How do you challenge an unfair mark?

When a professor holds your marks hostage


During my first semester of university, I met with one of my professors to discuss a mark. It wasn’t anything official. The midterm had been handed back to the class, and I was surprised and disappointed by my mark.

The last page of the test had been an open-ended, essay kind of question. I’d expected my answer to earn a higher mark, and I wanted to understand where I went wrong.

After re-reading my answer, the professor explained where I should have elaborated more. The meeting was very short, and my mark didn’t change in the end, but I thanked the professor for taking the time to meet with me. I now knew how I could do better on the final exam.

What I didn’t know at the time: I was lucky to leave that meeting with my marks unscathed.

It was only after the fact that I suddenly remembered that section in the course syllabus. The part that explains how, if a student asks for a mark to be reconsidered, the professor reserves the right to assign an even lower grade than the one you started with.

I’m not just talking about a university’s formal appeal procedure, where a student requests (through a department chair or a dean) a review of their grade. Many of the classes I’ve taken include an individual course policy, something along the lines of, “If you request for a paper or test to be re-graded, you can end up with an even lower grade than you started with.” Right. So in other words, “Buzz off.”

It just seems wrong. If someone believes they’ve been assigned an unfair mark, and they ask for their paper to get a second look, why should the professor be sneakily taking hostages?

I’m sure that most of the time, the professor can give a perfectly fair, logical defense for the mark they assigned. But what if they made a mistake? What if they’re wrong? What if you deserve a higher mark? If someone thinks their paper deserves a better mark, why should their marks be held at gunpoint?

If I tell a cashier in a store that I think they accidentally charged me too much, and then I turn out to be wrong, should they have a license to then punish me for being wrong? You know, grab my wallet and take a couple bucks?

After all, if the cashier turns out to be wrong, I don’t get to penalize them for their mistake. I don’t get an extra five dollars back in change.

Maybe some students aren’t reasonable when they challenge a mark. Or maybe the fear is that without the threat of a negative consequence for burdening the professor and/or TA with having to take a second look, there would be a flood of second-guessers.

But why create a policy that treats every student as a potential time-wasting cry ass?


How do you challenge an unfair mark?

  1. That rule is there for a reason:
    If a student has a paper marked by a TA and they believe that the TA’s judgment is somehow lesser than the professor’s then they also need to accept the idea that it’s possible that the TA was wrong to award such a high mark. (The same goes for when the professor marked it in the first place. You are implying that at the moment they marked it they made an improper judgment for some reason, it is surely possible that the improper judgment may have actually resulted in too high of a mark, isn’t it?)

    If a professor looks at a question after you asked her/him to and realizes that you got it wrong do you really expect them to not change the mark?

    To call this a hostage taking is absolutely absurd.

  2. That rule just makes sense. It keeps students from wasting professors’ time with petty, unfounded complaints. If marks could only go up then the clever student would have their work marked as many times as possible to take the highest grad, whether or not they believe they deserve it. Rules like this encourage students to take a rational second thought before crying ‘foul’.

  3. Your analogy about the cashier is a false one. The analogy would work better if you realized that the cashier gave you too much change back and you gave back the extra change. That’s essentially what the professor is reserving the right to do. “On reflection, your mark was higher than you deserved (too much change). I’ve reduced it to the appropriate (you gave me back the change.”

    You’re thinking of it as a “penalty” when, theoretically, its supposed to be a correction of a mistake.

    But, in the end, this is done by professors to make sure they don’t get people grubbing for grades with no clear argument about why they should get a higher grade. If you approach a professor respectfully and with a well articulated argument (a written argument is even better), it’s unlikely they’ll reduce your grade (but they might not give you the increase you desire).

    Also, if you approach a professor to ask how you could have done better (which is what all students should be doing), you’re not asking for a re-marking and the professor shouldn’t have grounds for lowering your grade.

  4. One other thing. Framing the mark in terms of fairness is the wrong approach. You’re talking about the mark being an incorrect assessment. Unfair implies that the professor didn’t treat you in a similar way to other students or that the question wasn’t in line with the content of the course in some way.

  5. Nice topic, Scott. One all university students talk about.

    What’s interesting is that your article, as do the comments, eludes to the fact that when papers are marked by TAs who often don’t attend the class themselves or know the professor’s marking scheme, or when an overworked professor marks hundreds of papers/exams, the marking becomes frighteningly subjective.

    This is not to say that all TAs and professors mark unfairly, but in my experience, in high school that everything followed a rubric, so that marking was fair and standardized. The major difference is, in university, a B+ on my paper that should have earned me an A, could also cost me my scholarship, funding or honours.

  6. Jennifer:
    My comment mentioned TAs marking. But you have to admit that if the problem is in fact TAs marking arbitrarily/subjectively (I am not exactly sure how one marks an essay objectively) that it is very possible for a student to receive a higher grade then they deserve. If a professor reviews the work and notices that the TA arbitrarily gave too high of a grade then you’ve got to admit that it’s the professor’s right (and duty) to award the student the mark they deserve even if that would reduce the mark, not raise it.

  7. Truthfully, there are many cry-ass students who think they deserve a better mark even when they have answers that are, plain and simple, wrong – even to questions that have clearly defined correct answers (e.g. math, stats). Whiny students can take many hours of a professors and TA’s time that could be better devoted to the students who want to improve rather than the one’s who want easy grades.

  8. Having been a TA, I can tell you that most professors have a pretty strict idea if what makes a good essay answer in an exam. To answer a question fully, certain points must be covered. If none or too few are in the essay, marks are not awarded. Basic grammar and correct spelling are also considered. You might be surprised at how few Canadian students are not sufficiently familiar with grammar and spelling – not “personal style” – to write a sentence that can be understood. Also, going to a professor to ask why a certain mark was awarded, in other words, wishing to find out where one could improve, is not the same as challenging the mark. Most good professors are glad to help students see where their work could improve.

  9. I understand that it can be frustrating for profs and TA to be bombarded with students asking for a second look or reconsideration on a grade. However, students are typically paying around $1000 per university class. I know that they are not paying for a grade and that a good grade must be earned. But, give me a break, the prof or TA can take a minute to explain the grade to the student or review the paper. Consider it “good customer service”.

  10. While the comments on this topic are interesting and relevant, I am quite surprised to see several instances of poor grammar exhibited by (presumably)university level commentators!

  11. Thank you, Vickie, for finally recognizing the frustration many profs and TAs suffer.
    We just wrote midterms, and I have never encountered such a lazy group of students as this semester. Prior to every exam (mid term and final) I post an exam overview – what to study and what page (in the textbook) to find the answer. I usually do a review in class as well. I post study notes and podcasts on Blackboard and remind students by email when they have an assessment coming up.
    There isn’t more I can do to force students to study and further information about the exam would compromise the effort. However, this semester was the worst class average I have had in ten years of teaching. I try not to take it personally, as the success of my students is a source of pride for me. Today I am frustrated – if student don’t study – don’t listen to their profs – what can we do?
    Below is an email I received this morning.

    I just saw my exam mark .. there is something , I got 56% on my midterm and i thought I did well , that is my lowest mark in three years of college.
    Could you please revise my exam sheet , beacause am terrified here , my parents are going to get very up set about this mark. maybe there is any mis calculation .
    Sorry to bother you again , and I appretitate your cooperation.

    I have two children in post-secondary education and expect them to attend class, study hard and not whine unless they can truly prove there has been an injustice. Just because students pay thousands of dollars for school, does not give them the write to complain about marks, when in most cases, the marks are deserved.

  12. Challenging should not be considered ‘wasting a professor’s time’ if the exam errors and that course rubric are clarified for the student. That’s part of what Professors should be there for. Rather than the student possibly feeling erroneously wronged, they can instead reach for higher course concept understanding, which is why THEY are there. Then there’s always the possibility that the Professor could actually agree with them on the marking. University students are pretty bright to start with, so doubts could have merit, and isn’t legitimate questioning part of the process? The possibility of mark reduction deters manipulation, so if a student still really feels the conviction that the mark should come up, they can learn to advocate for their work. If it goes down, they will at least have an explanation and fairly clear understanding as to why.

  13. While many commenters here have mentioned that it’s part of the Professor’s responsibilities to respond to student concerns over marking, I think it’s important to mention that the way in which the student goes about doing this is important.

    If students do it in the manner College Prof outlines above, I’m sorry, but they don’t deserve the time of day. A Prof doesn’t have to look over your paper or exam just because a student doesn’t like the mark. The student should have a _reason_ why they believe they should have a higher grade. Simply stating that “I thought I did better, could you re-mark it?” is not going to go over well, and shouldn’t.

    On the other hand, Profs should provide some type of guidance to their classes on the criteria by which exams and assignments were marked. This way students will have an idea where they went wrong.

  14. I taught for twenty-one years in an Ontario community college.

    The following techniques produced uniformly satisfactory results with respect to mark appeals:
    a) I did all my own marking and never regretted the investment in time, the equivalent of nine forty hour weeks per year
    b) my marking scheme was well known to the students in advance of each exam. This included a close breakdown of marks so that each element within a question had its own mark value that was independnet of the other elements
    c) a student was not allowed to affix a name to an exam, only a number of their own chosing which they were free to change for each exam and which I did not record
    d) when exams were marked and returned to the class each student was required to pick up his or her own paper from a table and sign beside the randomly listed mark that matched the mark on his or her own paper. I had only one attempt to cheat by someone signing beside a mark that did not belong the offending student
    e) if someone wished to challenge a mark they were free to bring their own paper back to me separately or with another sudent’s paper where a higher mark had been assigned to the same mark element. There was a guarantee that neither paper would be reduced in marks even if I discovered an inconsistency or even a marking error. This only very occasionally resulted in a higher mark being awared once the student had been made aware of the difference between the quality of the answers that earned the higher and lower marks. Students sometimes laughed that they had thought they had me but found they couldn’t justify an appeal.
    e)the administrative suspicion that everyone is out to get them is ridiculous. Precision of instruction, exan prep and marking does wonders to prevent dissatisfaction from students. Apart from a few, students in general want a quality education and expect to put in the effort to get it. Don’t whine, teach your best to the best you have in front of you. You can’t save the world or even all the students you meet but can show you care.

Sign in to comment.