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Teacher writes a big C on a blackboard

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A few months ago, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed when I came across a tweet from a professor asking instructors if we’ve ever thought about “throwing in the towel” and saying, “Eff it, everyone is getting an A, I’m done.” The sentiment stemmed from her frustration of receiving an exorbitant number of “grade-grubbing” emails this semester, or communication from students begging/threatening/angling for higher grades than rightfully earned. At the time, the tweet had received more than 900 likes, 45 retweets and 70 comments.

Looking at the dialogue, the participants in the conversation—mainly instructors—were sharing their stories of a profession that has become much more transactional than ever before. Specifically, people were lamenting that students weren’t putting in the necessary work to earn good grades (yet were expecting them) and not showing up to class or completing assignments on time (yet would retroactively ask for grace or extensions). Over all, they were feeling a lot of pressure to degrade their own teaching standards to adhere to student demands.

My heart went out to respondents, because I could relate; 2023 will mark my 13th year of teaching, and I’ve never experienced what I did over the past months. I spent most of 2022 helping my team of adjunct faculty combat those very issues while trying to survive myself.

So I decided to comment on the thread. I shared that I’d taken some steps to alleviate grade grubbing that were proving successful and offered to help. By the next day, my DMs were full of requests from faculty members for assistance. From England to Australia to my own backyard in New York City, instructors were openly sharing their struggles. The most popular sentiments were that:

  • Students believe that if they are accepted into a program, the degree is guaranteed.
  • Students have a sense of entitlement with the educational process. Because they are paying, they should get what they want.
  • Students do not take advantage of extra help or university services as they should, despite the copious amount of communication about mental health resources, medical leaves, withdrawal periods and the like.
  • Some faculty feel like they are being “harassed” by students for grades they don’t deserve and live in constant fear of student retaliation for holding the line.
  • The initial concessions made to normal academic standards and operations during the early years of the pandemic are causing a hangover effect: faculty are simultaneously being told to return to “normal” teaching and assessment, yet students are not exuding pre-pandemic learning behaviors (making a return to “normal” nearly impossible).

While I agree with all those points, the last one—about the pandemic hangover—resonates the most. Over the past three years, the leniency with grading, academic standards and policy hurt both faculty members and students, and it will take some time to reset expectations. That doesn’t mean, however, that we must wait around for pre-2020 normalcy. Truth be told, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to turn back the clock to those times; we can only move forward. That means we all need to work at regaining the rigor and integrity of higher education, and that starts with getting real about the problems we’re facing and working together on solutions that make a difference.

Resetting Expectations

Students grub for grades for many reasons. Whether it’s because they need to stay on a sports team, are on academic probation, have a false sense of their own abilities or simply want to maintain an overall A average, many students will find a reason to email you for a better final score than they rightfully earned. Those messages can be intimidating—and sometimes heart-wrenching—but you should not concede. The only valid reasons for students to request grade changes are if you make mathematical mistakes or don’t give enough feedback to justify points off, or when most of the class gets a question wrong because you didn’t teach the content well. But otherwise, no other reason should be considered, and you should openly share that sentiment with students.

In fact, the most impactful way for you to combat grade grubbing is to be clear that it isn’t permitted. Here are some statements about grading you should make—and stand by—in your conversations in class with students and in your syllabus.

A’s mean excellent work. By definition, excellent means “extremely good; outstanding”—that the work is virtually error-free and is nearly perfectly aligned with your expectations as the instructor. Students should not expect to easily earn A’s but instead understand that they have to strive for them. For the best chance of earning A’s, students should complete coursework as assigned, wrestle with the material, ask questions and apply all feedback on assignments through critical thinking and problem solving.

Also share with students that it is atypical to be immediately “excellent” with new material, and that they should focus on personal growth throughout the course by getting more comfortable with the content and improving through each assessment. Students need to understand that A’s are earned through absorption of material, careful completion of work and demonstrated application of required skills.

It’s unethical to give unearned grades. Tell students you prioritize ethics and that you must properly assess their work in order to understand their true acumen in the subject matter. Inflating grades will only yield cognitive dissonance between how they are actually performing versus how highly they think of themselves as mastering the material. In other words, you’re doing the student a disservice if they are getting unearned grades, especially if you teach a course that scaffolds to other, harder content later on. And, ultimately, your job is to prepare them for real-world work. If they can’t do it in your class, they won’t be successful after graduation.

Fair comparisons must be made across the student body. This is something students don’t usually consider. If you give everyone high grades, how will you distinguish between higher performers and those who need more practice? Students who truly earned A’s are now in the same bucket as those who aren’t performing as well. Thus, in the eyes of the B, C and below performers, everyone is equal. No one needs more practice than others, and everyone is “excellent.”

This is a dangerous world to live in, and is unfair to every student paying the same tuition to be properly assessed. Not everyone deserves the designation of excellent, so we must clearly delineate between students who produce excellent work and those who are almost excellent yet not quite there yet, between those who are doing so-so and those who need a lot of improvement.

Every student deserves meaningful and specific feedback on their work. Put this one entirely on you. Tell students that giving unearned grades excuses you, the instructor, from providing specific and meaningful feedback on each work product. This is a good time to emphasize the importance of rubrics and how they are guides to assess what’s been taught. The best rubrics are specific enough to ensure you take the correct points off each item that you’re looking to assess yet general enough to provide a bit of room for flexibility and creativity, too.

That said, the feedback you provide on each assignment must justify the grade. Feedback should align with appropriate areas of the rubric and provide meaningful context as to why that section wasn’t perfect (unless it was).

Emailing the chair or dean will not help the “grub.” Students often email deans and chairs because they aren’t happy with their grade in a course, and it almost never works. (Instead, it just makes them look unprofessional.) The worst part about grubbing to higher-ups is that the student’s story usually leaves out most of the facts. Angry students can get insanely creative with a narrative to gain attention, and faculty members are almost always left breaking out the receipts via email, LMS and coursework to defend themselves against whatever the student is saying. So remind students that conversations about legitimate grade concerns should come to you first.

If the student isn’t happy with the result of that conversation and decides to go above you, let them know they can do whatever they want to feel supported. But also let them know that you will share all graded assignments, communication and attendance records with anyone the student communicates with to justify the grade. Most universities have a formal grade-appeal process, too, which you should include in your syllabus.

If I made a mistake, I will make it right. Faculty are human and make mistakes. Thus, when you make a grading error, own it and fix it. Share with students that if they believe something was graded in error, they have a time frame after the assignment is returned to bring it to your attention. If you did make an error, promise you’ll fix it promptly in all places the grade is posted. This admission and ownership from you will help build trust and credibility with students and keep doors of communication open for the rest of the semester.

Help is available for the really tough stuff. It can be very difficult to ignore students’ pleas for grade changes because of work commitments, grieving, mental health issues, legal troubles, parenting challenges and other problems. But most universities have services in place for students to help students work through any life issues preventing their success, while continuing their academic journey—assistance often regularly advertised through syllabi, advising offices, newsletters and websites. In my own program, outside of formal medical or academic accommodations, we offer individual learning plans for students going through extenuating circumstances that may require extra time to complete assignments and other coursework outside of course deadlines. We also offer a free unexcused absence and the flexibility to be late for class or leave early a certain number of times throughout the semester. To date, those allowances have worked well, and students appreciate the extra flexibility for dealing with the challenging and unexpected.

There are also ample opportunities at every university for students to add/drop and withdraw from a course. At the end of the day, if a student is going through something that may impact their commitment to academics, they need to take an honest look at their situation, reach out for help and use available resources to make informed decisions about next steps.

Rethinking Grading Generally

To conclude, I’d like to make a note about assessment in general. I’d be remiss to not discuss how grading, in and of itself, has become a controversial practice. Numerous articles have described how grading encourages students to cheat, takes the joy out of learning and reinforces a “learning is a transaction” mentality. I don’t disagree with any of the recent commentary. That’s why I’ve been encouraging faculty at my institution to rethink grading assignments over all based on the philosophy of Jesse Stommel. In many of our courses, some assignments and reflections are ungraded, with feedback and improvement as the only form of assessment.

Additionally, some of our courses have ceased using the traditional A, A-minus, B-plus system and instead use “ranges” to eliminate punitive punishment for a few points off. (For example, anything between X and Y is an A, anything between Y and Z is a B, and so forth.) We also empower students to choose their assignments in some classes, providing a variety of options of how to do the work depending on their learning style, as well as completing a certain number of assignments of their choice by a specific date—such as selecting three out of four essays or producing a PowerPoint instead of a podcast.

These additional opportunities and allowances were created to provide some breathing room for the unexpected and challenging, as well as take some of the pressure off of everything being “graded.” Ultimately, however, we can’t get away from grading altogether, and when it is necessary to grade, we must do it fairly and well.

In a follow-up piece, I’ll explore another issue that requires instructors to reset expectations: ghosting, or students not showing up to class or passing in assignments without prior communication.

Kerry O’Grady (@OgradyKL) is a higher education consultant and an associate professor of public relations. An expert in faculty affairs and systemic improvement, she frequently writes about faculty/student dynamics, leadership and academic operations.

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