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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Maybe You Should Raise Their Grade

By Peter DeWitt — March 03, 2015 3 min read
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Recently I read Stacey Patton’s article appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education and was called Dear Student: No, I Won’t Change the Grade You Deserve. The opening paragraphs questioned whether students feel entitled or if we live in a society students get a trophy for showing up. Then...Patton wrote,

So I decided to ask a few professors, a learning consultant, and a graduate student how they would respond to these requests. Let's say a student who received a C grade on a paper asks you to reread it and change their grade because they "worked so hard on it." How would you respond?"

There was respectful and compassionate responses Howard University Professor Daryl Scott who wrote,

Thank you for your email requesting that I review your paper to determine whether you should have received a better grade. My policy for re-examining your work is as follows: Please write a short letter outlining why you believe you have been graded harshly. Make your case for the higher grade. It is perhaps possible that I failed to consider the evidence supporting your thesis properly, or that I misunderstood the nature of your claim. Your case will be strengthened by rebutting the comments I made, incorporating them into your response."

Or Mark Naison who wrote,

No one respects hard work more than I do! But I can't change your grade because you have provided no verifiable evidence that you have put more than minimal effort into this paper. At the very least, you should have accompanied this email with (a) a videotape of your doing research for, and writing, this paper, in real time or (b) a sworn, notarized statement from one of your roommates indicating exactly how much time you spent on the paper. In the absence of such evidence, please do the following so I can reassure myself that you have actually worked hard and I will consider raising your grade: Resubmit your paper with every incomplete sentence rewritten; with at least five new secondary sources and two primary sources; and with an annotated bibliography critically evaluating all your sources."

Both Scott and Naison’s quotations above are partial. They gave a bit more information, like any good teacher would do. Other comments were a bit more snarky. Those comments actually came off a bit more elitist, and were probably based in experiences where students who didn’t do a great deal of work wanted a higher grade than they deserved. Let’s face it, if you have ever taught at the university level (I was an graduate adjunct for 4 years) you have had your share of students who wanted higher grades just for showing up.

But...just for one moment...what if we didn’t blame the student for a low grade? What if it was our own teacher clarity that was responsible for the lack of understanding that appeared in their paper?

Maybe You Should Reconsider the Grade Change

As a Visible Learning trainer working with John Hattie, the groups we work with often have deep discussions about teacher clarity and feedback. Both have an effect size of .75. To learn more about effect sizes, click here.

What “disturbs” me, for a lack of a better word, about the responses in the Chronicle for Higher Ed’s article is that idea that most of the commenters jump to the conclusion that the lower grade is the fault of a student who was lazy and didn’t work hard enough, or a student who worked hard but lacked an understanding. It seems as though the article blamed the student.

I’m not suggesting that there aren’t students who show little effort and want a high grade any way, but what I am suggesting is that in some cases it may not be the student who is at fault, but the teachers standing in front of the room. How do we, as teachers, really know whether we are being clear in the directions were giving or the topic we are teaching?

The information we teach is typically something we have a strong grasp of and the students in the classroom do not. They do not know what we have in our head when it comes to the information we may be teaching, and are we really sure how it comes out of our mouths is as clear as we think it is, or do we just have the attitude, as some of the commenters seemed to, that it’s not our problem if it doesn’t come out clear?

We should have as much responsibility being clear about what we are teaching as we think students should have in what they are learning. Sometimes, that lack of a higher grade on a paper or test is feedback back to us as teachers that we were not as clear as we should have been.

For classroom teachers at the primary, middle or secondary level it is hard sometimes to have teacher clarity. Things happen. We have fire drills, we’re late for lunch...late going to lunch...a student had a meltdown...and in all of that we are trying to teach. Are we really sure as we rush through some days, and let’s face it, some days seem like they go by in seconds, that we are being as clear as we think?

What can we do?

  • Check for understanding - yes, everyone knows that but do they do it?
  • Talk less - According to Hattie, teachers ask about 200 questions per day and students ask about 2 questions per week.
  • Create dialogue - Knowing the above, try to find ways to encourage dialogue around the topic to make sure students are clear.
  • Exit tickets - Ask one question that every student should be able to answer
  • Care less about grades & more about feedback - Students may care less about the grade if the teacher/professor is actually providing effective feedback to move the learning forward.
  • Be less arrogant & more humble - Teaching is an honor, and making snarky comments to students who care about their grade takes away from the profession. Perhaps it’s not the student who is the issue. Perhaps it’s you. Review Daryl Scott and Mark Naison’s comments and act accordingly.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.