Thursday, January 04, 2007

How to Deal With Students Who Try to Browbeat you Into Giving Them a Higher Grade

(Lately, I've been working on writing up advice for TAs and new instructors that I did not get myself, but wish I had. This is one of my drafts.)

One of the things that I was unprepared for when I started instructing (although I've gotten used to it over time) was dealing with the occasional student who is incredulous about their grade. The first time it happened was with a student whose "D" on his first exam was, to be blunt, generous. The exam was terrible- the essays were off topic, rambling, and painfully short, the short answer questions were simply incorrect- but, it was the first exam, and the kid was a freshman, and etc. etc. etc. So, I kindly spared him from the F.

When the student got back his D exam, he was incredulous. "Excuse me- what exactly is your grading criteria?" he asked in that I'd-like-to-speak-to-your-manager tone that I've learned can come with the territory. When I explained my grading criteria, which are so boring and quotidian that I've seen a variation of them posted in a Maine elementary school, he was apoplectic:"That is not how you're supposed to grade! You're supposed to start by giving everyone an A! And then, if we make any major mistakes, you take off points from the A!" he explained. Being pretty new at this job, I didn't know the decorum, and laughed: "But that's just grade inflation!" And of course it is just grade inflation, but as you'll discover doing the job, there are many students that expect nothing less from us.

So, you have to be the one to introduce them to the idea that "A= Excellent" and not "A= Fine! You did the bare minimum, now leave me the hell alone!" In a perfect world, this would be an easy thing to explain. It would be reinforced by the entire educational system, the parents, and the larger culture. Alas, it's often us TAs who have to do the work.

Quite often, explaining academic standards can take on the character of doing missionary work and converting the natives to Christianity. Sometimes, it can take several weeks and be a very painful process, something like an exorcism. One semester long ago, I had a student who came to my office hours every week for two months trying to convince me that his essay in which he argued that the primary cause of the fall of the Western Roman Empire was the Industrial Revolution really should have been given an A. We read sections of the text together, I drew him a timeline, and made my case as clearly as possible. His case was to simply keep restating, "But, no, I'm right!" Some children, needless to say, should probably be left behind.

The Industrial Revolution student was much easier to deal with than the student who explained to me how grading should be carried out. He reminded me of the entitled rich kid character in every 80s teen comedy ('Do you know who my father is?!'). What you'll find is that there are usually one or two students like this every year. It's also not just us TAs who have to deal with them. Professors seem to get three or four students every semester who are indignant about their grades. I remember once overhearing a master's student in our program (who, frankly, had no business being a master's student anywhere on earth) shouting at an assistant professor that he had 'disrespected' him by giving him a low grade. I think everyone in higher ed has to deal with aggrieved students who believe that a low grade is a personal slight against their personhood. The sad fact is that many of these students have learned that browbeating instructors gets results. But the good news is their numbers are not legion.

Here are some suggestions on how to deal with the student who can't believe that they got anything less than an A:

1) Be willing to reread their exam, essay, homework, or other work. Usually you will find that your assessment of their work hasn't changed in the slightest. But often you'll find that just giving their work another chance is enough to convince them that you really are fair.

2) Look to the administration, professors, or senior faculty for support, if necessary. You'd be surprised at how many of them have good advice for you.

3) Type out your grading criteria in great detail and save copies for those who ask. Also consider handing out a copy of your grading criteria during the first class.

4) Stand your ground! As 'subjective' as grading might seem, after a while it becomes very easy to tell what grade an assignment should recieve. If the student deserved a D, give them a D.

Understand this- all of the hype you've heard about the 'culture wars' is largely just hype. But, there is a marked conflict going on in American academe- between those who believe that education is a moral good and those who think it is a marketable good, between those who believe that the university stands apart from the larger society, and those who think that it looks to the larger society for its direction. For every one of us who thinks that grade inflation is abhorrent, there is at least one faculty member or administrator who thinks it's abhorrent, but figures 'Who cares? So long as the retention rates are high!'

Grade inflation is not an either/or situation, or a switch that gets turned on or off; it is the outcome of millions of small choices that are made by educators. You cannot hold back the ocean of lowered expectations, but you can choose not to swim with the tide.

For those of you TAs, and junior faculty, and visiting professors, I say this- your standards make you part of a cultural revolution. You are the true counterculture.


Anonymous said...

Good advice, thank you. I TA at an elite university where a number of the students have a very "consumerist" attitude toward their education. It can be difficult to explain the mind-numbing details of a fair grading rubric to a student who only sees the letter grade and "weighs" the amount of ink I've used in my comments.

Last quarter one of my students, who had overextended himself between coursework and extracurricular activities, wasn't satisfied with his grade on a paper. I suggested that I reread his paper, and that I would ask the professor to read the paper, and the professor and I would discuss the matter. Though the student wound up with the same grade after the review, simply looking at the work again was enough to convince him that his work was fairly judged.

Students may be looking for an example of fairness, or a little personal attention - especially in a large general requirement lecture. I've always got a few minutes for those who want or need a little reassurance. It makes them feel better, makes me feel like I've made a connection with them, and it protects my professor and my department from angry and unfounded criticism.

Rufus said...

I think that's it. We tend to forget that they don't know how many students we have, or how much work we have to get through. I think the big classes can seem very impersonal to them, and pedagogy really should be interpersonal. I've been trying to be more available this year, even though I often have students who don't seem to want or need it.

Earnest English said...

My most exasperating encounters with students about grades is when the student is pretty sure that s/he knows how "to do school." "But I'm an honors student" or "I got a 4 on the AP English exam" or "I've always written my papers in a few hours and gotten an A before," they say. My last encounter with a student who was unhappy about his grade eventually admitted, "I've never been asked to think." And therein was the problem. Not that he was converted to the idea that he should think or that I had anything less than absolutely chutzpah in demanding that he do so in order to get a good grade, but I found it very revealing about how that honors student had learned how to perform for his teachers and called it "doing school" up until then. In my experience, it is the students who feel they know how to do school who are most adamant about grades. What do you think?

Earnest English said...

Sorry for the above typos. ARE, not is. ACK! I swear I'm in English. I swear.

Rufus said...

Sorry for the delay in responding- I'm busy "doing" my exam readings! It's interesting what you mention- I've encountered a number of students who see themselves as "overachievers" who don't strike me at all as overachievers. I think there is a tendency to replace teaching with rote memorization, and I hate to say this, but I assume that a certain amount of innate intelligence is required to do more difficult work than that. The problem really is that most High Schools don't ask students to do anything more difficult for four years, and so don't weed out people who can only "do school" in a mechanical rote sort of way.

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