How do I respond to students who are unhappy with their grade?
January 15, 2013 7:25 AM   Subscribe

I'm teaching a college-level creative course, and some of my students have emailed me saying they're dissatisfied with their posted grades. These students have Bs or better. Primarily I want the students to go away, but also I'd like them to understand that a B is a pretty good grade, and that the grades reflect the quality of the students' work and participation in class. I think some students expected As because it's a creative subject and (for them) an elective. Can I just not respond to these emails, or is that an instructor faux pas?
posted by Hoenikker to Education (46 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Are you tenured? Tenure track? What kind of school is it (R1-R2/Masters/Liberal arts/Community college?). What is the department's and universities culture wrt grading? Without this data, answers will be working off incomplete data.
posted by lalochezia at 7:28 AM on January 15, 2013

Well, I am not an instructor or college professor, but I would be pretty pissed off if as a student, the instructor did not reply to my email about something like this.

Frankly, some of the most helpful conversations that I had in college were those with a professor explaining why I didn't get an A.
posted by nolnacs at 7:29 AM on January 15, 2013 [9 favorites]

I'd like them to understand that a B is a pretty good grade

You will not be able to convince them of this, because that's not how that works anymore. At most US educational institutions, anything less than an A is considered sub-optimal. The idea that the majority of a class will get a B+ or less is only really true in a minority of competitive professional schools, e.g., law schools. At the undergraduate level, it simply does not obtain.

Grade inflation at work. It sucks, but that's just how it is. Deal with it.
posted by valkyryn at 7:31 AM on January 15, 2013 [7 favorites]

Is there a rubric on which they were graded? That might be helpful to provide -- although providing it up-front will also be helpful in setting their expectations from the outset.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 7:32 AM on January 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

In my book the best response to this would read something like "It's great to see people taking an interest in how their grades could have been improved! You can find the rubric in such a place. For an A grade on this course, the requirements are to (whatever) and (whatever else)."

Then add brief student-specific feedback if possible.
posted by emilyw at 7:32 AM on January 15, 2013 [15 favorites]

You tell them briefly what you felt was lacking. That you liked what they did, but they needed to participate more or do a little something extra to hit the A.
posted by inturnaround at 7:33 AM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would just say that to them. Most of these complaints tend to disappear when you have a basic rationale for them. It goes a little like this:
1. Your grade reflects your work in class for X, Y, and Z reasons (can you refer to explicit expectations in your syllabus or assignments, or past communications with the class?).
2. A B is a good grade and reflects V and W positive aspects of your performance.
3. Here's what you can do if you're still unhappy.(your department or institution will have procedures for this, usually designed to turn off all but the most wronged-feeling students)

In my experience, some students will try this just to see if they can get you to change it, and a little reasonable resistance from you will dissuade them.
posted by Theophylactic at 7:34 AM on January 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

Yes, you have an obligation to respond. Tell them what you've told us, plus more. Tell them what A quality work looks like, and explain why their work does not meet that standard. Explain to them that the fact that the course is an elective does not mean that they will receive an A in it. And so forth.

If all else fails, you can say, "I do give A's, you know. I gave x number of A's on this assignment [or in this course]. The students who received those A's did better work than you."
posted by kestrel251 at 7:34 AM on January 15, 2013

Worst case: some of these students might be upset and try to confront you in person if they don't get any response from you. I'd make an announcement the first day of class that you don't give everyone an A, that a B is a pretty good grade, and that if they are looking for an easy elective they should take a different class. Then put together a standard form-letter email response that you can fire off when you get emails like this. Students will be more likely to go away if they got some kind of response, even if it is not very obviously personalized.
posted by steinwald at 7:35 AM on January 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: You should respond. A few things you can do- you can pick and choose from these.
1. 24 hour rule- don't allow students to talk to you (or email) about their grades until they've known them for 24 hours, this prevents some of the hot-headed complaints. Announce this every time you return an assignment or post grades.
2. Tell them you'd be happy to meet with them to go over their assignments and why they got the grades they did. Try not to engage them in writing, I find it encourages quick, not thoughtful responses, and students say things that they wouldn't say if they had to look you in the eye.
3. (For next time?) make sure the syllabus is clear on grading - you don't get an A just because you completed all the assignments. You might include a rubric or some other details on the syllabus.
4. (Some people like this strategy, it's not for everyone): tell students they can request a re-grade but they have to request it in writing, and the grade can go down as well as up.
5. Remind them that the grades have to be fair to the whole class- if you raise their grades it is not fair to the students who earned a higher grade.

Since you really just want them to go away, you can deflect by telling them they have to meet with you in person, you don't negotiate grades but you'd be happy to talk, and that this grade was a good one (maybe share the median grade)- if they think they can't get a higher grade they may stop wasting your time.
posted by cushie at 7:35 AM on January 15, 2013 [11 favorites]

There's nothing you'll be able to say to these people. B is failure, if only "failure to get an A."

Give them feedback on why they didn't get the A, but also take the opportunity to refine your rubric and your syllabus to make it clear to future students that they will not get an A just for turning in all of the assignments on time, but make sure your department will back you up on it first.
posted by Etrigan at 7:35 AM on January 15, 2013

You tell them briefly what you felt was lacking. That you liked what they did, but they needed to participate more or do a little something extra to hit the A.

This is a new and horrifying revelation. American undergrad grades depend partly on quality of participation? I'm struggling to see why the quality of written work and probably merely the final exam isn't the only determinant.

People aren't supposed to get higher grades based on talking a lot rather than deep understanding.
posted by jaduncan at 7:35 AM on January 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

Can you check in with another faculty member or your department head to get guidelines for how to respond? Particularly if you don't have tenure/are adjuncting or are in some other way vulnerable (visibly GLBTQ? Person of color in a majority white department? I have heard some amazingly fucked up stuff about those situations locally) it would be great to have some idea of grading norms - then at least if you decide to flout them you'll know what you're doing.
posted by Frowner at 7:40 AM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

People aren't supposed to get higher grades based on talking a lot rather than deep understanding.

In a creative class that may involve critiques and workshops, participation is often a major factor.
posted by Bluestocking_Puppet at 7:40 AM on January 15, 2013 [18 favorites]

Best answer: You can respond to the emails with nothing more than an offer to meet in person if you want. You'll still have to have a slightly painful conversation with some of the students, but they won't all take you up on it. The wording I prefer is "I'd be happy to meet with you to go over your work" — but you may wish to add an explicit disclaimer that the grade is unlikely to change as a result of the meeting. In general you want to avoid framing it either as justification of, or an argument about, the grade, and instead redirect students toward thinking about the specific work they handed you and the specific skills they are learning, and how they could improve them.

You will not be able to convince them of this, because that's not how that works anymore.

This is painted with far too broad a brush, and is absolutely not the case with all individual students or in all campus cultures. "You got a B because you did well in the course, it's not a bad grade" is often a very good way to begin this conversation — and opening this way can greatly change the tone of the rest of the exchange, and the student responses, at least some of the time. It depends on the individual student and how grade-grubby he or she is, as well as his/her specific individual feelings about the grade — but taking the sting out of the perceived insult is often actually more important to the student complaint than rationally justifying, or changing, the grade.

If all else fails, you can say, "I do give A's, you know. I gave x number of A's on this assignment [or in this course]. The students who received those A's did better work than you."

This is a really bad idea. The way to handle these exchanges is to defuse them whenever possible, not escalate into a confrontation by trying to legalistically justify the grade. Unless the student ends up demanding a point-by-point justification of the grade it's a bad idea for the instructor to go there first (and even so it shouldn't be framed negatively as "why this work wasn't an A," implying a checklist of inadequacies, but rather positively as "why this work got the grade it got").
posted by RogerB at 7:42 AM on January 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

I am an office coordinator for an academic department.

When students come to me about grades they are displeased with, this is what I tell them (which is our university policy --- your university probably has a similar policy on how students may pursue grade changes and you should learn it):

1. You must arrange a meeting with the professor in person to discuss the reasons for the grade.

2. If you are then not satisfied with the explanation for the grade (and most students may not be pleased with the grade but come away with a better understanding of it), then you may arrange a meeting with the Chair of our department. The Chair does not have the power to change the grade but can perhaps ascertain a better understanding of why you earned the grade you did. In most cases, my chair backs up the professor's grade and is able to provide additional feedback to the student.

3. If you are THEN not satisfied, you may take your concerns to the Dean of Students Office, and their decision will be final. There is no recourse beyond this. You will need to supply them with a copy of the syllabus and all of your graded work, as well as complete some forms in their office. So after you speak to the professor and then the Chair, I can put you in touch with the Dean of Students Office.

2 happens quite frequently. 3 happens maybe once in three years.

You absolutely 100% need to respond to the students in a timely manner. This is one of your duties as a college instructor. And if you don't respond, whoever is in charge of the department will eventually hear about it and you will have a completely different kind of conversation with that person.

Now, go write some e-mails.
posted by zizzle at 7:42 AM on January 15, 2013 [21 favorites]

Theophylactic has a good rubric for this. I work with TAs who constantly have to explain to students that an 'A' is for nigh-perfect work, not for "But I turned everything in!" Be VERY specific about referring to the requirements in the syllabus and how they did not measure up.

People aren't supposed to get higher grades based on talking a lot rather than deep understanding.

If you are in a class that is explicitly and implicitly participatory, like many humanities classes, then discussion and participation isn't simply "talking a lot", it's crucial to the functioning of the class. Instructors who require participation generally make this clear in their syllabus or on the first day of class.
posted by schroedinger at 7:43 AM on January 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, and those e-mails should include the phrase, "I will be happy to meet with you to discuss this further."
posted by zizzle at 7:43 AM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Did they get in-progress grades or was the grade largely determined by a final project/paper/exam? If the final grade is based on ten roughly-equal assignments spaced over the semester, then obviously they should have known they were going to get a B. But if they were legitimately surprised by the Bs, that's a little different.

I agree with those who recommend rubrics - then you can say "this is what you are being graded on; show me where you think I went wrong/was unfair."
posted by mskyle at 7:44 AM on January 15, 2013

Mod note: Folks, please no more derailing about the mechanics of how education works in the US?
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:45 AM on January 15, 2013

Also, as a coordinator, if I get three or more students from the same class complaining about their grades and THEN complaining the professor didn't respond to them, I contact the professor, and if the professor doesn't respond to me, then I bring it to the chair.

I assure you, this is not a good thing.
posted by zizzle at 7:51 AM on January 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

You should respond to the emails. I would respond that while grades are not negotiable, you are happy to discuss the matter in person. The student can them come during office hours or make an appointment to discuss.

I disagree that you need to accept grade inflation. Why should you? If it were more accurately called "grade lying", perhaps it would not be such a rampant problem for you to deal with. This is the time when colleges claim to be shaping young adults. Now is the time to teach that there isn't a whole lot of "grade inflation" in real life.

You may wish to review the Top Ten No Sympathy lines regarding undergraduate grades. No, a B is not what you get just for showing up and doing all of the assigned work. Since you are the instructor, you know what's an A and what's a B. Explain that to the student. If they don't understand the class well enough to understand the difference between A work and B work, I think a B is a pretty charitable grade.
posted by Tanizaki at 7:53 AM on January 15, 2013 [6 favorites]

I just finished grad school in May, and was a TA for 4 semesters for a course required for all undergrads in the Business School at my private Northeast university.

Again, I don't know what kind of institution you were at, but there was a major sense of entitlement that ranged from I showed up 80% of the time so I deserve an A to my parents pay more than $40K a year for this school, so I deserve an A with lots of "I'm president of my fraternity" or "I'm on the football team."

The best course of action is to be proactive. Set expectations up front as to what is "A" work and what is "B" work. Definitely include in a syllabus everything that goes into the grade so that they know that 15% is participation or that 90% is the final exam or whatever. Set expectations that the whole class won't get an A by stating historical average grades -- so if typically the average for the class is a B minus, they will know. Or if you don't have a problem giving the whole class As if the work is up to par state that now.

I also realize that the type of student in a business school where they are basically being taught to negotiate and be competitive is different than creative writing, YMMV.

As for after the fact, I would not get into discussions via email. If you did have expectations in the syllabus, refer the student to that, and then offer to meet. If they do want to meet, listen and learn. It may change how you do things in the future, it may not.

Sorry for the novel, I just dealt with this a lot. About 100 emails from 100 students every times grades went out. One student stalked me on Facebook during winter break. I have a very common name -- I have no idea how he found me.

Good luck!
posted by hrj at 7:54 AM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Invite them to come to you in person and have a conversation about it.

"Getting a B is a pretty good grade" is not really a response. The way exams work is that if you get everything right on the exam, you get an "A", and a "B" or lower results from wrong answers you got on the test. As far as I am concerned, the reason I got "B"s in a class was because I wasn't able to get the right answers on the exams which would have otherwise allowed me to get an "A". In this case, a B isn't a "pretty good grade"-- it's a function of the fact that I didn't know the material as well which would have allowed me to do better on the exams and labs which would have given me "A"s.

I realize that in a creative class, it is harder to justify in the same way. What your students may be taking issue with is that you didn't set the standards and expectations very clearly for what was "A" work vs. "B" work. You can use these meetings with the students as an opportunity to explain what "A" work is in a creative class.
posted by deanc at 7:58 AM on January 15, 2013

I second/nth the suggestion to shift these conversations to in-person meetings. I don't think doing so will result in a flood of angry students in your office, though you might get a few. The advantages to this approach include being respectful and responsive to students (they do deserve some type of response, especially if you didn't say up-front that you don't discuss grades by email) without engaging them in an email dialogue that has immense potential to turn ugly.

I suspect that firm language about what you will or won't change will weed out most frivolous complainers. Something along the lines of, "I based your grade on the rubric we discussed at the beginning of the semester. I only modify grades if I have made a mistake in applying the rubric, such as mis-calculating points or overlooking extra credit. If you'd like to discuss this further, I'm available at X date/time."

For future classes, it would be best to be explicit about how you grade, whether you're willing to change grades and for what reasons, and how they should contact you about it. When grading is a mysterious process and you see your peers successfully negotiating/demanding higher grades, it can seem like the norm to ask the professor for a better grade if you're unhappy with the one you got.

My experience in this is as a student, spouse of an academic, and employee of various academic departments.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:58 AM on January 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

The one and only time I emailed a professor about a surprisingly low (to me) grade, she explained that she was surprised too. It made me feel like she was on my side, cheering for my good grades and sad on my behalf that I didn't get them rather than punishing me for some perceived slight. It helped a lot.
posted by zug at 8:04 AM on January 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

I don't much like posting "What she said!" comments, but Zizzle has given you some excellent answers in this thread. It's one of the better examples of AskMe putting together someone who has a question and someone who has the relevant expertise to answer. You should take her advice, including researching and learning your school's policies.
posted by cribcage at 8:13 AM on January 15, 2013 [11 favorites]

I asked a question that was similar not too long ago, and got some really helpful answers, in case you haven't already seen the thread.

Stand your ground, but do reply to them. Meet with the students if they are amenable to it -- it's much easier IMO to convey sympathetic-but-firm in person vs. over email. It's annoying I know, but it is part of our jobs. :/

(FWIW, I showed the students a detailed rubric when I first discussed the writing assignment for my next class, as suggested in that thread. The number of complaints about the assignment dropped to almost zero (out of ~60 students) after that. Typically I get maybe 3 out of 60 coming to complain. Not a huge difference with a small class, but I think it would scale up accordingly with a bigger class.)
posted by MouseOfHouseofAnony at 8:25 AM on January 15, 2013

This was the wording I used on my poetry syllabi (I was kind of a bitch when it came to grading, but it cut down on administrative bullshit significantly):

Assignments are graded according to the standards discussed in the grading section of this syllabus. I do not give partial credit for late work; late work will not be graded unless you talk to me 24 hours before the assignment is due to get an extension.

During the semester, if you feel I have graded you unfairly on an assignment, feel free to contact me about it. However, be warned: I may very well decide that I have been too generous, and give you an even lower grade than before. “I worked very hard on this,” “I always got As in my other classes, and “I need an A” are statements that will not endear you to me.

After the conclusion of the semester, I do not make grade changes except in cases of mathematical error. I also will not discuss final grades via email.
Generally, when students came to me with complaints, I told them we could set up an appointment, but they needed to bring all of their assignments with them, and we'd go over them together with the rubric in front of us. No student ever chose to do that (one did skip right to cursing me out about how unfair I was. I sent him to the head of the department, who promptly backed me up).

(The one time I legitimately screwed up, I realized before the student did and corrected it promptly. I'm not a total heartless bitch!)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:29 AM on January 15, 2013 [9 favorites]

Best answer: If all else fails, you can say, "I do give A's, you know.

No. Do not say this. You don't "give" anything. Teachers don't dole out grades; students earn grades. So, you can say that there were students in the class who earned A's, students who earned B's, etc. But the moment the teacher falls into the language trap of "You gave me a B," it reinforces the concept that the grading of students in the class is capricious, and that the instructor, not the students, bears the majority of the burden that determines the grade. This is not true, and a simple change in word choice will reframe the discussion entirely.
posted by tzikeh at 8:30 AM on January 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

Continuing dogpile: you need to respond.

The first thing I would do in your shoes is talk with your chair or other not new profs about what grading expectations are and what the departmental and institutional expectations are for dealing with student complaints. This is probably not the time to rock the boat.

I usually respond along these lines:

"I am always happy to meet with students to discuss their grades or help them understand why they received the grade that they did. You should know ahead of time, however, that I will not change your course grade except to correct calculation or data-entry errors, both of which are rare, so you should not view this as an opportunity to argue for a higher grade."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:40 AM on January 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

I find that as a student currently enrolled in university, a lot of my peers are engaged in a form of bullying where they pressure the professors into giving them better marks. I know of a number that actively seek out professors who seem lenient to bump up their averages this way - in other words, I suspect that at least some of the students coming to you are just making a systematic attempt to reach out to every professor, not just you.

The key is to seem like a professor that they can't intimidate or coerce. Many of the comments above give strategies for dealing with this for sure: set clear expectations, set difficult procedures and regulations for getting a mark changed, request the student to do the legwork, and so forth. I'm urging you not to take it personally, and clamp down on the students more - the tougher you are, the more likely the concern is to actually be valid, and not just a student grubbing for marks. Above all, make sure you put most of the onus on the student - if you're too lenient about remarking procedures, as some of my profs are, you'll find yourself flooded by requests after every assignment and exam.
posted by Conspire at 8:41 AM on January 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

I teach at several colleges and the crux of the issue, for me, is exactly as tzikeh says above:

Teachers don't dole out grades; students earn grades.

In these situations, as others have said, you do have to respond, because otherwise it will escalate and that won't go well for anyone. But these sorts of disputes are the reason why, ideally, you have a (publicly known) grading rubric and a syllabus. Most schools have faculty rules that require the grading policies to be made public by the Nth week of classes. zizzle has given excellent advice, above.

You can respond anywhere on the spectrum from a single-line "please refer to the rubric from the syllabus, you already know your grades on all your assignments" response to treating it as a post-semester teachable moment and helping each student understand how their actions during the semester interact with the course goals and grading rubric to lead to their final earned grade. Where you fall on that spectrum probably depends on your own time management, number of complaints you have to field, how annoying/entitled/etc. that particular student is behaving or has behaved, the kind of involvement you want to have with your students, etc.
posted by range at 8:44 AM on January 15, 2013

I teach HS and I really think it would be unprofessional not to respond (and a bit rude!).

Surely the marks are based on something? Show them the course breakdown, the grades they received for each assignment etc and be factual and call it a day. Do not change grades unless you made a calculation error that is brought to your attention/that you notice. Otherwise you set a bad precedent.

Respond, outline basis of grade, say thanks for your concern/hard work, whatever applies and that's that. Definitely respond though!!
posted by bquarters at 8:49 AM on January 15, 2013

It's hard to add much of value to zizzle's excellent answer, but I just wanted to say:

You are a teacher, and your goal should be that the students come away from the class having learned something. In 10 years they may not remember precisely which books or articles you had them read, but what they will remember is what you taught them about the process of reading comprehension, critical appraisal, giving feedback, and expression of ideas and arguments through writing.

When you look at it this way, it makes sense that you MUST respond to these emails, not just because it's part of what's expected by the students and your department, and you might get in trouble with someone if you don't, but because this is a key learning opportunity - the opportunity to say something meaningful to a student that will change how they approach other coursework or work throughout their career. Yes, some of these students may be just complaining just to complain, and may not care what you tell them about why they didn't get an A if they know you're not going to change their grade, but any student who actually cares about why it happened and how to avoid it happening again will be particularly interested in a true, detailed and personalized response with feedback explaining exactly where the improvement is needed.

I am assuming that feedback during the course itself mainly consisted of a grade on an assignment plus a few short scribbles at the end of the paper and marks like check marks or x's in the paper. Maybe if they were lucky a sentence or two of typed feedback. These are what my grades were like in college, and I understand that teachers have little time to give much more. However, such methods of grading do a poor job at addressing the details of a student's performance and telling them how they could improve in the future. Also, as many commenters have pointed out, I've found that many things in life involving getting complaints from others involve a failure of expectations. Set the expectations appropriately by providing enough detailed feedback ahead of time, and your complaint numbers will plummet.

Think of responding to these students as not just a lesson for them, but a lesson for yourself. I am a strong believer in the fact that giving good feedback to those you teach and mentor is an art and a skill which very few people can do well. Practice and master that art and you will become that much more an effective teacher.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:53 AM on January 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

Nthing that you must respond, even if it is boilerplate that you arrived at the grade via graded assignments and assessments of XYZ and that appointments can be made to discuss.

I teach at several colleges and the crux of the issue, for me, is exactly as tzikeh says above:

Teachers don't dole out grades; students earn grades.

Well, hopefully this is true. I suspect it almost always is, but it's part of why our institution is strident that students get a syllabus put in their hand at the first class and that it spells out how grades will be determined, even if it's just to roughly outline the types of assignments that will be given.

Folks like jaduncan may be aghast, but my syllabus last semester made it clear that participation is a small but important piece of final grading. That's underscored by my explanation that the whole reason we gather together is to discuss and learn via each other's questions and observations.

All of this hopefully helps set the stage for students not being able to claim they didn't understand what was necessary for their grading. Yes, understanding and competency is the end goal but we need some way to arrive at it. Hopefully you'd communicated your basis for this so nobody suddenly is surprised to hear participation was factored in or that the last paper was worth three of the early ones, etc.

Not that you can't justify a grade even if your process was opaque up-front, but I think it's best for everyone if you can say "you knew this was what was examined" and then can rattle off concrete numbers for how it was put together. That's how I responded to my one emailed complaint last semester; I was able to simply paste the lines for that student from my spreadsheet and show "these are all the places you were no show, here's indication that you elected to do none of the flex assignments, your grade for the final presentation reflected that it was adequate but you did the bare minimum and clearly put no thought into section 4."

I doubt that student was happy with the response and it was a waste of 15 minutes of my life to tell what was already known, but it's part of the job. Since the expectation had been set initially and I had concrete data for all the grading components it made the response simpler and fairly bulletproof against challenges of subjectivity.
posted by phearlez at 9:06 AM on January 15, 2013

In addition to what others have said about taking to the students, you should double check and make sure there isn't an error on your part somewhere, too. I got a final grade once that was substantially lower than I thought it should be - it turns out the TA entered a 38 where an 83 should have been for a major exam.

Which isn't to say that you are wrong, but mistakes do happen.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 9:09 AM on January 15, 2013

Primarily I want the students to go away

That is the wrong approach. These students are paying for their education and deserve to understand why they did not get a grade they felt their work was on par with. You will of course run into those that feel they deserve and A no matter what, but that's different.

I'd like them to understand that a B is a pretty good grade

You are correct, it is a good grade, but you need to explain to those that ask why exactly you knocked them down and where they missed some marks.

Can I just not respond to these emails, or is that an instructor faux pas?

Faux pas. You have a duty as their professor to respond to their emails and address their concerns with their work and your class so that they can become better in the subject. offer up a one on one meeting, and tell them to bring any applicable work they feel applies to the situation.

If you don't already have a very specific set of credentials written out about what constitutes an A, B, C, D and F then I suggest you work on that immediately so you can hand those out at the beginning of a semester.

Please also keep in mind that these students have an obligation to themselves to be following-up with you through a semester if they have any concerns, and especially if they see their work getting Bs when they thought their work was of a higher caliber. That would have also given them the opportunity to learn and adapt their work to your judging scale.

To be clear: I would be absolutely pissed off if my professor ignored my emails.
posted by zombieApoc at 9:33 AM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

The "I do give As" statement isn't necessarily a terrible one, depending on how it's framed. I took a class once with some very difficult midterms and after each midterm the professor showed a graph displaying the distribution of scores. I think the people who got 70s were a lot less likely to complain when they found out that put them in the top half of the class. You might consider doing something like that. (Although this was for a very technical course, it might work less well with a creative one.)

But yeah, you also have to explain how you came up with the grade. What's the point of grading intermediate work if the students come away without knowing what they did wrong or how they could have done better? You might as well just hide all the interim grades and give everyone a final mark on their transcript.
posted by phoenixy at 9:38 AM on January 15, 2013

One metaphor I've borrowed from a colleague in cases like this that allowed me to frame what grades mean on creative or otherwise open-ended academic assignments is to bring up the way that dives are scored in the Olympics. There is an execution component, but also a difficulty factor, which means you can execute an unambitious idea perfectly, and still not be able to get a perfect 10. An A paper works the same way, in my classroom: you have to be both bold enough conceptually and competent enough in the way you execute your argument to be deserving of top marks.

Many students assume that they begin with 100% on an assignment, and provided that they can get to the end without accumulating too many errors, they deserve an A. I make it clear to them that they actually start with a 0, and only through a combination of the factors above can make it to an A.

I'm at a pretty unselective, mid-tier midwestern liberal arts college. My course evals tend to say I'm a "tough but fair" grader. So I disagree with valkryn above; in my experience if students are taught the value and meaning of a B, they'll learn to respect it and (in some cases) use that as inspiration to work harder. Stand your ground, you owe it to your students.
posted by dr. boludo at 9:45 AM on January 15, 2013 [8 favorites]

I'm a TA, and I agree with the above suggestions to offer to meet with students in person, and ask them to bring along all previous graded assignments. This will head most people off at the pass. When you meet with students, as much as possible, orient the conversation AWAY from justifying the grade the student received, and TOWARD "here's how you can improve on future assignments of this type." Regardless of whatever snotty emails I've received from a student, I always approach this type of meeting treating the student 100% as if they are honestly trying to improve their writing/test taking strategies/etc. - and for almost all students, being treated that way puts them in that mindset.

For the future, I would be very clear from the first day of class that the course is not an "easy A", and that folks who want to avoid a B on their transcript should take the class pass/fail if it is merely an interesting elective to them rather than something they will put significant effort into. For assignments, I also like to hand out a grading rubric and discuss it with some detail with students BEFORE the assignment is turned in, so that they know what I'm basing my grade on.

All of these strategies have greatly cut down on my number of grade grubbers. For those who are criticizing this poster for 'just wanting these students to go away' - well, maybe you haven't taught in an institution with lots of grade grubbing, but let me tell you, it is annoying and disrespectful as heck, and so I totally sympathize! Yes, the poster should respond, but this type of behavior on the part of students is often super over-the-top and obnoxious. Good news is, you can train them not to do it. :)

Also - look into your university's policy for grade changes after final grades are posted (assuming these are final grades from fall semester). Our university has a policy that final grades can never be changed except in the case of a clerical error.
posted by rainbowbrite at 11:00 AM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

For undergraduates, I schedule two days of office time at the end of each semester. I always try to have someone else in the room, it might be a TA though I prefer a colleague. Each student gets a thorough discussion of their performance and what to do better. I hate those days because lots of students cry and I feel bad, but it must be done.

In my view, students need to know where they are at as early as possible, which places a huge amount of responsibility on the professors at the undergraduate level. This should be acknowledged.

(at an art school)
posted by mumimor at 11:00 AM on January 15, 2013

Having a very clear grading rubric helps diminish the quantity of grade complaints, in my experience.

My own response was always "I am sorry you are unhappy with your grade. If you'd like to meet with me and review the grading rubric and why I felt you earned the grade you received, feel free to make an appointment during my office hours so we can discuss it".

Maybe 25% of students followed up on that.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:01 AM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

The process zizzle outlined above for when students go over the instructor's head is reasonable and fair. If you are in a "precarious" position (graduate student teaching your own course, adjunct, not yet tenured), however, it might not apply to you. Instead, you might be told -- in no uncertain terms -- by the powers that be to change the grade, and that you will have to be "more careful" (=lenient) from now on.

Determing how I came to this insight is left as an exercise for the reader.
posted by dhens at 2:28 PM on January 15, 2013

I'd like them to understand that a B is a pretty good grade

You are correct, it is a good grade, but you need to explain to those that ask why exactly you knocked them down and where they missed some marks.

I think this is a slippery slope when you are trying to deal with students who are arguing their grade.

You do not want to give the impression that everyone starts with an A and then gets knocked down -- that will encourage the "I deserve an A" behavior.

All grades are earned by the quality of work as laid out -- if you did B work, you will get a B.

Off soap box now.
posted by hrj at 2:32 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Following up on hrj's point, I like this piece on grading, even if it is too religious and conservative at points.

Basically, students don't start at 100% and get points "taken off;" they start at 0% and get points "added on" to reflect their mastery of the subject/quality of their work.
posted by dhens at 2:38 PM on January 15, 2013

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