So, you’ve done most of the stuff I recommended here for maximizing your potential grade in a class, and you didn’t quite get the results you wanted. Is it ever ok to go back at the end of the semester and ask for a higher grade? Truthfully, I think there are only three possible situations in which petitioning your instructor for a higher grade is appropriate:
- An objective mathematical or data entry error.
- Reasonable cause to believe that you were graded unfairly.
- Your performance on a final assignment or exam was so abysmal and so out of character that you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you could do better if given a second chance.
Case 1 is usually a pretty easy fix, especially if it’s a case of a miss-keyed grade. Simply bring the error to your instructor’s attention. She will be mortified and fix it immediately. Just make sure before you proceed that you yourself are not in error. Triple check your calculations against the syllabus grade breakdown and make sure you are entering the correct values for each grade (i.e. does an “A” equal 100 or 95?).
It’s when you get into Cases 2 and 3 that you are wandering into uncertain territory. If you honestly think that you’ve been treated unfairly or discriminated against in some way, appealing to the instructor may not help at all, and you may have to avail yourself of other avenues for redress provided by your college or university (I’ll discuss that in a later post on how to deal with unreasonable instructors). But it is usually required that you try to correct the problem with the instructor first, and in any case, it is good manners to do so before going over their head.
Consider the stakes. Having completed the course and received a final grade, you, the student, really have nothing to lose. At worst, your grade will stay exactly the same, and you’ll just never have dealings with that instructor again. The instructor, however, has a lot to lose by changing your grade. First of all, it means accepting a student’s judgment of their professionalism, competence, and integrity. Secondly, an instructor who changes a grade for any reason runs the risk of word getting out, which means that they can expect to see more grade petitions in the future and that their authority in the classroom will be pretty well compromised. Are those good reasons to deny you a fair grade or a second chance? From your perspective, maybe not. But it is best to go into these situations fully appreciating exactly what it is you are asking your instructor to do, what you are asking him to give up.
Make your appeal in writing. Some instructors actually have rules governing how they will deal with grade petitions. Follow them. In the absence of other instructions, always make your appeal in writing rather than simply showing up at this person’s office. Sending a well-written email with your appeal and a request for a meeting gives them time to think about the case, so you are more likely to, at the least, get a thorough (if not totally satisfactory) response. Furthermore, having a trail of written correspondence is helpful if you ever need to appeal to a higher authority.
Be respectful. Be professional. Write your request thoughtfully and edit it carefully. That ought to be obvious, but I have some pretty laughable grade appeals in my email archives that suggest otherwise. Here are some selected do’s and don’ts for writing your appeal:
- Do reference your performance on past assignments if relevant (i.e. You made A’s on all previous exams, so this D was a fluke).
- Do convey respect for the instructor’s professional judgment and remember that you are essentially challenging his or her professionalism, competence, and integrity.
- Do point to specific assignment descriptions or test questions.
- Do request a meeting to discuss your grade at the instructor’s convenience.
- Don’t bring up the grades of other students in class. (Your instructor is legally proscribed from discussing this with you. Plus, you need to argue based on your own individual merits.)
- Don’t make threats, even if you do plan to appeal to a higher authority.
- Don’t get your parents involved if you are in college. (Your instructor is legally proscribed from discussing your grades with them if you are over 18.)
- Don’t cite things like regular attendance as reasons for why you deserve a better grade. Attendance is a minimum expectation, not a guarantee of an A.
Humbly accept what you cannot change. Part of the educational experience is learning from failure, and if your petition is denied, you have two options left open to you: 1) Appeal to a higher authority, or 2) Accept the instructor’s decision and do better next time. If you are legitimately the victim of discrimination, then Option 1 may be a good choice for you. If you were a Case 3 appeal or if you had some other reason for petitioning that I didn’t list above, your best bet is to say “I understand” and move on. If you continue to push in a way that could be perceived as stalking or harassing, things could get very, very bad for you. Even if you don’t find yourself on the wrong end of a restraining order, word will get out, and you may sabotage potential relationships with future professors without even knowing it.
Learning from failure may mean that you have to adjust your own self-perception with regard to grades. If your identity depends on having a perfect, you are probably going to run into a situation at some point in your life when clinging to that self-concept will no longer work for you. Furthermore, blaming the people in charge of judging your performance is only going to go so far. Not all of the people who judge you negatively will be wrong. Better to deal with that while you’re young, I say.