Dear Mentor: Changing grades?

Dear Mentor,

It's almost time to turn in grades for the semester! When if ever do you change a grade? How do you handle student requests for grade changes? Have you ever realized you wrote an ambiguous question or realized there are answers or defenses for other responses that you didn't foresee? How do you deal graciously without being wishy-washy? How do you give grace without compromising standards?

from mentor Janine Giordano Drake

The longer I work in academia, the more I realize how many esteemed professors make errors and oversights in judgment — even big ones — every day. I understand the fear and dread in admitting that you have rethought something and come to a different conclusion, but please do not be entrapped by it. We earn others' respect when we show that we are not too proud to admit that we might have erred in judgment.  

In my eleven years of teaching, I have probably had about ten or fifteen requests for a change in grade. This number of requests may be high because of my gender, or because A's in my classes are rare, or maybe because I appear very open to discussions with students. But, the fact is that I am happy to discuss grades with students (even after-the-fact) because I think grades ought to be part of the conversation between professors and students about what and how students are learning. Most of the time, I take the time in a conversation with a student to spell out how and why I arrived at that grade, and students accept that analysis. I usually offer students the opportunity to rewrite papers or re-do tests with corrections, and they sometimes jump at the opportunity to raise their grade by a few points and learn from their mistakes. I had two students re-take entire tests this semester. They learned the material more the next time around, and their grades improved a bit. The students with low grades who did not take the opportunity to rewrite papers and retake tests ended the semester with quite poor grades, but they understand (I think) that this is what they earned.

Now, I realize that I have this leeway with student grades because I have the privilege of being a faculty member at my institution. When I was a graduate student TA, I found grading much more difficult (and arbitrary). I feel confident grading students rigorously on assignments I conceived, designed, and taught the whole semester long, but much less confident in applying the same rigor to student responses to other people's questions or about other people's lectures.  

Moreover, when I was a TA, I didn't have it within my power to authorize a rewrite or retest, so I wasn't able to diffuse the situation the way I thought best for the student. In that situation, I asked students to articulate in writing their critical evaluation of their paper or test and why it deserves a different grade. I accepted this (only) in writing and then we had a conversation on it later. One student took me up on this once, and I was persuaded to change his grade accordingly. I was persuaded because I had ultimately read something into the professor's question that this student did not, and I was persuaded that the student's approach was legitimate as well. I thanked the student for teaching me something new. Most students, however, have not taken on this challenge of writing their own self-critical evaluation of their work. Perhaps those students have been intimidated by the task. But, I'd prefer to think that these students did sit down to write a letter and actually realized on their own that their case for a grade change was not as strong as they previously thought. 

Be encouraged that this gets easier. The longer I teach, the easier I find grading, and the fewer grade grievances I receive. The more I have taught and written comments on papers and tests, the more I have learned how to prepare students for my own assignments. I now provide examples of better and worse thesis statements in class. I provide examples of proper and improper ways to introduce evidence. I provide examples of how and how not to frame an introduction and conclusion. I obsess over the exact phrasing of my questions and invite questions upon them in class. I even distribute test questions before the test. Overall, the more I articulate what standards I use in evaluating student papers, the fewer grumbles. 

Nonetheless, this takes time and tons of experience. My short answer to your question is YES. I have, indeed, written more than one ambiguous test and essay question and had to adjust my grading to the ways students read the question. I have issued more apologies for unclear questions than I like to remember. But, I don't see grade changes after good discussion or re-writes as wishy-washy at all. I want to see more leaders in our world willing to admit ambiguity they had not previously seen. I want to see more leaders respond to the fact they have made mistakes with efforts to correct them rather than moving forward as if they didn't happen. We all need to practice this kind of leadership. To me, offering a student the opportunity to redo their assignment or persuade me of my errors is not just about offering them grace, but also about asking them to offer me grace. I am painfully aware of the fact that I am a faculty person only by the grace of God and the fact of many many years in school. All of us make mistakes.


from mentor Lisa Clark Diller

I agree with Giordano-Drake that it is important to be open to the fact that you as the question-crafter and assessor could be wrong (or even inconsistent) and open to changing grades, if you conclude that this would be most just. For all the reasons she gave, I think you have to be open to being fair and realizing that in the grading process or the test-formation process you may have made a mistake.

I start with two patterns during the semester: 1) telling students they have to take charge of their grade and that mistakes in tallying scores or assessment may be made and they should feel comfortable keeping track of their grade and double-checking it. This will, in fact, be the way the rest of their life goes and they must take charge of bureaucracy and record-keeping. And 2) I tell them that if I look more closely at their answers I may discover I have been too easy on them and that grades can be corrected in ways that they don’t like as well as ones they like. And these are the assumptions throughout the semester. 

I have a lot of assessment possibilities throughout the term, so there are plenty of chances for them to try to get better grades. And some of them try this. And sometimes I realize that I’ve written a bad question and I will usually try to tell the entire class that this was a weak question and so I have altered everyone’s score in some way (made it out of fewer points or thrown the question out or given everyone the extra points, it varies depending on the kind of assignment). When I’m grading an essay exam, I will sometimes realize halfway through that I’ve written the question poorly and I will go back and fudge the grades to reflect how well the students are answering the question I actually asked instead of the question I thought I had asked.

This may make it sound like I am always changing grades and it is true that since I have so many conferences/assessments/drafts throughout my courses that there are more options for this than for the kinds of courses whose grades rest on only one or two big projects/exams. However, I’m known for being a very difficult and sometimes unbending professor, so I feel I need to balance this with being open to the fact that I may have been wrong. I also try to make sure I don’t just give one person extra points. It is vital to me to be fair to everyone and not just the squeaky wheel. If I’m going to be flexible for one, it has to be for all of them and if I realize this is the only person who misunderstood something or who thought they could write a superficial essay, then I am less likely to change a grade or double-guess myself.

To reiterate Giordano-Drake’s point, over the years I have found that I need to become really really clear in what I’m asking and what will count as a full score and to say this out loud to the students. And I make it clear that if I look more carefully at their essays/projects, I may find I gave them too many points and need to reduce the grade. This basically weeds out the superficial “I think I worked hard and should have an A” kind of attitudes. But I am always open to the fact that I may have been wrong.

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