When an F isn’t fair

Most grades are reasonable and well-explained. What do you do when one isn’t?


One of my many duties as chair of an academic department is dealing with student appeals. I’ve been dealing with such an appeal over the last couple of weeks, and it brought to mind a question that most students face at one time or another. What do I do when I think the grade I received is unfair?

The first thing to do is nothing. Do not go racing into your instructor’s office waving your paper with tears of rage in your eyes. Take at least 24 hours to consider the grade you received and to reflect on whether or not it was reasonable. If the instructor has included comments, read them carefully and, as honestly as you can, ask yourself whether the problems pointed out are genuine.

Even professional scholars face this kind of criticism. When I sent a draft of my book to my publisher, I received comments to the effect that the book was good but something must be done about chapter five. I had thought chapter five was quite good, and at first I was angry that these numskulls had pissed on my work. But that was just a bruised ego on my part. After I cooled down, and looked at chapter five again, I had to admit that it wasn’t as good as I thought it was. When it comes to intellectual work, intelligence is less important than humility.

If after some time, you still feel that your grade is unfair, you should see your instructor. At my university students are actually obliged to contact their instructors directly before they take further steps. And, in fact, most student concerns are handled at this preliminary stage. An instructor may have made an error in calculating or submitting a grade; the student, on hearing a fuller explanation of a mark may realize it was fair after all; or, the instructor, on further thought, might think a higher grade is justified after all.

Approach this conversation as a conversation, not a presentation of demands. If you take the position, even by implication, that you know you’re brilliant and if your prof can’t see it, he must be a moron, then your instructor will only dig in his heels further. Do not say that you did much better than this in high school, or that you are getting higher marks in other classes — no professor in the history of the university has ever been convinced by those arguments. Instead, ask your instructor to explain comments and problems in more detail; ask what you might have done differently; ask whether your instructor allows students to rewrite papers. If these answers seem unsatisfactory, ask if the instructor would mind looking over it once more, just to be sure that’s the correct grade.

If after all this, you still think the grade you received was unfair, check your university calendar for your school’s policy on appeals. An appeal is a  formal procedure in which you request, through a department chair or Dean, a review of your grade by people other than your instructor. Typically such a review involves a panel or committee of some kind, and there are usually a number of levels. That is, if you appeal at the departmental level and they say your grade stands, you can usually appeal to the Dean or to a university appeals committee of some kind.

But proceed with caution. Appeals sometimes carry an application fee of some kind so don’t throw money away on a frivolous complaint, and, as far as I know, most universities specify that a grade can be raised or lowered on appeal. That’s right: you could end up with an even lower mark after the appeal.

Very few students, at least in my department, submit formal grade appeals. There’s a significant amount of paperwork, for one thing, and, as I said, no guarantee of a better result. Additionally, students never appeal grades that are too high, so too lax a process for appeals could exacerbate grade inflation. But it is right that such an avenue exists. Most professors grade fairly and consistently, but some are more reasonable than others. And even the fairest professor can’t get her grades right every time. So in the unlikely event that you’ve been given a grade that you think is unfair, learn what your rights are and, if necessary, don’t be afraid act on them.

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When an F isn’t fair

  1. When I was working as a teaching assistant, a student would sometimes come to me, and argue that there grades were higher in high school or that they are getting higher grades in other courses. Responding to this in a way that was not entirely cruel was quite hard.

  2. As a teacher in a collaborative nursing program, I want to say thank you for such a timely article. Mid-term assignments and essays are about to come pouring in for marking and I know that some students are going to be disappointed in their grades despite their hard work. I offer to work with them before an assignment and, again, after so that the next one will be better. Some are willing to take feedback that is intended to be respectful and helpful. Others prefer to blame everyone else for their deficiencies in written work. I am going to post this article for them.
    By the way, I am sure that “numbskull” is spelled with a “b”.

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