“This is not a C paper!” “This answer deserves more points.” “Half of my work on this problem is correct, but I got less than half credit.” Grades are terribly important to most students, so when they object to a grade, they often do so with passion. For most professors, discussing contested grades is not a favorite conversation. Often, it doesn't end well. The grade can't be changed, and the student can't be persuaded. However,…
“This is not a C paper!” “This answer deserves more points.” “Half of my work on this problem is correct, but I got less than half credit.” Grades are terribly important to most students, so when they object to a grade, they often do so with passion. For most professors, discussing contested grades is not a favorite conversation. Often, it doesn't end well. The grade can't be changed, and the student can't be persuaded. However, teachable moments are still possible in these conversations. Here are some dos and don'ts for making the most of these exchanges.
Don't discuss an individual student grade in front of other students. Grades are personally private information, and so are the discussions about them. Besides, student emotions run high just after receiving a grade, especially one they didn't expect. They'll get more out of the conversation once there's some space between getting the grade and having the discussion about it.
Do have the conversation with the student in your office or some other place, where the two of you can talk comfortably. There are reasons to anticipate the conversation. It's an opportunity to get to know the student better. You get to talk more about the content, possibly helping the student understand something important. You can show the student that disagreements can be discussed constructively.
Do prepare for the conversation. Ask for or make a copy so you can reread the answer before talking with the student. Or, before the conversation begins, ask for silence while you look at the student's work.
Do listen. In fact, start the conversation by listening to the student. Let the student make the case for why the paper, answer, or problems merits more points or a higher grade.
Do ask questions, lots of them. “Where in this answer do you discuss what the text says about this?” “Where is your thesis statement?” “How did you get from this step in solving the problem to this step?” “Can you show me something in your notes that says this?”
Don't go into the conversation assuming you won't change the grade. Chances are you won't, but don't let that be a foregone conclusion. Perhaps the grade is too low. Teachers grade a lot. They grade when they're tired. They've been known to grade when they're distracted. They do, on occasion, make mistakes.
Don't tell the student that he or she is wrong. Focus on the answer. What's not right about the answer?What's confusing or unclear? What's not there that should be?
Don't try to persuade the student that the grade is correct. It may well be, but the student isn't likely to be persuaded and your attempts at persuasion will be met with arguments (the same ones or new ones). Then you have to respond, and, as these exchanges continue, more emotion enters the conversation. State your decision, explain your reasons, smile, and change the subject.
Do spend time talking about the next paper, essay question, or problem. What does the student need to better answer next time? Be specific and concrete. Be encouraging. “Keep coming to class, do the homework, and stop by office hours if you need help or if you'd like some feedback. When you study, ask yourself potential questions and then practice answering them. You can do better.” Students will have learned something if they leave the conversation with a better understanding of what makes an answer good or a solution worth full credit. And they will have learned even more if they have some ideas about preparing those answers.
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