar," "fulfills assignment specifications") on the y-axis and "quality" rankings (from "excellent" down to "needs a lot of work") on the x-axis. If they got "excellent" in each criterion category, they got an A or A-; if they got "excellent" in all but one, they got an A- or B+, and so on. I filled out a printout of my rubric for each individual paper, along with room for comments. The students get the papers back, I keep the rubric sheets, and if they have questions I have an easy-to-read record of why they got the grade they got. And as a bonus, it made my grading more consistent across the board, so I felt more confident in each grade I gave out.
posted by oinopaponton at 7:33 PM on December 7, 2011

- Consider showing examples (made up, probably, to avoid privacy issues) to demonstrate the differences between bad and good writing/test answers.

One way to sidestep the privacy issues: when you're handing out your syllabi and stuff on the first day of class, also hand out and collect a simple form which students sign indicating their choice of "I do / do not give MouseOfHouseofAnony permission to use anonymized samples of my writing for educational purposes in future classes," or something like that. Make a little speech about how valuable these materials can be to future students, and emphasize that the students' responses to the form will have no impact on their grades in the current class; you could even go through the ritual of having a student volunteer collect the responses and seal them in a manilla envelope so you don't see them. As you go on through your teaching career you'll accumulate some juicy real-world samples of both bad and good student writing from students with "yes" permission forms.
posted by Orinda at 8:00 PM on December 7, 2011

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