“What! Why did you give me this grade?!”: Helping Students Understand Grades

Probably one of our least favorite and often most frustrating aspects of teaching is working with students who come to us and say, “I’m an ‘A’ student, why did you give me a failing grade?!”

While it is easy (and frequently necessary) to remind students that grades are only earned and only based on performance, not effort or any grade needed to graduate or join a specific club, we can usually take such complaints concerns from students and turn them into productive conversations and learning opportunities.

There are several ways I have approached this:

If the student is clearly a younger student and a college freshmen, I will frequently ask, “Is this the first time you have made less than an ‘A’ on an assignment?” So far, they have always replied, “Yes.” This opens the window for a one-on-one conversation about the differences between high school and college, especially standards, requirements, and grading. 

I also always focus the conversation on the future. This tends to work well for my students since they have so many low-stakes assignments. I will certainly listen to their questions and concerns and answer them. In fact, another “first” question I always ask is: “Do you have any specific questions I can help answer?” If they don’t (and they often don’t because they don’t necessarily know enough to have specifics), we start generally. (I know some professors will not listen to grade concerns without specific questions – I’d ask you potentially reconsider this, at least case-by-case.) As quick as possible, however, I will ask them, “Now how can we take your concerns and the feedback I’ve just provided so that your next assignment earns the grade you’re looking for?” While focusing on the future, sometimes it is helpful to ask students about their study habits. Did they take advantage of study groups? office hours? the Writing Center? campus workshops? Did they take my offer to review papers early? Did they review the general course grading rubric? By focusing on the future and changes in behavior that can earn high grades, we can keep the conversation open and productive, while also helping the student see his/her agency in the situation.

When students make a “D” or “F” on an assignment and come and talk to me—whether they come initially to understand the grade or if we have to have the above conversations first—I frequently allow them an opportunity to redo the assignment for up to half of the points back. Again, this keeps the focus on students and allows them to have control over the situation. If they are willing to redo the assignments and demonstrate improvement and mastery of the material, I am more than willing to improve their grade in appropriate ways. This approach frequently works well with students who want a better grade because it gives them an opportunity to earn that better grade and learn in the process.

Now, every now and then, when students question grading, especially students who already think they know everything, it becomes necessary for us as professors to show students our experience and expertise. For example, a few semesters ago after having many of the above conversations a student still did not understand why he received a “C” on his paper. He wanted to know why and what was wrong with his paper, especially because he studied with another student who got an “A”. So after discussing what he could do differently in the future and showing him examples in his paper that lacked analysis or clarity, he still was not satisfied that he really had earned a “C”. At this point, using the comment function in Microsoft Word, I left very, very detailed comments and feedback line-by-line of why he earned a “C” instead of an “A” on the paper. Comments included spelling and grammar errors, inconsistencies in the thesis, statements that were not historically correct or illogical, and so on. (When initially grading papers, I purposely do not “mark” anywhere near everything as to avoid overwhelming students. The details are best left to face-to-face conversations, when possible.) So after I finished leaving extremely detailed comments on this paper, I sent the student an email and basically said, “Please see the attached for very detailed, complete feedback. Please don’t be overwhelmed. These are all things that I know you will improve on as you write more. Let me know what additional questions or concerns you have after reviewing the feedback.” He wrote back and had no more questions about his grade.

Occasionally, students–those prone to worry especially–also need to hear , “Relax! It’s going to be OK. One ‘B” on a quiz isn’t going to hurt your final grade at all. :)” 

For those who teach, what approaches have you found helpful?

For those who are students, what approaches help you understand your grades?

Please be sure and check out my other articles published here and Inside Higher Ed. I have articles about teaching aimed at students and professors generally and more specifically for those in History or Student Success courses.