Avoiding the Black Hole of Grade Appeals


Students rush to exit the room except for one, who approaches the lectern gripping a paper, eyes bulging.


Professor, why is this a B+ instead of an A-?


Drops head in despair. A tear trickles down his face.


All kidding aside, most of us could happily live the rest of our lives without ever hearing a student question a grade again. Grade appeals can lead to a host of negative outcomes, not the least of which is the threat to non-tenured faculty of being asked to not return the next semester. Contested grades can also be a black hole for instructors’ time. However, several strategies can help minimize student confusion about or complaints over grades.

oct_shutterstock_391193044Use rubrics. Many grade appeals occur because students consider grading written work subjective. One way to avoid this particular complaint is to use rubrics. Much literature has made a case for using rubrics. (See last month’s post on grading strategies.) Because rubrics provide specific criteria by which student work is considered, they can make grading quicker and more transparent for instructors. When instructors clarify expectations, students understand where they fall short or succeed on a given assignment.

Make participation expectations clear. Do you mark students down for non-attendance or tardiness, reduce grades for late work, or assess participation? If you include these aspects as part of students’ final grades, assign a clear percentage to the criteria and display the policy prominently on your syllabus.

Begin each day with a quick quiz. Perhaps you do not want to measure attendance or tardiness but still want to encourage regular participation. Consider beginning each class session with a quick quiz instead. This way, performance on the quizzes offers concrete indications of student performance and participation.

Discuss the repercussions of plagiarism. Part of any course involving writing must contain a definitive policy addressing plagiarism. In both your syllabus and in class, discuss academic dishonesty and its ramifications. Better yet, provide a hands-on, in-class refresher, re-acquainting students with the mechanics of proper citation. If you suspect a student has either wittingly or unconsciously committed plagiarism, communicate—and document—your skepticism clearly. Consider writing a no-nonsense statement such as “I am giving this paper a “0” because it contains no citations” or the like on the paper in question. Then, with the student, discuss how to remediate the lacking skills.

Respond to student requests with empathy and fairness. Who hasn’t had a student ask for an extension because of illness, a family situation, or any number of legitimate (or not so legitimate) situations? Decide ahead of time how generous you want to be. Many instructors find that if they respond to such student requests with empathy but also reiterate their policies, they avoid contentious exchanges.

Be consistent with grading policy. Once you have made your grading criteria clear, stick to them. This is the best way to avoid grade appeals, especially those in which students point to another student’s grade. It is also the fairest and most equitable way to treat all your students.

How do you deal with grading complaints? Start a conversation!


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