Can My College Student Dispute a Course Grade?

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.

Related Posts:

What to Do If Your College Student Is On Academic Probation

How to Help Your College Student Use the College Appeal Process Effectively

What to Expect from Your College Student’s First Semester Grades

Helping Your College Student Avoid “How Do I Tell My Parents?” Fears



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5 thoughts on “Can My College Student Dispute a Course Grade?

  1. What do you do when your teacher give bias grades based on gender, and how much the teacher likes you or dislikes you due to your gender preferences no matter how through and good your work is? What about when he used derogatory remarks and yells at students in class for issues he causes by not clearly communicating assignments? Is the unprofessional conduct. When you disagree with him, and instead of professional debating with you ask you questions about your age and experience instead of the issue he has falsified? The dean doesnt want to fix these issues and I’m not sure who to turn too. The dean spoke to him and the teacher is the same evil man thinking he can cause harm on whatever student he wants still.

  2. I am very upset that my daughters Professor led her to believe that she understood what was going on with her medically. My daughter was getting sick and did not know why. She went to the hospital, assuming she was pregnant. She was told that she was not. She was still getting sick, took a home pregnancy test and found out that she and her husband are indeed pregnant. This pregnancy was very difficult in the 1st trimester. She was hospitalized twice. She provided her teacher with doctors notes, explained that she was very ill. She got all of her work completed, and all of it was A work. Te syllabus indicates that the Professor will notify the student via email if their attendance is affecting their grade. My daughter never received an email. She had several conversations with her professor, and she never said that my daughters grade would be affected. Now, once the final grades are in, she failed my daughter. My daughter has all of the text messages between her and the teacher, one email, and the doctors notes that she submitted to her. I have seen her work…all A work…and she received a B at midterm, now an F with no warning. Is the only recourse an appeal?

  3. Thanks for the kind words, Jillian! Students are so often dissatisfied with a grade but can’t be very objective about why they may have gotten it. Although parents should never get involved by calling the professor, they can do a lot to help the student think through what he should – or shouldn’t – do. Love your blog. Some of your thoughts may make their way to my students. Thanks for sharing.

  4. As an academic advisor, this is one of the best articles I have read on this topic. Thank you for writing it. It clearly outlines the realities of grade changes at the post-secondary level and gives parents a better context of why a student may have received a particular grade. Great job!

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