Dealing with Grade Appeals

Recently, four people found Adjunct Assistance with the search phrase “advice for dealing with grade appeals,” which prompted me to write this article. The best advice I can give for dealing with grade appeals is stick to the facts.  However, the grade appeal process starts long before grades are assigned.  It starts by taking steps to avoid grade appeals.  It also involves being prepared to deal with grade appeals should they arise.

How to Avoid Grade Appeals

The best defense is a good offense.  No wait.  That is not a good analogy.  We are not fighting with our students; at least we are not starting fights.  But grade appeals can turn into verbal fights.  Therefore, a good instructor takes ever precaution to avoid such disputes. Here are 12 actions you should take to avoid grade appeals:
  1. Write a good syllabus, one that students will read.
  2. Keep it simple.  Adopt a simple, straight forward grading policy.  Your grading policy should not require a Ph.D. in Logic & Mathematical Foundations of Informatics to be understood.  But if it does, Indiana University has a great program for your students.  You might want to make that a course prerequisite.
  3. Be careful if your policy includes objective measures like class participation.  Is it wrong to grade on class participation? Not necessarily, but it can lead to disputes.
  4. Do not “round up” for effort.  For example, assume that two of your students earned 88 percent, and 90 percent was required for an A.  Do not give the one who you feel really tried hard an A unless one of the course learning objectives was “Display good effort by asking questions in class and convincing the instructor that you really, really worked hard.”  (Note:  If this is one of the learning objectives you list in your syllabus, I encourage you to remove it.)
  5. Do not violate your grading policy.  If there are no provisions for late work or extra credit, do not extend such courtesies no matter how deserving you judge the student to be.  One of my adjuncts did this, and that student immediately told her friend.  Guess what the friend then demanded?  The instructor was violating rule one of grading – Be fair and equitable to all your students.
  6. Make sure your students know where they stand during the term.  No surprises!
  7. Return all graded homework promptly, ideally the following class.  Some students attempt to  justify their grade appeals by claiming they did not know they were doing poorly.
  8. Do not make assumptions that you could not defend in front of an appeals committee.  For example, if you believe a student cheated but did not personally witness that student copying answers off another student’s test, you better have compelling evidence to support your claim.  An adjunct of mine once made this claim and gave a student a zero on the test.  The tearful student came to me to complain.  I asked the adjunct to give me a copy of the student’s test and the test from which she allegedly copied.  I did not see any evidence of cheating.  As it turned out, the alleged cheater and her accomplice were difficult students who openly argued with the instructor.  The instructor let her negative feelings toward these students to cloud her reasoning.
  9. Double check your calculations before finalizing grades.  Yes, even an instructor as intelligent and gifted as you might make a mistake.  Okay, maybe not you, but maybe someone almost as good as you.  Keep the following incident in mind.  A very good adjunct, a science instructor no less, gave me her grading spreadsheet to validate the grade about which a student was complaining.  After close examination, I realized the formulas in the spreadsheet did not accurately reflect the grading policy as written in the syllabus.  The student had actually earned the grade she was demanding.  I asked the instructor to go back and recalculate all grades and make any grade change corrections that would raise other grades.)
  10. If your college has a formal grade appeal process, commit it to memory.  You need to be aware of the due process rights that you are required to extend to your students.
  11. If your college does not have a documented grade appeal process you still need to be prepared.  Establish a fair and equitable process that you will follow.  However, do not document it in your syllabus.  You will only encourage grade appeals.
  12. Maintain good records, and retain them for at least one year.

Dealing with Grade Appeals

Grade appeals are not pleasant.  They can consume your time and energy that of others – a counselor, your dean, members of an appeals committee, and sometimes even senior administrators.  Grade appeals can go all the way to the provost or college president. Here are steps to take when students complain about grades:
  1. Remember, students earn grades and instructors only report them.  Maintain this perspective when communicating with your students.
  2. Follow your college’s procedures “to the letter.” *  (*I know that many of you readers live outside the United States and, some of you may not be familiar with the idioms I use.  I’ll do a better job of communicating in my books.)
  3. Be sensitive to students allegations, no matter how unfounded they may seem.  If students think you are angry with them, it only fuels their fire and makes them more aggressive in their pursuit of a better grade.  (Did I say it fuels their fire?  No, I am not suggesting a student would set fire to your office or car.  Sadly, however, we must remain mindful of the fact that a few of our students may have emotional or mental issues and may not act with rational civility.)
  4. Communicate with the students professionally and respectfully no matter how angry and accusatory they are.  Never say or do anything that you would not want your dean to hear.  Remember, you have your integrity and that of your institution to uphold.  You never know when that complaining student might be a close relative to the president of the board of trustees.
  5. Check your calculations.  Be open to the fact that you may have made an error.  Admit it if you made a mistake.
  6. Don’t give in.  If a student didn’t earn the grade he or she wants, don’t change it just to get that person off your back.  (Oops, another idiom.  Hopefully, a grade appealing student will never literally jump you from behind, through you to the floor, and sit on your back.  Of course, if that happens, you may want to give in to the student’s demand.)

© 2010 Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

January 30, 2011


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.

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