Dealing With College Student Grade Appeals

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;

  1. Grading Ambiguity – The instructor’s interpretation of what he or she put in writing is different from the student’s.
  2. 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.
  3. Partial Credit Dispute – The student feels he or she deserves more credit.
  4. Inequity – A student claims that someone else received more credit for similar work.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Hard Work – They feel they deserve some credit for their effort.
  8. 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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Hard Work – Make students understand what is required to be successful in your course. Differentiate between effort and learning.
  8. 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


About Dr. Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

My name is Paul Hummel, and I often introduce myself to others as a recovering engineer. If you are familiar with the Dilbert cartoons, let me simply say that I lived all of that. I started my college saga at Illinois Institute of Technology. Eventually, I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Engineering Management. I worked for many years in industry, and during this time I did some college adjunct teaching. During my career I held several managerial positions in industry, the last as Director of Technology of a division of a Fortune 500 corporation. Then, in 1996, with minimal planning or forethought, I found myself working as a manufacturing consultant on behalf of Elgin Community College (ECC). My career in higher education began to take shape. I fell in love with ECC and with the mission of community colleges in general. I worked fulltime and occasionally taught college courses for my institution and two other colleges. After a couple years I set a goal to move over to the “credit side of the college” and eventually become a college administrator. In 2006, having earned my doctorate in education, I achieved that goal. I was hired by Waubonsee Community College as Dean for Technology, Mathematics and Physical Sciences. I have had the great fortune of working at two excellent colleges. The insights I want to share are drawn from the various college positions I have held. At ECC, in addition to my consulting role, I coordinated non-credit professional development training programs for three years and spent four years advising students in the TRiO Student Support Services program. That position helped me understand college education from the perspective of today’s college students. After seven years at Waubonsee, I retired April 30, 2013. I now devote my knowledge and skills to upgrading and expanding the websites I created beginning with Adjunct Assistance. I have three other websites: College Teaching Tips, Keys for College Success and Lighthouse for Learning. A lot of work lies ahead for me in terms of upgrading and expanding each of these websites, but I could not be more excited about fulfilling the vision I have for helping college instructors and their students succeed.


Dealing With College Student Grade Appeals — 2 Comments

  1. Keeping solid records and providing transparent grading criteria along with a rubric are wonderful ideas. The practical problem is the fact that with a large number of students, it is simply impossible to provide a detailed explanation of the assessment of each qualitative answer.

    • You are correct, but a grading rubric can be a big help. While rubrics are more commonly used for assignments, papers for example, they can be created for tests too. Also, the more specifically an essay question is worded, the less explanation that will be required. Thanks for your comment! I should make this the topic of a future article. 🙂

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