How to Get a Better Grade

Back when I wrote these posts on grade grubbing, I had every intention of writing a companion piece or two directed at students (I know some students read this blog).  Then I got distracted.  Basically, I wanted to give students some advice about how to potentially improve their grade by improving their relationships with instructors, by not being “that guy”–you know, that guy that teachers rip to shreds on their blogs.  And while July seems like a strange time to be writing about school, I figure that some students are winding up their first session of summer school, and, you know, it’s never too early to start thinking about the Fall term.  So here we go:

“She just doesn’t like me. She gave me a D on my paper.” I used to hear this statement a lot from the guy I dated in high school. Throughout our four years at Evangelical High, he cultivated academic persecution fantasies that would put David Horowitz to shame. Then, I would take a look at his paper, point out that there wasn’t a single complete sentence in the entire first paragraph, and he would turn on me. We did not date long.

“My teacher doesn’t like me” is a ridiculous excuse, folks. First of all, what does “like” even mean in this case? What do you consider to be a sufficient level of affinity here? Do the two of you need to be so close that you stay after class to talk about your feelings? Does the instructor need to be willing to walk your dog and drive you to the airport? The truth is that students and instructors can have wonderfully productive relationships regardless of whether or not you want to go have a beer together. You can even have productive relationships when you are entirely indifferent toward one another as people. Yes, there are some instructors out there in serious need of a personality transplant, even a few who are inappropriately punitive in their grading policies. But let’s just start from the assumption that the VAST MAJORITY of secondary school and college instructors are just pretty decent people, people who want to do their jobs, people who took those jobs because they are in some level interested in working with students, whether or not they feel super close to each individual.

So, starting there, how do you build a working relationship with an instructor that is likely to get them interested in helping you, in letting you make up or redo work, in maybe listening to a petition for a better grade (that last one’s a tall order)? How, in short, do you get an instructor on your side, whether or not they actually “like” you, whatever you think that means?

The answer is actually pretty simple and actually goes beyond just performing well in their class. I’ve had plenty of smart students who drifted through my classroom turning in great work without seeming to try, but I wasn’t ever interested in bending over backward for them. The key to getting an instructor on your side is to show a sincere investment in their class, whether you are “good” at that particular subject or not. Note: this does not mean sucking up and telling the instructor how brilliant they are and how much you want to major in this topic. In fact, it’s possible to build a good working partnership even if you are open about your ambivalence or historical difficulties with that subject. Showing investment means actually investing your time, your effort, and your focus. Here’s what that looks like in a practical sense.

Cover the basics. Show up on time. Observe the attendance policy. Don’t ask questions that can easily be answered by looking at the syllabus. Turn in assignments according to schedule. Put forth an honest effort on each assignment. Study. Respect the class rules. Policies are usually there for a reason, and habitually disregarding them is a sign that you don’t respect the instructor’s time or effort in putting together the class. If you have trouble with any of the imperatives in this paragraph, it’s time to take a steady look inward. Barring extraordinary circumstances, which I’ll discuss in a moment, your instructor is not the reason you are doing poorly. No, not even a little bit.

Be up front about any accommodations you need. If you have a disability, your instructor is required to provide the accommodations listed in your Disability Services letter. Beyond that, if you have a particular issue, like a scheduling catastrophe that may make you late on occasion, it’s better to get out in front of it on the first day. Don’t just assume that your instructor will figure it out. In the absence of other information, he’ll probably just assume you’re a jerk.

Don’t wait until the end of term to address a bad grade. For one thing, waiting til the eleventh hour to try to manipulate your way from a B+ to an A just reeks of grade grubbing. For another thing, any time you want to talk about your grades, it should be in the context of your performance on individual assignments. Furthermore, your performance on a particular type of assignment and your mastery of content will improve if you seek extra feedback in a timely fashion. This means that the day you get a test or paper back with a grade that was less than what you were expecting, you seek out the instructor within a week. Don’t just walk up to her after class. Take some time to absorb any written comments. Then, a day or two later, send an email that looks something like this:

Dear Professor X,

I was really disappointed with my performance on the last test. I studied the entire week beforehand, but I guess I did not understand the material as well as I thought. I’d like to talk with you about how to improve for the next test and make sure that I understand everything. Could we meet during your Tuesday office hours?

Thanks.

Or something like this:

Dear Professor Y,

You probably noticed that I did not do so well on that last paper. I had three exams last week and did not anticipate the amount of time it would take to study for them. As such, I did not do my best work on that assignment. I was wondering if we could meet some time to talk about my thesis and how I might improve it. I know you allow us to do one revision, and I want to make it count. Unfortunately, I work my shift at Chipotle during your office hours, but I am available to meet any time on Friday or after 1:00 on Thursday.

Once you have a meeting set up, it is imperative that you keep it, especially if you need to ask for time outside of office hours. If you need to reschedule, make sure you get in touch with the instructor ahead of time. Most teachers are not inclined to schedule extra meetings with students who blow them off.

Once there, focus the conversation on your performance on that particular assignment/exam and try to avoid talking about your grade as something that the instructor assigned arbitrarily or something that was done to you. After you have done all of these things, you may then broach the subject of do-overs and extra credit. Respectfully ask if you can make up the quiz you failed or do an extra credit project or revision. Then accept the verdict respectfully. If you want to be a real star, you can revise the paper anyway and then hand it in again and just see what happens.

Get on top of emergencies. Did your computer catch fire over the weekend? Have you been struck down with bubonic plague? Did you wind up in a magical scheduling vortex and have 14 exams and projects due the same week? Believe it or not, this is not the time to throw in the towel, nor is it the time to hope the entire world will stop until you get sorted out or to assume that people know that something horrible must have happened to you. This is the time to Deal With It.

Folks, I have had students with emergencies that make your 24 hour flu look like a day at the spa. I have had students lose their parents, find out mid way through the semester that they need to go home while their mother undergoes chemo, require an emergency appendectomy, discover that they are pregnant and need to divert their emotional and mental resources to figuring out what to do about it. I have had students whose roommates poured Dr. Pepper over their laptops. I have had students with painful chronic illnesses that sometimes kept them in bed. All of these students made it through the semester, some of them with excellent grades, even after missing two consecutive weeks of class. All of these students got on top of their emergencies. In a timely fashion (i.e. while it was happening, not a week after they re-materialized), they let me know what was going on and–even more importantly–how they planned to deal with it. Some have deputized their parents or friends to find out what they were missing and to get homework. Some have met with me to discuss the possibility of taking an incomplete and getting work done over the summer or to map out a schedule for completing all their work by the last day, including regularly scheduled check-in appointments with me. All of these students required special accommodations and leniency, and I was happy to give it to them. Under no circumstances would I require someone to email me from the recovery room after surgery or write papers when they ought to be sleeping or doing physical therapy. But at the bare minimum, even if your emergency is just a particularly bad cold, have some kind of a plan and share it with your instructor.

Be a presence. Speak up in class.  You don’t have to be the most talkative person in the room.  Just chime in two or three times a session whenever you have something to share in order to show that you are engaged and interested in making a contribution.  Also, be a presence in your instructor’s office hours and in their email inbox.  Don’t harass them or anything, but feel free to ask questions about things that aren’t immediately obvious from looking at the syllabus or assignment sheet, and show up in office hours when you legitimately need help.  It shows that you are interested in improving.

Be humble. Be accepting. Even if you do everything I recommend here, in order to cultivate a relationship with your instructors that is based on respect, you need to recognize that even if you show up every day, even if you try your hardest, no one actually owes you an A. Ultimately, your final grade is always based on your performance on the tasks you were given.

Does all of this sound more or less like,  you know, work?  Because it is.  If you were hoping for a solution to your grade problems that didn’t include doing everything a good student is supposed to do, then I’m not sure I can help you.  I certainly would raise your grade.  Sorry if that’s not what you want to hear.  But the simple truth is that investing time and effort in what an instructor is teaching is more likely to make them want to invest substantially in you, more likely to make them go out of their way to help you, make them more sympathetic when you need them to be.  The simple truth is that instructors are human, and you will get really, really far by showing that you respect what they’re doing.

To be continued.

Future posts:  How to petition a grade if you absolutely must.  What to do if your instructor really is a total human fail.

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4 thoughts on “How to Get a Better Grade

  1. Ugh, please do not recommend the dreaded “I was wondering if we could meet during your office hours” email! This is a prime example of the banal ignorance of today’s college students. First, office hours should include an open-door policy; therefore it is a ridiculous waste of both the student and the professor’s time to request a meeting during office hours. Second, if a student does have serious cause for concern about a graded assignment and specific questions, those should be addressed in the email so that 1. the professor knows the student has seriously considered the graded assignment and why he/she earned the grade he/she did, 2. the issue can be addressed in a reply, avoiding the need for an in-person meeting, and 3. if the student insists on a face-to-face meeting, the professor is prepared for the issues to arise at that meeting. Students should seem interested and concerned, but they should also be strategic and respectful of the professor’s time. Otherwise, this is a great post on how students can work their way into a positive working relationship with their professors.

    1. This post is really old, so I can barely remember it, but different instructors have different preferences in this regard. I like to know if a student needs to discuss something important ahead of time so that I can prepare, and I think that insisting on in-person meetings in certain circumstances is important because it costs the student a bit more effort than sending an email.

      1. Thanks for the quick response! It was recently reposted by a Tumblr I follow (http://politicalprof.tumblr.com/post/65454645100/how-to-get-a-better-grade-shitty-first-drafts), so that’s why I came across it. I absolutely agree with getting a heads-up from the student, and I always have an open-door policy if I am in the office, whether it is posted office hours or not, but if I can avoid a mumbling, structureless, pointless face-to-face meeting by settling the issue over email–and not a message that asks if the student is welcome during my stated office hours–then I much prefer that route. Thanks again for the response!

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