‘Tis the season for students lobbying for higher grades.
Anyone who has taught a college course has experienced the full range of student approaches to nudging their semester result upward. They come in all shapes and sizes – the abject supplicant looking for a Hail Mary, the grotesquely entitled who believe your course has undervalued their genius, and the outright threatening who are more than willing to take their complaint up the administrative chain.
These issues are a pain in the ass to everyone involved, and can sometimes drop a turd in the punchbowl at the end-of-semester celebration. Last week, education writer Rebecca Schuman solicited grade grubbing horror stories:
Schu-Live Crew: I want your best grade-grubbing tales! Mine's when I got an email on Christmas about an A-minus.— Rebecca Schuman (@pankisseskafka) May 9, 2014
And the stories she received back are horrible. I cringed with recognition at a number of them.
I am about to jinx myself – I am knocking on wood with my free hand even as I type – but it’s been seven years since I had an end-of-semester grade complaint. I cannot claim to have licked the problem completely because karma could strike at any moment, but over the years I’ve stumbled over (almost literally) some strategies that I believe are working, at least for me.
At semester’s start
I do a number of things in my course policies that I believe help me avoid the end-of-semester grade grubbing.
I design my course policies as Frequently Asked Questions, with the questions in the voices of the students, and the first class period is spent with the students asking these questions – I provide them with the text on small slips of paper – and me answering them. One of the questions I use is: “I hate to look like a grade grubbing weasel on the first day, but what can we expect in terms of grades in this class?” In my answer to this question I say that no one likes grade grubbing weasels, not even the weasels themselves, so it’s better if we just don’t engage in such behaviors. I won’t respect them if they try it, and even worse, they’ll lose respect for themselves.
I tell my students the truth, that the most common grade is a B and that A’s (even “A-‘s”) are rarer. At the same time, I make it clear that there is no curve, that I’d be happy for everyone in class to earn an A and that some sections have gotten relatively close to such a goal. I don’t use a formal grading contract, but I also discuss the “traits” of an A. Essentially, I tell them that A’s result from sustained excellence (for the most part) throughout the semester, not just going through the motions.
Leaving room (but not too much) for questioning.
Sure, I could shut down complaints by just saying there’s no complaining allowed, but the reality is that I sometimes get things wrong and want students to be able to bring possible mistakes to my attention. This must happen in a timely fashion, however. It’s absolutely the worst when a student shows up in office hours with a week (or less) to go and wants to re-litigate an essay they wrote ten weeks ago. Total grade grubber. Massive weasel.
To prevent this, I use what I call a “48/96 hour” policy. I wish I could remember who I stole this from, but it’s lost to my deteriorating memory. Essentially, students must wait 48 hours before they come talk to me about a grade on an assignment, and must do so within 96 hours, or the grade will not be changed. For students with tight schedules, I allow them to make an appointment within that 96-hour window to be fulfilled later.
The tyranny of the math.
In my course policies I make it clear that I do not ever round up, ever. For example, 89.999999999 is a B+, while 90 is an A-. I acknowledge that this can seem arbitrary, but I also remind them that any cutoff can seem arbitrary. I tell them that I must do this because at heart, I am soft and can see myself starting to bump up the 89.7’s of the world, then the 89.5’s and 89.3’s, and before I know it, everyone above 83 is getting an A-. I tell them that it is my job to be fair and equitable and the easiest way I have to ensure this is to have an absolutely rigid standard.
During the semester
Hide the grade book.
I discovered this one by accident, when I just forgot to make my Blackboard grade book visible one semester. It may seem counterintuitive, but I’ve found that making it too easy for students to know where they stand, grade-wise, for the semester, makes them more likely to focus on their grades and increases the likelihood of grubbing behaviors. I arm them with enough information to calculate their grades themselves (the grade plus the value of the assignment), but I will not display a running scoreboard of their achievement.
Talk very little about grades.
I’ve trained myself to stop trying to spur student diligence by reminding them of how much something is worth and instead concentrate on what they’re going to experience in doing the assignment. I also never share class averages on assignments during the semester in order to prevent them from comparing themselves to others. Now, if students are clearly flailing about, this doesn’t stop me from a one-on-one discussion about how they're doing, but my public statements on grades are few and far between.
Conference with every student at some point at least once.
Every semester, I meet one-on-one with every student at least once to talk about their work. While doing this, I will also learn some other things about them, what they’re studying, how they feel about college and the course. I do my best to relate to them not merely as their instructor, but as a human being. If I’m not viewed solely as the entity whose job it is to enter a single end-of-semester metric, they’re less likely to treat me that way.
At semester’s end
In my writing courses I almost always require the submission of a final portfolio that encompasses the major assignment in the course. Students turn portfolios in on the last day of regular class and I return them as part of a fifteen minute one-on-one conference during finals week.
In the conference, rather than focusing on the final assignment, we talk about the journey of the semester - what they’ve learned, and how they feel about what they’ve learned. Before I tell them the grade on the final assignment, I ask them how they think they did, or what they might’ve done differently if they had more time. Nine times out of ten their perception of their grade and my mark are largely in sync. When they tell me they think it’s a B+ because they could’ve or should’ve done X, Y, and Z, but didn’t, and I tell them that I felt similarly, there’s no room for grubbing.
In my experience, students tend to know when they have truly excelled and when they haven’t. The grade grubbing weasels rarely believe their work “deserves” an A; they just believe that the grade grubbing process is all part of a larger system, a game they're supposed to be playing. If grade grubbing isn’t part of the game, they’re less likely to try to play it.
I recognize that some of these may not be possible for some instructors. Some departments may require them to display their grades. Adjuncts teaching seven sections at three different schools without a private office at any of them can’t be expected to have one-on-one conferences with every student.
I teach three courses a semester, each limited to 20 students, so at most, I’m doing 60 conferences, which is a lot, but doable. I’ve managed the same policies with 80 students, but I can’t really imagine doing more than that. If I didn't have an office, it'd be very difficult to claim a spot in a coffee shop or common area for hours at a time and have conversations that demand a certain degree of trust and intimacy.
The conferences are obviously time-consuming, both during, and at the end of the semester. The exit interviews also require me to grade the final portfolios at an almost inhuman pace, but for me, it’s time well spent. Knowing that the student will see and discuss my feedback on their work makes me more diligent and attentive to the task. The exit interview also allows for important student self-reflection.
And most importantly, each student leaves my office knowing where we stand with each other. I’ve lost count of the number of students who have thanked me quite sincerely for a good semester, even though they might be getting a C. When their grades go live, there are no surprises, so I don’t get the dreaded emails, students looking to grub their way upward.
Students sometimes forget that their instructors are human. I’m guilty of thinking the same about them. In the end, reflecting on my own policies, I see that they’re mostly oriented towards reminding each other of this fact.
On Twitter, no one knows if you're a weasel.
 Let me emphasize the for me part of that. Please don’t take this even as advice, and it is certainly not meant as prescriptive. I believe effective teaching results when the right strategies work for the right instructor. What works for some, will not work for all. These are my experiences. I’m interested in those of others, and hope people will share them in the comments.
 This is one I stumbled upon. I used to just leave the portfolios for them to pick up and read my comments, but they’d often sit their unclaimed well into the next semester. I got tired of tripping over the pile, so I started requiring the conferences for them to come and claim their work, if nothing else. The other aspects of the discussion evolved organically over time.