Haggling Over Grades

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By Melissa Miller, Ed.D., M.Ed.

Grading is one of the biggest challenges facing a New Adjunct. I’ve always felt grading was a strong suit of mine, as I have experience in test design, curriculum development, and extensive training in conducting evaluations at the collegiate level. However, even with all of this experience, I still feel overwhelmed at times. It’s not the quantity of papers to grade I find taxing, although sometimes those piles really do seem to reproduce like bunnies. No, what I was not prepared for, and am learning to deal with, is the emontional aspects of grading, and how contentious it is for some students. Maybe I was naive when I started as a New Adjunct, but when I was a college student (which I have been for most of my adult life!), I never argued with a professor about a grade. It was very black and white to me – I earned a score, the points added up, that was my grade. (Of course, I’m not referring to a clerical error or other such misunderstanding.) I never in a million years would have asked a professor, as I have been asked, to “Please, please do what you can – I have to plass this class!” Yikes! The nerve!

The first time a student said something like this to me, I was flabbergasted. It wouldn’t have even occurred to me to do this when I was a student, let alone to actually act on it if I had thought of it! So I was very unprepared for this type of request. Each term I’ve received similar requests. Despite my sermon at the beginning of the term about how grades are earned and not given (and what the distinct difference is), I am still plagued by emotional pleas during the final weeks of the course.

Most requests do not come from students who arrive early, complete assignments on time, fully participate – you know, the students who would never “ask” for a grade change. The ones who want me to “give” them a grade are most often the student who slides by all term, turns in late work, asks for extensions, etc. I had a student who turned in a paper four weeks late ask why late points were deducted – hadn’t she told me she was sick?

Sometimes, however, a student will surprise me with their grade request. This student may be a student you have had standard communication with throughout the term, and then – Bam! – they show up or e-mail with some sort of strange grade change request. I had a student last term who had a B average because I allowed her to turn in several late assignments, and then she had the nerve to complain I was “ruining her grade point average” because she didn’t “get” an A! I informed her she was lucky she hadn’t failed. This same student wrote on her evaluation that I was a tough grader. Ha!

I also have students who question point deductions when I have a more-than-generous late work policy. One University I teach for has a five-point-per-week standard policy, and oftentimes I am more than lenient than this, depending on the case. Sure enough, I’ve received the, “Don’t you think that was a lot of points taken off just for being late?” e-mail. Yes, it is a lot of points, and no, it is not too many because it could have been a zero.

I’ve had different reactions with these students. Sometimes, I take the time to re-explain the grading policies, reiterating my late work policy, pointing out times during the course when I had already granted extensions or extra credit, etc. This usually does little to soothe the savage beast, as they are desperate at this point. Every assignment I grade has a rubric, and the main reason is so students can very clearly see how points were deducted and earned. This is my first line of defense against students who argue grades like it’s a collegiate sport. What is your experience in dealing with such requests?

About the New Adjunct: Dr. Melissa Miller completed her Ed.D. with an emphasis in Teacher Leadership from Walden University. She holds a M.Ed. from Mary Washington University and a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies from Virginia Tech. Dr. Miller’s professional and research interests include adult and online learning, professional development, and literacy. Presently, Dr. Miller works as an adjunct instructor and an evaluator, while also enjoying her role as a wife and mother.

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