For as long as there have been college students and professors, some students have been unhappy with the grades that they receive in some courses. Sometimes a student expects the grade he receives, and sometimes he may be taken by surprise. Sometimes a student knows that a particular grade is coming, but he is unhappy with the grade. Grades are intended to reflect the quality of the work produced and the level of understanding which the student has of the material covered in the class.
Occasionally, however, a student is not only unhappy with the grade he receives in a course, but feels that the grade is not appropriate; either because it does not fairly represent his work or understanding, or because a mistake has been made. As a parent, this may be one of those situations when you want to jump in and help to make it better for your student. Like so many other situations for your college student, this is one of those times when it is not appropriate for you, as parent, to step in. If your student feels that he has been graded inappropriately in a course, he must consider his options and take any potential action himself. As a parent, however, if your student shares his feelings with you, you can help him consider his options.
The first thing for you and your student to consider is that, short of gross negligence and/or gross unprofessionalism, the principle of academic freedom means that no one can change a course grade except the instructor unless there is an obvious mistake or incompetence. A department chair, or dean, or even a college president can talk with the professor, but the professor is the ultimate authority in his or her own classroom.
The second thing to keep in mind is that course grade changes, except for clerical errors, are relatively rare. To put the request into context, your student is challenging the judgment of someone who is possibly an expert in the field, who probably attempts to be at least as fair as possible, and who has devoted his or her life to this work. Your student is asking the professor to take time and effort to review his evaluation and to give special consideration to your student’s work. Your student should consider whether the change in the grade is worth the effort and personal issues that may arise from the appeal or dispute.
If your student has decided that she feels that her course grade is inappropriate and that she would like to request a grade appeal or review, there are some things that you and she can discuss and keep in mind as she proceeds. Your help in brainstorming possible actions will help to model for your student how to deal with a difficult situation.
- The first thing that your student must consider is why he thinks that the grade should be something other than what it is. Does he believe that there was an error in calculations? Is he asking for an exception to a policy such as an attendance policy or a deadline? Is he simply asking for a favor because he “needs the class?” He needs to be very clear about what he is asking.
- Your student must think carefully about why she believes that she was given the grade. What did, or didn’t, she do to earn this grade? Is she possibly mistaking liking a class or working hard with doing well? College grades generally have very little to do with how hard a student tried, the student’s attitude, or whether the student liked the class or the professor. Grades are intended to reflect what the student has actually demonstrated of his learning or whether he has completed all that was expected of him.
- Your student might begin by rereading the course syllabus to review the expectations and criteria for grading. Has he truly completed everything to the standards set out in the syllabus?
- If your student has determined that he believes that he has met all standards and believes that it is worth the effort to challenge a grade, the best place to begin is by talking directly to the professor. She should choose her timing carefully. She should ask for an appointment during office hours rather than asking a question quickly in passing. She will need to make an appointment to have time and privacy to discuss the situation fully.
- If your student is going to ask for a review of a grade, he should do this as quickly as possible. Waiting weeks or months will not work in your student’s favor.
- Your student should be prepared for her meeting with the professor. She will want to have an outcome in mind and to bring all documentation (assignments and exams) with her. She should behave courteously and professionally. Any other approach will almost certainly fall on deaf ears.
- If your student is unable to resolve the situation with the professor, he may talk to his advisor, a department chairperson, or someone else. Once again, however, he will need to keep in mind that no one can change an instructor’s grade, and appeals such as this are generally rare.
- Sometimes, the best thing that the student can do is to know when to walk away and make the best of it. This will be a learning experience for your student, and will probably not be the last time that he will need to let go of something which he feels is important or unfair.
As a parent, it may be difficult to sit on the sidelines of a situation which your student feels is so important. However, this is not a time for you to intervene. Your student must handle this situation himself. It is important to remember, too, that your student’s perception of the situation, the potential injustice, and the outcome, may be very different from the professor’s. You may be hearing only one of these perspectives. Give your student the support that you feel is appropriate, help him understand the situation as clearly as possible, and then help him to move on if necessary. Once again, the important lessons of the college experience go well beyond the classroom walls.