Preventing grade grubbing

One of the most annoying parts of any professor’s job is dealing with students asking to have their grades raised, sometimes called “grade grubbing”. I emphasize that I’m not talking here about students who want to better understand why they lost marks, or students pointing out mistakes in how their work was marked, or students asking to be excused from coursework for legitimate reasons, or etc. All that’s completely fine and not annoying at all! I’m talking about students who just ask for a higher mark in the course than the one they earned. Perhaps because they “worked hard” in the course, or “need” high marks to get into med school, or were “expecting” a higher grade, or were “close” to earning a higher grade, or “always get A’s in other classes”, or etc.

I can appreciate where such requests come from. Students rightly care about their marks. But it’s annoying when an understandable desire to receive a high mark gets expressed in an obviously inappropriate way, as a request to increase a mark.

In my admittedly anecdotal experience, only a small minority of students make such requests (sometimes several from an intro-level class of 100+ students). Those requests are a small problem in the grand scheme of things. But still, it’d be nice to have a solution to the problem.

Obviously, no faculty member can grant baseless requests to raise grades. To do so would be unfair to other students, not to mention against college or university rules. But receiving such requests is annoying, and dealing with them one-by-one is inefficient. In an ideal world, no student would ever make such a request.

So here’s what I’ve started doing.

At the end of the term, either shortly before or else at the same time as the final course marks are posted, I put a note to the students on the course website. In it, I say the following (most of which just reminds students of what they should already know):

  • I thank the students for their hard work in the course. I do this to start on a positive note.
  • I congratulate the class as a whole for doing a very solid job in the course (aside: which they invariably have done). I provide the median course mark. I do this to continue on the positive note. Without saying so, I’m also rebutting in advance any request to raise a grade on the grounds that the course was unreasonably hard. It couldn’t have been unreasonably hard if the class as a whole did fine.
  • I tell the students that the marks have now been finalized by the registrar, but that I am happy to correct errors, for instance because of a mistake in assessment or because a mark was calculated incorrectly. Students who don’t understand why they lost marks or who believe their mark was calculated incorrectly are welcome to contact me. This makes clear to students the appropriate reasons to ask me for a change of mark.
  • I tell the students that, except for correcting mistakes in assessment and mark calculation, I cannot change any grades for any reason. Fairness demands, and university rules require, that all students be marked according to the same standards, so that all students receive the marks they earned. I can’t just raise your grade, so please don’t ask me to do so; I will ignore any such requests. I say all this because in my experience, students who ask to have their mark raised are thinking only of themselves. By calling their attention to people and things other than themselves (other students, fairness, university rules), I hope to forestall such requests.
  • Any student who wishes to appeal their mark may do so via the university’s formal appeals procedure. The choice to appeal a mark is entirely your decision; there is no need to notify me of your intent to appeal. I say this to remind students of the appropriate way to appeal a grade. I also say it because very occasionally students email me threatening to formally appeal their grade. Perhaps under the mistaken impression that I’ll somehow get in trouble if they appeal, or that threatening to formally appeal will get me to change their grade. Such emails are annoying to receive.
  • I thank the students again and wish them all the best in their future studies. I do this to end on a positive note.

All this is more or less what I used to say to students individually when they asked me to raise their grades. By saying it to the whole class when final grades are posted, I hopefully won’t get any requests to raise grades in the first place. So far, in a small sample size, it seems to be working fairly well.

Note that I could say this at the start of the term. But I save it to the end, because in my experience nothing I say about grading policies at the start of term will affect student behavior at the end of term.

Recently, my university has started including standard language in all course outlines (called “syllabi” at many institutions) regarding reappraisal of grades. In future, I’ll probably just quote this standard language in my note, rather than going to the trouble of writing different words that say the same thing.

My approach isn’t perfect. There’s a risk that some students will misread my note as saying that I won’t discuss marked coursework for any reason after the term is over. All I can do about that is be as clear and explicit as possible.

I emphasize that this is just me sharing an approach that seems to work for me, on the off chance it’s of interest to anyone else. I’m guessing at least some of the profs among you already do something similar, but I don’t know. Your mileage may vary. You should do what works for you and your students, which might be different from what works for me and my students.

p.s. This post is deliberately narrow. I’m deliberately avoiding the much broader issue of whether students should be marked at all, and if so how. I’m avoiding that broader issue because it involves many more considerations besides “what would reduce grade grubbing?” and I didn’t feel like writing a 5000 word post. I’m also deliberately avoiding talking about the underlying circumstances that lead to grade grubbing. Again, I didn’t want to write a long post. Plus, most of those circumstances are out of my control. Feel free to discuss broader issues in the comments if you want. Just please don’t assume anything about my views on broader issues based on what I said or didn’t say in this post. If you want to know what I think about X, please ask me, rather than jumping to conclusions based on what I think about Y, or based on what other people who are not me think about X or Y, or etc.

15 thoughts on “Preventing grade grubbing

  1. Those sound like excellent reminders to include.

    Here’s something I do at the beginning of the semester to remind students that A means excellent–not pretty good. When we do introductions, I ask the students to tell the class one thing they are *excellent* at. I usually get some blank stares–so I say something like, “Your friends would say you are excellent at …whatever…” Could be playing drums, could be remembering World Series winners, could be playing Grand Theft Auto, could be explaining the chemical pathway of photosynthesis. Anything. Even at that, there are a lot of “I don’t knows.” But at the end of intros, I remind the class that A means Excellent, and to get an A you should master the material in the class as well as you have mastered whatever you are excellent at elsewhere in life. If you don’t then you get a lower grade. Once I started that, I almost completely eliminated grade grubbing.

    I used to teach in Puerto Rico and one strategy I’d frequently get a lot of questions on exams and quizzes, like, “I didn’t really understand what you were asking here.” I heard that sometimes before I went to PR too. Sometimes it was pretty clear that I’d worded a question in some confusing way for students who spoke English second. Usually I’d figure that out in grading. So I’d estimate about how many points that was worth and give everyone an across the board “English bonus.” It was usually something like 2-3%. I’d go over exams in class and the tell the class if they thought they lost points because of an English understanding issue hopefully it was covered by the English bonus (usually it was). If not, come talk to me. Typically the confusion was resolved as we reviewed the exam so the students would know how many points were at stake. Prior to the English bonus strategy, I’d get both legit and grade-grubbing complaints.

    • Huh. I’m surprised to hear that anything you say to students at the start of the semester would cut down on grade grubbing! Clearly, students vary from place to place.

      Your story of the “English bonus” is interesting. It’s a small, across-the-board bonus to compensate for some common reason students might struggle a bit, that doesn’t reflect their true abilities. I can definitely imagine that such a bonus would be very reassuring to students, many of whom maybe worry (perhaps even more than they should) about their English.

      It reminds me a bit of something my undergrad organic chemistry prof did on exams. The exams consisted entirely of syntheses: give a series of reactions to synthesize compound B from compound(s) A. This was difficult, in part because you might have an idea for a series of reactions that would work but then hit a sticking point partway through. You’d get some intermediate compound and not know (or be able to recall) the appropriate reaction to (say) remove that pesky hydroxide group from it so that you could proceed with the next steps in your synthesis. To relieve student anxiety about this, we were allowed one “miracle” per exam, without penalty. A “miracle” was a single synthesis step for which you didn’t have to specify a reaction. You just wrote “then a miracle occurs” and removed that pesky hydroxide group (or whatever). It worked wonders for student confidence. But of course, it didn’t make a big difference to our marks, because we only had one miracle per exam, not 10 or whatever. So in terms of its effect on our mark, it was much like your “English bonus”–a small, across-the-board boost for everyone, the stated purpose of which is to compensate for some happenstance that prevents students from fully demonstrating their grasp of the material.

      • I’d go further and say at no institution is this likely true.

        Even a large football team of 85 students would be a blip compared to the number of students typically seeking to become medical doctors for example.

        In my experience grade grubbing in my classes was almost always from 1st-year students who hadn’t gotten used to college grading. Nearly everyone at these Universities received only As and Bs in high school. A grade of C is unfathomable to them. But most students in college will get a C. I rarely see grade-grubbing in upper-division classes.

        Interestingly, since moving to Australia, I have yet to experience any grade grubbing. It will be interesting if that trend continues.

      • As a TA its pretty much the only one I ever heard. But in general I didn’t get much of that, either as a TA or later as an instructor in CC (where there was no football).

      • @Matthew Holden:

        My experience is similar. I don’t ever encounter grade-grubbing from students in my upper-level ecology courses. In the courses I teach, I only ever get it from students in intro biostats. Sometimes from premeds, sometimes from first- or second-year students getting their first low grade (or their first grade below what they were expecting or hoping for), and most rarely from students who did very poorly and want their grade raised to a passing level.

    • I guess in my experience most students expecting a higher grade were confronted with trouble on their first exam and took appropriate measures. I may be mistaken but I can’t remember an instance of some trying to get a B to A change.

      Perhaps in Australia students are more intimidated by faculty?

    • Speaking as a varsity athlete at the University of Alberta, nearly all my teammates appeal to their professors for a better grade if they just need a “pass” to maintain their eligibility for their sports team. I’d just hazard that the majority of students doing this aren’t also completing a B.Sc. in Ecology.

      • The vast majority of students in my intro biostats course aren’t ecology majors. And of all the students who’ve asked me to raise their grade over the years, none have asked for reasons to do with varsity athletics. That’s even though every term I have a few varsity athletes in intro biostats.

        As was noted in an earlier comment, football players (or varsity athletes more broadly) are such a small fraction of the student body that they’re unlikely to comprise a large fraction of all the students who ask for a higher grade. Even if, on a per-student basis, they are more likely to ask for an increased grade than are randomly-chosen students (and I don’t know if they are or not).

      • Yes, J, but you are in Canada. Football players have more time to study there bcz only 3 downs on possession. 🙂

      • “As was noted in an earlier comment, football players (or varsity athletes more broadly) are such a small fraction of the student body ”

        I really don’t care how this argument pans out. I don’t have a strong belief about football players and grade grubbing. But I think these are valid counterarguments to your position:

        My experience is that the population of students seeking higher grades is extremely small to begin with – perhaps as low as 0.25% of the student body – meaning that the proportionality of athletes to the general student population would be almost irrelevant as a guide to the distribution of athletes in the subpopulation seeking higher grades.

        With that in mind, there are at least three reasons I can think of why football players specifically might be *far* more likely to seek higher grades than the rest of the student body:

        1. Football players *MAY* in general have a lower mean academic achievement that the student population. (note that I say “achievement” because IMO many are quite bright but don’t express it through academic achievement. One reason they might have lower academic achievement is simply because they’re concentrating on sports and that’s their greatest interest, where academics is only a means to play sports.)

        2. likely in US, at least: Football players represent the highest proportion of athletes on scholarship, and thus are a very large subpopulation of students with immediate financial consequences associated with their grades.

        3. Many sports programs require min grades even if the students aren’t on scholarship, so they need to maintain grades just to continue in the sport, which is the main reason they came to university in the first place.

        Cheers 🙂

  2. I just want to note for the record how surprised I am that today’s post is drawing slightly above-average first day traffic for us. Honestly, I thought of this as a pretty boring post; I only banged it out because I was feeling guilty about not posting!

    I’m guessing lots of people clicked through in the hopes I’d have some creative, unusual solution to grade grubbing. If so, those people probably were annoyed to discover that I only have a common solution that they already knew about. Sorry, hopefully-hypothetical-but-probably-real people! 🙂

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