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A Memo to Students about Unexpected Grades

Memos to Students

A Memo to Students about Unexpected Grades

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It doesn’t make any sense. You worked hard on that assignment, studied long hours for the test. You’re upset—texting complaints and spouting off to friends. Why not talk to me? Let me start with some reasons why you should.

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To: My Students
From: Your Professor
Subject: That Grade That Wasn’t What You Expected

It doesn’t make any sense. You worked hard on that assignment, studied long hours for the test. You’re upset—texting complaints and spouting off to friends. Why not talk to me? Let me start with some reasons why you should.           

  • Teachers make mistakes. We grade lots of student work, and sometimes we do so when we’re tired.
  • The grade will stay the same if you don’t talk to me. It won’t magically change on its own.
  • If you don’t understand why or how you got this grade, chances are good you’ll get another one just like it.
  • Teachers (me included) are impressed when students want to do better, when a lower than expected grade motivates them to talk with the teacher.
  • I have been known to change grades. Not often, but it’s happened more than once.

Now let me give you some hints on handling the conversation.

  • You want the grade changed, but that shouldn’t be your only objective for the conversation. You also want to get a clear understanding of what was problematic with your work. The goal is to not make the same mistakes again.
  • Think about what you’re going to say beforehand.
  • If it’s an assignment, look at how it’s described in the syllabus or on the course website and then review what you submitted. Come up with some questions; write them down if need be. If you don’t understand something I’ve written, ask for more details or an example (or both). I’m happy to explain my feedback.
  • What about redoing parts of the assignment? Do you have the time? Are you willing to work more on it? Once a student told me what she’d like was another chance to learn what her grade indicated she hadn’t learned. That was music to my ears.
  • Let’s talk about the next assignment. What you propose to do differently? Would you be interested in suggestions I might have?
  • If it’s an exam score, identify the test questions you’d like to discuss. Explain why you chose the response. If you can, point out evidence in the text or your notes that supports your answer.
  • Let’s talk about the next exam. Do you plan to do anything different? Would you be interested in some research-based study strategies—ones that have been shown to improve exam scores?

As long as I’m giving advice, there are few things I’d rather not hear when you ask to have your grade changed.

  • Try to get over your outrage before the conversation. Yes, you can still feel strongly that the grade is not what your work deserved, but hearing you carry on with great emotion makes me uncomfortable and isn’t especially persuasive.
  • I’d rather not talk about your grade in front of other students, especially if you’re going to let me have it. If so, I will do what most folks do when they’re attacked: defend their decisions.
  • These arguments for a better grade are pretty much guaranteed not to work:
    • “I spent hours on this assignment!” Teachers hear this from students all the time. Maybe you did; how are you going to prove it? Moreover, most teachers (me included) believe that grades measure performance, not effort.
    • “I need a better grade so I can keep my scholarship.” That may be true, but teachers (me included) don’t think they give grades. We think students earn them.
    • “I always got As in high school. I’ve never gotten a grade this low.” It’s possible to be a very good student and still get a low grade now and then. A grade is a measure of one performance, not an indication of your value as person. You’ve got all sorts of intellectual potential. Let’s talk about this performance and how you can improve the next one.
    • “I have to work to pay for school, so I don’t have a lot of time to spend on assignments.” Unfortunately, that’s true for many students today. Most teachers understand the difficulties of combining work and school, but we can’t compromise grading standards because your life is complicated. Grades measure what a student knows and can do.
  • Finally, a conversation about getting a grade changed is not the time to tell me how wonderful you think I am and how much you love the class and content. Lovely of you to say, but it doesn’t magically motivate me to change the grade.

Please come and see me. It’s a conversation I’m happy to have with you.

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