I just finished marking final exams for the course I am TAing, and I’ve been reflecting on one of my least-favourite parts of teaching: dealing with students who want their grades on exams and assignments reconsidered. I am not good at this.
A confession: I have on occasion given an extremely pushy student who just would not give up an extra point or two just to get them to leave me alone. I work hard to grade fairly and objectively, and allowing a student to argue their way to a higher grade is decidedly not fair and something I definitely don’t feel good about. Ideally I would rather not find myself in a situation where this could happen at all, so I’ve put together some advice that might have helped me to avoid it. I will be sure to come back to these suggestions at the beginning of future teaching semesters, and I hope others might also find them useful.
Have a clear policy on grade reviews. I’ve taken classes with instructors who have very firm policies along the lines of, “if you want a question re-marked, the entire exam will be re-marked, and I will probably be less generous than the TAs/markers were, meaning your grade could end up lower”. This is probably pretty effective at heading off grade disputes from students who just want to argue for that extra point or two.
As a TA, however, my experience has often been that instructors will let students know which TA marked which exam questions/assignments, and direct students to talk to the appropriate TA about their marks if they have questions about them. I am happy to meet with students to go over exams or assignments I marked if their goal is to understand where they went wrong and how to improve in the future. But occasionally students take the opportunity to try to convince me that their work is really deserving of a higher grade than I assigned.
If I’m meeting with a student face to face and they try to argue about their grade, I inevitably feel flustered and put on the spot, and prone to making decisions I might not have if I’d had more time to carefully consider the situation. A simple way to avoid this would be to introduce the following personal policy:
Only accept grade reconsideration requests in writing. I can see several benefits to this kind of policy. First, it means students must take some time to carefully consider their work, and why they got the grade they did. This alone may result in them realizing that they really don’t have a compelling argument to make. Second, it means that the person doing the grading can take time to carefully consider the student’s rationale before formulating a response. I know I would feel a lot more comfortable and confident going into a meeting with a student if I had already made a careful decision about how to deal with their request.
There are also several strategies that can greatly reduce the likelihood of students wanting to have their grades reconsidered to begin with:
Be clear about expectations. For assignments, provide detailed guidelines. It can help to provide examples of excellent past assignments so that students can see exactly what is expected to get a good grade. On exams, explicitly state the number of marks associated with each question, and whether it requires only a single word or statement, or a detailed explanation, or a specific number of examples. Provide enough room for a detailed answer if that is what is expected!
If more than one person is marking, coordinate. Consistent grading can be a challenge when multiple people are involved. On exams, it’s easy to coordinate so that each person marks the same questions for every student to ensure consistency. But if more than one person is marking the same written assignment for different students, here’s a technique I learned from an instructor I worked with last semester:
Skim through the assignments and pull out a few that look like they range from poorly done to very well done. Make enough photocopies that each marker can have one of each. Have everyone mark all three independently using the same rubric or marking scheme. Then compare and discuss the marks. If someone was consistently higher or lower than the others, or had slightly different expectations for certain elements of the assignment, they can adjust accordingly. This isn’t perfect, but I think it’s probably as good as it gets for multiple people marking the same thing.
Provide detailed feedback with marked exams and assignments. Another excellent strategy from the same instructor is to provide annotated answer keys to students once they get their exam papers back. The original answer key provides the expected answer, but students inevitably come up with a variety of unexpected answers that may merit part or full marks despite not being quite what the exam writer had in mind. While marking exams, my fellow TA and I took detailed notes about how we decided to award part marks, alternative acceptable answers, and so on. Students were then able to see exactly why they got the grade they did on any particular question. After doing this, only one or two students still had questions about their exams. It’s a bit more work to provide detailed feedback on individual written assignments, and that topic could probably use a whole post in itself, so I won’t go into it now, but in general, the more transparent the grading scheme is, the better.
Do you have other strategies for dealing with or (better yet) avoiding grade disputes? Please share them in the comments!