The Dreaded Grade Appeal

Clarity and consistency can help students and professors avoid negotiations and complaints over grades, writes Shari Dinkins.

May 8, 2009

During a routine conversation about the semester, curriculum, and student population, a colleague of mine burst in with a frustrated comment about grade appeals. He thinks that we’re seeing more formal grade complaints than in past years. A dozen contacts at community colleges and universities seem to agree; we’re seeing more and more students going to the administration to complain about individual assignment grades, course policies, and final course grades. On a bad week, I will see more students in my office wrangling over assignment grades than those truly hoping to improve their academic performance. It’s depressing. Like many of my academic friends, I want to blame the generational divide for what looks like an increase in the number of grade appeals. After watching “I Love the 80’s” every night in a week, I want to wail and cry, mumbling that this new generation just doesn’t understand. They have no sense of what’s appropriate. They don’t respect authority. And their sense of entitlement is overwhelming. That, my friend, is what’s causing this increase in grade appeals across the nation.

Maybe. Maybe not.

When I off VH1 for a moment, I start to sort out some of what’s underneath this blanket statement that it’s us against them. Yes, the new Millennial students have a different sense of hierarchy than middle-aged folks like me. In the 70’s and 80’s, most administrators of businesses hid behind heavy doors and left customers to talk to counter staff or receptionists. Today, many businesses are transparent. The Internet allows customers to find out the name of the owner of even the largest business and with a click, e-mail them directly about a concern. In forums and chat rooms, anonymous posters can reveal an opinion about anything at any time. No one knows the poster’s age, gender, level of education, culture, or social status. In a way, this is the most democratic of processes. Of course this may have been one of many reasons why our traditional authoritative structure has shifted and changed in the last few decades. And this might explain the occasional “That’s just your opinion” response I receive when I return an essay to a student with comments and a rubric. After all, in the online world, all opinions seem to be of equal value. For the less experienced student, having one’s roommate, boyfriend, or role-playing forumites reading one’s work may be just as useful as having a trained tutor or instructor take the time to critically read and make suggestions. Maybe.

And maybe my students’ increased level of comfort at exposing one’s ideas online (or elsewhere) could help convince them that there is no hierarchy in knowledge — just fantastic bits and pieces of wisdom gleaned through online forums and blogs. Sewn together, this patchwork may seem just as valuable as the scholarly journal that is edited and produced by Ph.D.'s at a respected institution. And my students’ cauldron of original thought is available at 3 a.m. with the click of a button.

Sometimes I agree with colleagues who feel that the recession has not only forced students to feel desperate to get a degree, but also encouraged our administrators to reach farther and farther out to recruit students to support programs developed decades ago. And maybe we are approaching less qualified students. But I also know that I love teaching. And one reason for that is the occasional surprise brought on by what we would have called an “unqualified” student who suddenly becomes interested in a subject, changes his or her major, and pursues a certificate or degree — something that no one could have predicted. Lives are changed and generations feel the impact. For that I will slog through the stack of papers that simply restate the same lukewarm opinions again and again. After all, hidden in that towering stack (or the next stack) may be the paper that reveals an “Aha!” moment for a student who others may see as “unqualified.” This is the reward that goes beyond the student.

I do think what is behind the increase in grade appeals is more complex than a generational split. Some of the reasons for students’ grade appeals are age-old. Yes, our institutions are more transparent and administrators are more available. Yes, our administrators may be under increasing pressure from students, parents, and the community to provide a certificate or degree to a student where a high-school diploma may have sufficed 10 or 20 years ago. And yes, our digital native students may have more confidence questioning authority or structures that seemed inapproachable years ago. Still, according to a few administrators I’ve worked with, the complaints are often the same — vague class requirements, uneven enforcement of policies, and poor communication head the list.

After serving on a formal grade appeals panel at my community college, I vowed to simplify my own class policies and put into place some very comprehensive (and visible) statements on difficult topics like plagiarism and academic dishonesty. Not only do I state verbally and in writing what is necessary to pass my course — I now quiz my students so that I can reassure my administrators that on the first day of class, out of 24 students, 24 demonstrated that they understood the most important class policies and requirements. Of course this won’t guarantee that I won’t be suffer a formal grade appeal later that semester; still, it gives me some confidence that not only will I be able to show that my requirements were clear, but that the student had at one point reiterated those requirements to me.

Why the push to avoid grade appeals? Like other not-yet-tenured instructors, I realize that no matter how positive my reviews, if I receive too many grade appeals, I may not be given tenure. And my adjunct friends have it even worse. Complaints and grade appeals often mean not being offered work the next semester. And for those seeking full-time work, this can be the black mark that means no interview when the next full-time position becomes available. Experienced colleagues may see a certain number of complaints and grade appeals as healthy; they often indicate an instructor who is rigorously teaching the curriculum. Still, those of us who have been in education for some time understand how multiple grade appeals will be viewed by the administration. Reviewing one’s materials for clarity, spelling out expectations in many formats, and attempting to minimize miscommunication would have a positive impact on one’s teaching in any case.

This last year, I also talked to colleagues at length about how they handled attendance, absences, make-up work, and late work for their courses. I then altered my own policies to reward students for their attendance and hard work (the carrot) rather than punish them for a lack of attendance and missed work (the stick). Rather than assign a specific percentage for attendance and then take away points when students are not present, I now give students points for a short quiz given at the start of each class. I still have strict requirements for passing the course, but my mentors assured me that this small change would help students perceive me as fair and less cynical. In just one semester, I experienced a significant drop in the number of students who made the decision to march into my associate dean’s office to complain about my teaching (or grading).

One great read on grade appeals is Marcia Ann Pulich’s, “Student Grade Appeals Can Be Reduced” published in 1983 in Improving College and University Teaching. Although it’s dated, many of the concepts are still applicable. In short, Pulich advises professors to communicate grading policies clearly and stick to them. She advocates a simple grading method and recommends that professors check to see that students understand individual grades and how they relate to their final in-class grade.

An experienced colleague I know uses a simple computation for final grades — each assignment is worth points that add up to 1,000. Students can clearly see how they’re doing at any stage in the course. I weight grades, stating the total percentages for each area on my syllabus. I’ve also had support staff at my college add my name as a student to my Blackboard sites for all my courses. I then load in some grades for assignments, and project this overhead several times during the semester so that I can explain in detail what each percentage means to that assignment. Since this corresponds visually to the percentages listed on my syllabus, students often have fewer questions and complaints later in the semester.

Pulich advocates concrete responses to students’ inquiries. She states that on an essay, comments justify a lower grade. I also use a customized rubric that shows how a student fares in a number of areas including content, logic, structure, and mechanics. There’s no mystery to this rubric; in fact, students have already seen this instrument before they’ve completed their written work. Before we get started on that particular assignment, I not only show them sample student essays, but I also grade an essay (with comments and a rubric) in class on an overhead. This helps students understand what’s most important in their own work. They also feel less frustrated later if they don’t receive a perfect grade.

Like Pulich, I believe that some misunderstandings between student and instructor can be avoided by clear, concrete response in verbal and written communication. In my early teaching days, I might have written to a student, “I’m concerned about your recent rough draft. Please see me immediately.” Today I would write, “I am giving this paper a zero because outside sources are not cited. If I don’t hear from you by Friday, September 25th, I will consider this a case of plagiarism and you will be failed in this course. If you contact me before Friday, September 25th, I will allow you to rewrite this material for your final draft without a late penalty.” I then copy the e-mail to myself, print out a copy of the e-mail to deliver to the student in person at our next class meeting, and wait for a reply. If the student replies by e-mail, I keep a copy of that message in a digital folder for the course and reply, reiterating my instructions. Perhaps this sort of rigidity isn’t necessary with upper-level courses and graduate students; however, in my area (developmental- and transfer-level English), providing deadlines and penalties ensure that I get a response from the student, helps them understand exactly what they must do to succeed, and protects me in case there are questions later.

Pulich suggests being clear about course policies — including vague categories like “participation.” Depending on the professor and the course, “participation” might mean speaking up in courses, in other courses, it might mean simply attending class, being on time, and not leaving early. If students’ grades are impacted by “participation,” this must be carefully spelled out in writing to avoid misunderstandings later. She also advocates grading “blind” — that is, without a student’s name on typed-up work. This helps a professor keep from playing favorites and if this is not a problem, helps students see the grading process as more fair. With my hybrid and online courses, this is easy. When I use the assignment feature on Blackboard, I am often grading without a student’s name visible. With materials from traditional face-to-face courses, I often flip the first page of the essay over and start reading from that point. In both cases, I consult a rubric (customized for that assignment) again and again during a second read. This keeps me on target with the original assignment requirements.

Last, Pulich writes that one should be “human but fair.” Enforcing due dates and applying rules about late work (no credit, partial credit) for everyone keeps students from doing a slow burn and running to my administration as soon as class is over. This generation is surprisingly bold about sharing information about the grades they’ve received and how an instructor has treated them with other students. If I make an exception with one student, I can assume it will be common knowledge with my college’s student population almost instantly. But being “fair” is much easier than being “human.”

One strategy I’ve started to employ is an empathy line in e-mail replies to students’ requests. When students e-mail me with terrible news about their personal lives (a friend’s father died, they locked themselves out of their car, they broke up with their significant other) and ask to make up a quiz or turn in an essay late without a late penalty, I immediately reply with a sympathetic statement. I follow up with a comment reiterating my course policies and list something they can do to be prepared for the next assignment. In past years, I might simply have responded, “No. Please refer to my course policies.” Today, however, I respond with, “I’m so sorry that you’re having problems with your car. My course policies, however, state that students won’t be allowed to make up quizzes if they’re not in class. Do review Chapter Four so that you’ll be ready for the quiz on Wednesday. I’ll look forward to seeing you then.” Interestingly, the core information is exactly the same — “No.” But how I frame it makes the student feel heard and gives him or her the feeling that he or she has control over some part of his or her life.

This strategy, combined with my change in attendance rules has gone a long way in improving my reputation with students. And the number of students who have complained has dropped over 90 percent in two semesters. I can’t say that my fear of being criticized by students is less; but I do feel more confident that the degree of caring that I have for my students is somehow more visible. In my last stack of student evaluations, one student wrote that she was upset she wasn’t allowed to make up a quiz on a day that she was late for class, but also stated, “The instructor was always willing to help students in her office and was understanding — even if she couldn’t really change the rules. She seems to actually care about her students as people.” Other students commented that my grading was “tough,” but that I was a good instructor. To me it is the perfect balance. I’ll never be one of the fun, popular instructors whom students try to befriend through social networking sites, but I feel more and more convinced that the greater number of students who pass my course are truly prepared for the next course. That good feeling surpasses the feeling of making my students happy in the short run.

Nothing I do will guarantee that a student of mine won’t march into my dean’s office to complain. But providing clear course materials in a number of formats, defining and quantifying areas that will be graded, spelling out deadlines and penalties in course materials and e-mail communication, packaging a “no” with empathy, and testing students to ensure that they understand integral issues like academic dishonesty and plagiarism will give me confidence when I’m brought to a formal grade appeals panel.


Shari Dinkins is an assistant professor at Illinois Central College.


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