Grade Grubbing

‘Tis the season.

Two school years in a row from 2006-2008, I had what I would describe as nightmare experiences with grade grubbing. On college campuses, this is seriously some kind of disease. I’m not sure if it’s academic advisers or other students who encourage these kids to go back to their professors and TA’s begging to be bumped from an 87 to a 90, but this behavior seems to have achieved a level of social acceptability that I frankly don’t get. Both of these experiences included borderline harassing emails asking for grade changes, and it happened once while I was a TA and once when I was teaching my own courses. They were so stressful that I began to fear my inbox and had to enlist superiors to help me deal with it. Since then, I’ve tried heading the problem off at the pass. During the final week of each term, I give a really, really manipulative speech, usually some form of the following:

“I know that your grades are important to you, and for that reason they are important to me. I know that for some of you, a B means failure, and I assign that grade with full knowledge of how it will feel to you. I work very hard to ensure that grades are calculated accurately, and if there is any subjectivity in how I assign grades for individual assignments, I agonize about the fairness of what I’ve given you. I agonize over this, guys. I lose sleep. So recognize that if you come to me challenging the final grade you’ve received (which is a right you are free to exercise), you are essentially challenging my integrity.”

This usually wards off the casual grade grubbers, the ones who send me smarmy emails loaded with typos (I kid you not) trying to squeeze extra half-points out of me. Grade grubbing comes from a place of self-centeredness, but somehow being reminded that their instructor is a person–not a machine–a person who does, in fact, have considerable investment in the grades they assign, helps put things in perspective. Many of them think that it never hurts to ask, and my saying stuff like this lets them know that, yes, actually, it hurts a bit.

It may not stop the true sociopaths. I call them sociopaths because these kids are sort of like those serial killers featured on late night cable. They appear charming and socially adept early in the semester and work hard to develop a rapport with you. They flirt with you and make you think they are the best student ever to come in your classroom. Experience has taught be to be wary of these student. These are kids who are used to getting what they want from authority figures, especially those of the opposite gender. They see their good behavior and flattery as their end in some sketchy backroom agreement, and when their work starts getting C’s, they feel betrayed. By the end of the semester, they turn on you for not holding up your end of the bargain and become downright nasty if you refuse to give them what they want. I don’t know that it’s entirely these kids’ fault. At some point, this strategy (and I doubt they even know it’s a strategy), must have worked for them, and it’s astonishing to them when it doesn’t. They feel that by giving them less than they grade they have come to expect, you have rejected them, who they are, so to reduce cognitive dissonance, they’ll make you the problem.

Thankfully, these sorts of kids tend to be not very original when it comes to the arguments they deploy. Once you get a sense of the range of possibilities, you can come up with standard responses to each:

1) “But I never missed a day of class”
Ever since I adopted an attendance policy, I never had to hear this one again. Especially at big universities, where most classes are giant lectures and no one is checking who’s there from day to day, students start seeing their presence in class as going above and beyond the call of duty. I have a sister who was sort of like this. She used to just show up for exams. She graduated with a 4.0, and the dork in me hates her for it. Seriously though, if you have an attendance policy, it lets your students know that showing up is a minimum expectation, not something you get extra points for.

2) “I need an A to get into medical/law/business/graduate school”
The simple answer to this one is, “That is not at all my problem.” What would college look like if we assigned A’s based on who “needed” them the most? The logic of it falls apart pretty quick. A sick, sick part of me loves hearing this argument because it’s just so howl at the moon stupid that it’s almost entertaining.

3) “I’ll do an extra credit project”
This will vary by instructor, but it says on my syllabus, “no extra credit will be offered in this class.” My students are allowed unlimited revisions of every paper, though, so I haven’t heard this one in a long time. If you give your students enough opportunities to compensate for poor performance, I do think they feel a greater sense of control over the final outcome, and that’s partially what I think grade grubbing is about. It’s “something they can do” to improve the grade, not a reasonable thing, mind you, but it’s something.

4) “I am a straight-A student”
Usually this means that they got A’s all through high school or that they are getting A’s in other classes, and your class is the brick wall they’ve hit on their wind sprint to star-studentdom. This is an identity crisis for them, but it helps to note that their performance in other classes has no bearing on their performance in this one. The more insidious among them are implying that there is something wrong with you, that everyone else recognizes how fabulous they are but you don’t seem to get it. More on that in a second.

5) “It was just that one assignment”
Again, I allow unlimited revisions, so the “one bad assignment” argument doesn’t work very well, but like #4, this is a perspective problem. Many students want to be judged “holistically” (even the ones who think holistic grading is too subjective), according to their overall academic performance. They don’t see their final grade as consisting of multiple smaller grades, moments where you measure their progress. They may not recognize that there are some areas of academics where they are stronger and some where they are weaker and want a “pass” when it comes to stuff that isn’t as easy for them. I confront this by saying–both in my “final grade speech”–and in individual conversations, that we can talk about their performance on individual assignments, not overall performance. If they think they’ve been graded unfairly, they have to point to an specific assignment.

Truthfully though, I haven’t had a grade grubber in two years, ever since I began doing away with late policies and allowing for unlimited revisions (which I’ll talk about in a future post). Like I said, the more control you hand over to them, the freer everyone is. Like the kids in the Dweck experiment, students who feel that their score is somehow connected to effort rather than executing perfectly on the very first try a skill they came to the class to learn in the first place seem to be less whiny and entitled. Furthermore, the more transparent you are about your expectations, the less ammo they will have to throw back at you.

#6 on that list is “I just didn’t know what you wanted,” and that often does actually a problem with the instructor. I have had kids use this one defensively, when I didn’t think it was warranted, but my experience at the Undergraduate Writing Center has shown me that many instructors are appallingly vague about what they want, and most kids are terrified to ask for clarity. When one kid said this to me in 2008, I set up a special meeting with him and asked him to bring any examples of assignment prompts that he thought were more clear than mine, so that I could learn from him. He didn’t bring any examples to the meeting, but we did have a good conversation about what he wasn’t getting and how he could do better on the next assignment. Admitting that I might be part of the problem diffused the situation. The simple truth is that if students feel that they are heard, that you are listening, and that you genuinely care about them, they are less likely to turn on you. That’s the part that you, the instructor can control.

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