Monday, June 24, 2013

Free advice to students about talking to professors about grades, part I

I just finished my grading for the term, and as is typical, a number of students approached me as the term wound down to discuss their grades and how to improve them. These discussions generally focus on these two concerns:

  1. Students want to improve their grades by having me change the grading standards or expectations in some ways.
  2. Students want to improve their grades by performing better in class.
In my experience, students often handle these discussions poorly, especially in regard to concern 1. Here I have some advice for students about concern 1 — I'll save advice about concern 2 for another post.
So discussions of the first kind involve students wanting better grades by persuading me to change my grading standards or expectations.

The student might claim that my standards or expectations are unfair or unreasonable. To persuade me of this, you'll need to point to more than the fact that you are struggling in my course. You'd need, at a minimum, to show me that many students are. I'm very willing, for example, to throw out an assignment if it turned out to be abnormally or freakishly challenging. (One nice thing about LMS's is you can see score averages, etc., very easily.) But to be frank, if you've been in one of my courses before and got a D, or you're a non-major enrolled in an upper level philosophy course, that you're getting a C isn't evidence that the standards are unfair or unreasonable. To the contrary: It's evidence that the standards probably gauge, with some accuracy, students' ability and preparation. 

Asking me to change the standards or expectations also runs into another barrier: Students in the course have already been operating under these standards or expectations and have tailored their efforts to those expectations. Suppose I were to lower the standards or expectations for a course. Some students will have been successful under the existing standards. They can legitimately complain that they exerted more effort or energy than they needed to.

The larger lesson: Don't expect to have standards modified because it's good for you. That's not how life works, and expecting it to work that way is a recipe for disappointment. Before asking for a change in standards or expectations, ask yourself: Are my reasons among those all the other students could endorse, or am I engaging in special pleading?

And of course there's the plea for extra credit. First, I think it's important to underscore the 'extra' in extra credit. I'm not against giving students a chance to redo coursework (retake tests, rewrite papers, etc.). But as I've explained before, I'm strongly opposed to students doing more work to earn a better grade. I haven't wavered on my reasons: it rewards doing more rather than doing well (which isn't all that conducive to learning); extra credit (since it must be made available to everyone) essentially becomes assigned work; etc. 

But since I'm trying to give advice to students here, students should keep in mind two things: First, you're asking me to do more work. I have to create an additional assignment (and grade it too!). I'm not necessarily opposed to this, but students should keep in mind that extra credit is not cost-free for instructors. It's a favor, and you shouldn't necessarily expect even the most conscientious or devoted instructors will always go the extra mile in this regard. (And what if you do poorly on the extra credit assignment(s)? Are you expecting your instructors to go a second extra mile in that case?) 

Second, in asking for extra credit, you're implicitly suggesting that the coursework required of you somehow doesn't reflect your true abilities or knowledge. In other words, extra credit makes sense only if your performance on what was required didn't really capture your abilities or knowledge, so extra credit is warranted as a way to better enable you to display your abilities or knowledge. With that in mind, you should propose extra credit in the specific, not the general. Come to me with a specific idea of what the extra assignment might be, and more importantly, why the assignment would better display your abilities or knowledge. Doing so takes some of the sting out of the point above: I'm more likely to provide an assignment if I'm persuaded that the regular assignments failed to adequately measure your abilities or knowledge.

Finally, two general points. Come early. It's a lot easier to help you if you come early in the term rather than later. And in general, it's fairer and less stressful to change standards, add extra credit, etc. early in the term rather than later. Lastly, understand your options. Most institutions will provide other options or resources to help you. You might be able to take an 'Incomplete' or Pass/Fail grade for the course, or there might be academic resources (tutoring and the like) to help you.


  1. When a student asks me for an extra credit assignment, my response is usually to point out that the reason they're in this spot is because they haven't devoted the time and effort necessary to perform at an acceptable level (that's almost always the problem, at least in my courses, rather than simple inability). XC would only make it harder to devote more attention to the regular course content, and so would be counterproductive.

    So I would add one more nugget of advice: If you come to me to ask for extra credit, be able to show that you'll be able to do it IN ADDITION to working more diligently on the regular content, rather than using it as a substitute.

  2. I am sure most academics are objective in their judgements of students and grade them on the grounds of merit only - yet again as a Southern European (from Socrates' Land)after obtaining 3 post grad degrees in the UK I have more than enough evidence that favouritism and racial discrimination are on the menu (especially when 2 examiners mark your work and there is over a 10-point difference in their scores). The law may be that you cannot argue with academic assessments (no appeals systems applies) you just have to grin and bare it (may be but I can always blog on the subject and write my own monograph on it)

  3. I once told a 'student' asking for XC 'Sure and while we're at it we'll replay the World Series too, which the Yankees should have won.' They simply refuse to accept responsibility for their poor performances.

  4. Does adding one or two extra credit assignments to the syllabus cut down on requests for extra credit or grade changes later on? I'd rather grade a few extra credit assignments during each semester than deal with the petitions.


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