The Grade Complaint: Striking a Balance

I’m going to sound like an old lady here, but when I was in college, I never would have dreamed of complaining about my essay grades the way some of my students do. The other day, a student told me that I am “unfair” and that she disagrees with the way I saw her paper. She didn’t feel that a certain part of the essay I pointed out weakened her paper and she wanted to “work something out.” I was left wondering how on earth to respond to such an entitled complaint – a complaint that seemingly implies that she knows as much about grading essays as I do and that a grade that I have assigned can be negotiated like the price of a used car or a flea market necklace.


It’s difficult not to go on the defensive when such emails arrive in one’s inbox.  We are clearly educated and trained to grade these essays and our Program works hard to make sure we are all on the same page where grading is concerned. I try very hard to be nice about it; there is a lot of “I understand your concern but…” and “Your disappointment in your grade is not uncommon…” I want students to know that I understand their frustration.

On the other hand, I do not owe you anything. The world does not owe you anything. You earn the grade that you earn, not the grade you negotiate when you are disappointed with the grade that you earn.

So, what do we do? My goal is to strike a balance between “I understand” and “No way am I changing this grade” and “I’m happy to explain the grade so you can improve for future essays and future drafts.” The latter sentiment is something I type regularly, and it seems to reassure students that it’s not that I don’t want to listen to them; it’s just that I will not change a grade because they do not agree with me.

More often than not, once I tell students that the grade will stand but that I would be happy to meet with them, they don’t want to meet. Why? Am I to believe that all they care about is the grade? That being better writers does not appeal to them? That the most important thing – that they learn to communicate effectively through writing in an academic arena – is not really important to them at all?

This blog post is mostly questions, I know. I’ve come up with few answers over the years and I put it to my colleagues to tackle this with me. But what I have learned most of all is that students do just want to know that we have heard their complaints. Much of the time, I don’t think they really expect the grade to be changed; they just figure it won’t hurt to ask. And if I approach it less defensively, they usually benefit from a conversation about how that essay could have achieved a higher grade. But we all know there are students who don’t want to take no for an answer, who believe we are unfair or that we don’t know what we are talking about, who got all A’s and B’s in high school and now believe we are frauds for giving them C’s. So, what you do you?

1 thought on “The Grade Complaint: Striking a Balance

  1. I’m really interested to hear how others handle this too. This is one more of the standard issues that I tend to avoid because of the rewrite policy, since it simultaneously lets students know that if they are unhappy with their grades they can do something about it … but the responsibility lies with them. I’m wondering if there is a way to achieve that without doing the crazy rewrite thing.

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