A College Instructor’s Guide to Avoiding Grade Appeals
At many colleges student have due process rights. Among those rights is the right to appeal their grades. If you have not been involved in a formal grade appeal, good for you. If you want to be sure you never are, pay heed to what I have to say.
Reasons Why College Students Appeal Grades
The overriding reason is obvious; students want a higher grade. However, a grade appeal must be based on something. Think of the grade appeal process like a law suit. Anybody can sue anybody else for almost anything. It may get thrown out of court or it may go to trial. Regardless, citizens have the right to file the law suit. At most colleges, students have similar rights.
When a student lodges a grade appeal at my college, he or she must state the basis for their appeal. Here are some of the more common reasons students give;
- Grading Ambiguity – The instructor’s interpretation of what he or she put in writing is different from the student’s.
- Failure to Follow the Syllabus – Students may demand special considerations if the instructor changed due dates, assignments, and anything else that factors into the final grade such as the number of tests.
- Partial Credit Dispute – The student feels he or she deserves more credit.
- Inequity – A student claims that someone else received more credit for similar work.
- Lack of Accommodation – The student presents unique circumstances that precluded his or her ability to attend class, complete an assignment or prepare for an exam. The student feels he or she should have been given a chance to make up the work or be given an extra credit assignment.
- Total Surprise – Students will sometimes argue that their instructor told them not to drop the course because they were doing alright and on track to pass.
- Hard Work – They feel they deserve some credit for their effort.
- Graduation Requirement – Student pleads for passing grade because he or she needs it to graduate.
What College Instructors should do to Avoid Grade Appeals
Basically, there should be no ambiguity in your grading policy. It should be clearly stated in your syllabus. Here are some ways I recommend dealing with the above reasons:
- Grading Ambiguity – Be precise. Quantify everything that can be quantified, and explain exactly how students’ final grades will be calculated. In your class, is 80 to 89 a B? If so, what do you do if a student’s final number grade is 89.3?
- Partial Credit Dispute – Explain how you make qualitative judgments when grading a test or assignment. Whenever possible, provide a grading rubric. Give examples that illustrate partial and full credit. Explain the criteria by which you award partial credit on exam questions and problems. Whatever you do, be sure that you are assigning partial credit equitably. It is all too easy to give more credit to a hard working student with a good attitude than to one who misses classes and doesn’t participate.
- Failure to Follow the Syllabus – If you decide to change what is in your syllabus put it in writing. Let’s say you originally planned on 6 quizzes and 4 tests, but you decide to add a couple quizzes and only give 3 tests. Is it clear how grades will be calculated?
- Inequity – You may want to be lenient to a student who has a good attitude and really tried hard. However, if your syllabus says no extra credit will be given, don’t give extra credit. The same thing applies to turning in later assignments and makeup exams. You must stick to your syllabus.
- Lack of Accommodation – First of all, if the student has a documented disability that merits accommodations, you must comply. However, no version of the old alibi “My dog eat my homework” should be accepted. A fellow dean told me about an appeal in which the student claimed her computer crashed and she lost all of her work. They shouldn’t need to be told, but you may want to encourage your students to back up their work.
- Total Surprise – Building up a student’s confidence is a good thing, but never tell a student that he or she will pass your course without qualifying what he or she must do to make that happen.
- Hard Work – Make students understand what is required to be successful in your course. Differentiate between effort and learning.
- Graduation Requirement – As a dean, students have told me that I will ruin their lives if I don’t make some type of exception that will let them complete a course. Often, they request waiving a prerequisite or squeezing them into a full class. You may feel sorry for a student, but you are not responsible for their schedule. You can show empathy, but these situations seldom warrant sympathy.
Are Grade Appeals on the Upswing?
I can’t answer this question with certainty, but it seems like it from my perspective. Even if you have been teaching for years without a single grade appeal, don’t assume that you will never get one. Keep accurate grading records and retain them for the length of time your college requires, usually a year. Remember the law suit analogy. Have good evidence and be prepared to defend yourself if you are ever dragged into grade appeal court.
© 2010 Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.
Posted July 11, 2010