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How to Tackle Student Grade Negotiations

Student: I want to discuss my grade. I really need to pass your class.

Instructor: What grade did you earn on your exams?

Student: I got a D on both exams and an F on the final.

Instructor: My records show that you also missed four classes this term.

Student: Can I do extra credit to pass this class? I am willing to do whatever it takes

If you’re an instructor, chances are good that you have had a conversation just like this one. Most of them start the same way: Student slacks off/doesn’t attend class. The student does poorly on exams. The student realizes they won’t pass. Student all of a sudden wants to perform miracles at the end of the semester.

It happens every year without fail. And let’s face it, these end-of-the-semester grade negotiations can be the absolute worst. More often than not these “tests of will” pit your mental fortitude against your student's. Who will concede first? Do outside circumstances warrant any leniency? Or are they trying to make excuses? Should you give in or stand your ground?

Perhaps even more important than standing your ground is trying to avoid or mitigate these types of negotiations in the first place. How, you might ask? Through many years of trial and error, I’ve learned that the key to avoiding these grade negotiation-type situations starts well before the request to modify the grade is even made.

  1. Provide a Clear and Detailed Syllabus

Your syllabus is a contract between you and the student. Preach.

  • Set Early Guidelines. The syllabus is a chance to set early expectations and provide clear guidelines with regards to how students will be evaluated. The clearer the guidelines, the less room for argument there will be later on. To that end, I recommend including the exact point values needed to earn each letter grade or include a link to your school's grading policies if one exists.

Personally, and purposefully, my syllabus contains a balance of specific as well as broad statements about my course. For example, I include the following statement about how students will be evaluated on mathematical correctness.

“All written work will be evaluated on mathematical correctness, syntax (use of symbols and notation of mathematics), format (organization and presentation), the clarity of your arguments, and reasonableness of your answers. Answers are not enough; justify all work by showing the process and presenting a logical argument. Verify results whenever possible.”

  • Create Clear Rules on Grading. Try laying out early and explicitly in the syllabus your rules for grade negotiations. This can cover frequent problem areas like attendance, makeup work, extra credit, personal emergencies, etc. Whatever your stance – hardline or lenient – spell it out clearly and explicitly in your syllabus so that you can point to it later in the semester when students inevitably come knocking. Having something in print (or digital, don’t forget to include these rules on any online class resources like your LMS course shell) to point to later in the term can help ensure that students have no grey area to complain about when their desired grades don’t match their effort.

It may feel redundant to point these types of “rules” out throughout the semester or to call attention to it in the syllabus, but the students will appreciate the emphasis and clarity on how they will be assessed.

  1. Techniques for Grading Consistency

  • Grade page one of every student exam before grading page 2 and so on. I am much more consistent in the types of deductions I make if I focus on only one page at a time. This method keeps me focused and also helps avoid any unintended bias as the names of the students won’t be visible on pages beyond the first.
  • Create a legend describing common mistakes and the reduction in points. Think of this as a road map detailing common mistakes as well as what the penalty will be for each mistake. If it's two points for improper format but only one point for a small calculation error, denote this in your legend. A legend describing common mistakes

  • Create a system to denote when a question is left blank or an incorrect multiple-choice answer is chosen. Have you had a student claim they had the right answer, but you marked it wrong? Mistakes do happen from time to time but I have had the occasional student attempt to change their exam answers after the fact. Create systems for grading that clearly show if a student has left a question blank or chosen an incorrect multiple-choice answer. This can be as simple as drawing a diagonal line through a blank space to signify that question was left unanswered or circling the incorrect multiple-choice answer, but be sure to denote mistakes in a way that you know exactly what was on the exam when you graded it the first time.

In essence, the ultimate goal of these strategies is to ensure that your grade in a consistent and deliberate fashion. Bottom line: I believe that I should be fair and consistent with every student. Having clear expectations will provide you the tools to justify your initial grade when questioned. Also, worth noting that instructors can make occasional mistakes in grading so if this happens, admit it, own it, and make it right.

  1. Start a Dialog: Listen, Explain, Support

Ok, so you’ve done all of the pre-work to minimize student grade negotiations and yet a student still wants to come to your office to plead their case.

  • Step 1: Listen. Take the time to listen to the student and what they have to say. Students have a lot on their plate these days, and I try to remind myself that every moment is not necessarily a teaching moment. Yes, they shouldn’t have waited this long to come and talk to you. Yes, they should have completed more homework. Yes, they should have attended class more regularly. But, even if there's no turning back for their grade now, genuinely listen to their circumstance. Listening carries much more weight than you think. We don’t always have to agree with the student, but we can empathize with their situation and make sure they feel heard.
  • In the minority cases where external circumstances have truly impeded a student’s performance in the class, consider some alternative measures that might be acceptable to allow the student to pass or receive a higher grade in the course. I do not mean that an F student should suddenly receive a passing grade, or a C student should suddenly get an A, but life does happen. Listening to a student’s issues can help you resolve if this is a situation that deserves intervention or not.
  • Step 2: Explain. If the final grade is in question, it can be helpful to show a student exactly how the grade was calculated. This is where those clear policies outlined in your syllabus will come in handy.
  • Step 3: Support. If the final grade is to remain, assess other ways you can support the student. The grade that the student earned may not always match the grade that they “need” but we can still advise them for future coursework. Sometimes it’s just helpful to remind students of the bigger picture and, more often than not, a single grade will likely not define or derail their success.

About the Author

Tammy Louie has been teaching at Portland Community College since 2006 and currently serving as the Faculty Department Chair at Cascade Campus. She is an active member of the American Mathematics Association of Two-Year Colleges (AMATYC) and a Project ACCCESS alum. Professional interests center around discovery-based student learning, encouraging positive study behaviors and increasing accessibility to a broad student population. She frequently presents best practice strategies for student engagement to colleges and universities using ALEKS.

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