How to deal with/avoid grade disputes


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!

6 thoughts on “How to deal with/avoid grade disputes

  1. This is more of a story, but there’s a moral at the end. In my first year into my first tenure track position, I had one particularly petulant student who was in my office hours rather insistently demanding that she get one more point of credit for a quiz question that she got wrong. It was really weird. The question was very straightforward, though not easy, and she straight up didn’t know the answer. After about fifteen minutes of her just trying to convince me one way or another that she was right, and then after that, that it was a dumb question and she should get credit for that reason, I excused her from my office, and said that if she still felt grieved, she could talk tot the chair, and file a grade grievance. I was respectful and friendly, but didn’t give her the unreasonable thing that she wanted. I held an entirely reasonable line.

    It was only about 24 hours later that my chair pointed out to me that this student had the same last name as one of the newest buildings on campus. And that was no mere coincidence. Shortly after she left my office, her father called the dean. (For all I know, it was this incident that led the dean to plan for my departure from university five years later. It wouldn’t surprise me at all.)

    The moral of the story: I didn’t have to be so adamant with the student. Would I have given her the undeserved points?! No. But I would not have held such a firm line. The student thought that I was somehow out to get her, that it was adversarial relationship rather than me trying to foster her learning. So, I’d try to make the conversation more about her learning than the evaluation. And as for the quiz question which was like 0.01% of her grade, I would have said something like, “well, the answer wasn’t correct, so I can’t give you points, but if your grade at the end of the semester is that close to the margin, then I guarantee that you’ll get the benefit of the doubt when grades are being assigned.” the student would have left with what she wanted — my concern and attention and somehow feeling that she won some kind of battle — and my dean wouldn’t have gotten the phone call that came within a hair’s length of ending my career. Moreover, I wouldn’t have had a resentful student, which is a student who isn’t going to learn. The more you talk about grades, the less learning that happens.

  2. I have had good luck with a combination of these policies. I am really strongly in favor of requests in writing, with some kind of justification for their answer, with a wait time of 24 hours. The most frustrating thing in classes where this was not the policy was the line of students after class on the day we handed back exams, without having done more than looked at their final score but ready to argue point by point RightThatSecond.

    The hard part is enforcing that rule, though of course if it is in the syllabus I can be pretty firm with students who try to talk to me the day of, regardless of my policy.

  3. I think it helps if your re-grading policies are similar to those of your colleagues on campus. When I take a hard line on regrades (i.e., with the exception of simple arithmetic mistake summing points, requiring that the request must be in writing, with a clear explanation for why the answer should be regraded, and with the indication that whole exam will be reviewed), then my students know that they should bring up only serious issues, because my colleagues have all trained them that regrades are not an easy way to boost a few points. On the other hand, if your colleagues are easy marks for a few points, then you will get lots of pressure.

  4. The suggestions in the post are all good. One other thing to try, which I haven’t done in the past but am seriously considering for the future, is to not have a policy of giving a zero for a late assignment. (I mean late without any good reason, obviously) Instead, have a sliding scale, like -X% for every 24 h or fraction thereof for which the assignment is late, maybe with a zero if the assignment is more than XX h late. The hope is to appropriately penalize students who don’t turn stuff in on time, while also cutting back on students bugging you to give them a break. Not sure if it’s possible to choose a sliding scale that would have this effect, but it’s worth a shot. My experience with a firm “no late work accepted for marking” policy is that even this maximally-severe penalty isn’t enough to completely prevent late work. Instead, it may just make students who turn in work late extra-desperate for you to be lenient and give them a break.

    The other thing to do is that, when students do come to you asking for special treatment on grades, emphasize to them that this would be unfair. You can even say that you sympathize, but that university rules tie your hands and oblige you to decline such requests. This won’t prevent requests for special treatment. Indeed, I often have students asking for special treatment say up front that they know it’s not fair (and even that they know I can’t give it to them–but they still ask). But it may sometimes help prevent students from getting mad at you about not getting special treatment.

    Unfortunately, in my experience there’s nothing you can do to keep students from whining to you about their grades and asking for special treatment. And nothing you can do to keep some of them from being upset with you when they don’t get it. As a colleague of mine likes to say, students want mercy but all we can offer them is justice.

    Terry’s absolutely right that you should try to keep the conversation about learning rather than grades. But sadly, my experience is that it’s difficult/impossible to steer the conversation in that way with a student who cares enough about their mark, relative to their learning, to come to you to complain about a grade and ask for special treatment. At least at a big university like mine, where the majority of students never contact profs for any reason, any student who cares enough about their mark to complain to a prof probably cares too much about their mark to be gently redirected.

    So I’d say that, in addition to doing the stuff suggested in the post, you need to make sure you take good emotional care of yourself to keep yourself from getting too angry, frustrated, or depressed (either with specific students, or with students in general) in response to grade-mongering. Find a colleague or friend to whom you can vent privately. Keep a secret stash of chocolate and eat some every time a student whines to you about their grade. Keep your best teaching evaluations and re-read them. Etc.

    As an aside: Terry, I think you were very unlucky to have been firm but entirely reasonable and to have had a parent call the dean as a result, particularly if it did indeed rebound negatively on you (as opposed to the dean and department head backing you 100%, as they should have). I’m also firm but fair, which in one case led to a student filing a formal complaint with my department head–who came and had a friendly chat with me and left completely satisfied that the student’s complaint was baseless. So the lesson I draw from your story is “it sucks to be unlucky enough to have to deal with unreasonable students, their unreasonable parents, and administrators who don’t do their jobs well” rather than “don’t be so firm with students”. Or maybe one could draw multiple lessons. Or maybe one shouldn’t draw any lessons at all, on the principle that “hard cases make bad law”.

  5. I’ve usually had a policy of “no re-grades” except to correct arithmetic errors, and I justify it to the class (briefly) by pointing out that I don’t think it is right to favor students whose personality is, well, pushier than the rest. The class knows that some students whine more than others, and they also resent that, whereas they seem to like the idea that I am not catering to particular personality types. I get very little pushback.

    I have never liked the “and now I will (punitively) re-grade your whole exam” approach both because it makes more work and because it gives the students the impression that the whole process is capricious and negotiable. I emphasize that the TAs and I try very hard to do it right the first time.

    Of course, I am always happy to discuss their answers and help them understand why they got it wrong. One of my pet peeves in doing that is the student who appears to listen carefully and then says, “Oh, well, I understood it, but I guess I just worded the answer differently than you did.” Um, yeah, if you want to say that you used words and I used words and your words were different BECAUSE THEY WERE WRONG. Sigh.

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