Yes, you’re going to get some bad marks

Before you send an angry e-mail, read this prof’s advice


Photo by vancouverfilmschool on Flickr

Around this time of year Canadian university students are bracing themselves for a stressful moment: getting back their first assignments. First-year students may be appalled by the number in front of them — do grades even go that low? Even top students can see their grades drop. Here’s how to answer that jangling wake up call.

Don’t be alarmed if the grade is lower than you expected. If you got straight As in high school, you may be shocked to see a B, C… or worse. But in fact, a recent Canadian study shows that those who had the highest marks (90 per cent or more) fall the farthest: about 12 per cent on average. Take heart: almost everyone goes through this at some point. I did, and some schools, like the University of Toronto, explicitly warn students that their grades may drop 10-15 points.

Don’t take it personally. Remember that the professor is grading your work, not you. It’s easy to think that a low grade somehow means your prof doesn’t like you, but that’s not the case. Try getting out of the habit of saying “he gave me a C” and start saying “he gave my paper a C.”

Read the comments, not just the grade. Most professors will provide additional comments, sometimes in great detail, explaining just where the problems are and how to fix them. Make sure you understand the comments and how you can use them to improve. Professors want you to improve and will be happy if you show a real interest in learning. The jerk who gave you a crummy mark today may end up being the mentor who guides you to the Dean’s list next semester.

Don’t contact your professor the same day you get the assignment back. Emotions can run high when you get a disappointing grade, and it doesn’t help to turn up at Professor Stingy’s door with smoke seeping out of your ears, or to fire off an angry email on the bus ride home. Take some time, sleep on it, and then think about asking your professor for more feedback.

If you do seek feedback, ask about how you can do better either by rewriting the paper (if your instructor allows it) or by taking a different approach on the next one. Through it all, try to remain humble. It’s hard to be told that your work was not as good as you thought it was, but take a breath and set aside your ego, and you may see that your professor has a point. Maybe that graph wasn’t designed very well. Maybe that thesis statement wasn’t very clear. Next time, it will be better.

Know that professors go through the same thing. Profs write papers too, and submit them to publishers and journals, and get them back with feedback. Believe me, the feedback is not always positive. I’ve never heard of an academic journal that doesn’t reject more papers than it receives. I once worked through a whole raft of revisions an editor wanted, adding here, expanding there, and then, after resubmitting, was told it was now too long! “Too long!” I thought, “it’s only too long because you made me add all that stuff!” But after I calmed down, I realized my editor had been right both times. Work, feedback, more work. It’s the circle of academic life.

Remember why you’re at university: Getting a shocking grade isn’t easy, especially the first time. But one of the most important skills you’ll learn in university is how to pick yourself up after you fail, and push yourself to the next level.

That’s why they call it “higher” education.


Yes, you’re going to get some bad marks

  1. Good advice overall, but teaching assistants usually do most of the grading for a course, not professors.

    • Fair point, TA, though it really depends on what kind of university one is talking about. I was an undergraduate at a large Ontario university and had many TAs who graded my papers, especially in first year. By contrast, I now teach at a small, east coast university and teach undergraduates exclusively, including first-years, and I have never had a TA. I grade all my students’ papers.

      In any case, I think most, if not all of the advice here can be applied to university instructors of all kinds.

  2. Terrific advice, but I also tell students not to be scared. Not everyone sees their marks drop, or sees them drop drastically. With a lot of hard work, I was able to maintain a straight-A average in university (in engineering no less, with a typical engineering course load). I ended up graduating at the top of my engineering class, just as I had graduated at the top of my high school class. So it *is* possible to do well. Granted, this was back when Ontario still had OAC/grade 13, so maybe things have changed since then, and the top students coming out of Ontario’s high schools are less prepared for university life.

  3. I believe most new undergraduate students presume University assignments are just like high school assignments and even rely on Wikipedia in the 11th hour to supply information. Careful observance of the method by which to research and submit ones original work will surely provide the best mark, unfortunately only maturity and experience will teach this lesson.

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