I know many students ask instructors to raise their grades as a matter of course, whether that means attempting to guilt the instructor by telling them they need to maintain a high GPA for a scholarship or application, or simply trying to earn back a few points (also known as grade grubbing). Some students take a more indirect approach by making comments like “I hope all my hard work pays off!” Still, I think most students realize that asking for a grade raise is a futile endeavor but do it just in case. They assume it’s worth asking five instructors to raise their grade if one of them might actually do it. However, though the strategy seems worthwhile for that minor boost, there might be other repercussions these students never see.
What Happens When You Challenge a Grade?
First, of course, you should realize that, actually, most instructors do not change grades as a matter of policy simply because they spent a lot of time grading your work and stand by their decision, changing your grade because you asked them to is unfair to your classmates, and they do not want you to tell everyone of your success, leading to a barrage of students also demanding a higher grade. Also, if you challenge a grade and bring it to the department or program head, they will likely not raise your grade for the simple reason that they do not want to undermine the authority of their instructors and they, too, do not want a large number of students taking up their time with grade challenges. If word gets out that grade challenges result in the same grade–or even a lower grade (since the committee reviewing your paper is less likely to be generous and give you a better grade because you put in effort or are having a rough semester)–students will not bring challenges to them. Thus, your grade challenge is almost guaranteed to be unsuccessful.
Many students, of course, realize this, but do it anyway because you never know, right? Every point counts! However, whether your grade challenge is successful or not, there could be other hidden repercussions. In the worst case scenario, you become that student. This could mean any number of things.
- Word might get out around the department that you are a grade grubber. Instructors will be automatically disposed to be annoyed by your request for a higher grade because they have heard that you do this to everyone and now they automatically assume you don’t have a real problem or a real desire to improve. You’re just there to take up their time.
- Instructors who are annoyed that you are taking up their time by engaging them in long email chains or numerous meetings about whether you deserve a higher grade are less likely to want to work with you or to recommend you to their colleagues. If there is a research opportunity available in the department, your name might not make it onto the list. No one will tell you about this. People might not even realize they have mentally excluded you from their list of possibilities. But you will be affected just the same.
- Instructors who have identified you as a grade grubber will take this into consideration when you ask them for a recommendation letter. Consistently challenging grades makes it look like you care more about the number on your transcript than about improving yourself as a student/writer/researcher. They may not want to recommend you based on this. Or, if they agree, they will write you a weaker letter than they write the student who has demonstrated that they are willing to learn from their mistakes, rather than complain about them or blame them on the instructor.
In the end, it’s probably not worth challenging a grade unless you have strong grounds to do so.
But What If Another Student Has a Higher Grade for the Same Work?
This is tricky. Unless you’re in some sort of math or science course where the grade can be objectively compared (as in you filled out the same multiple choice bubble for the answer and your friend got points but you did not), it’s still unlikely that your grade challenge will be successful. (You should have also addressed these small problems during the semester and before you received your final grade–preferably by asking the instructor to explain the problem to you and why you did not receive full credit.) First of all, instructors do not like to change other students’ grades based on student complaints. That is, they are extremely unlikely to lower Student A’s grade because you complained that Student A did not write a strong paper or contribute much to your group work. But will they raise your grade?
Again, this is hard to know. First of all, if you are complaining about something like an essay because you think your paper is as good as Student A’s but Student A received an “A-” but you got a “B+,” you might not know what factors went into grading. It may actually be true that Student A wrote a more original and complex argument than you did, and provided stronger evidence, even though you believe your paper is pretty good. It may also be possible that Student A did significant revision and went to office hours, leading the instructor to acknowledge this effort in the grade even though the paper was on the cusp of a “B+” and an “A-.”
Your instructor is unlikely to discuss all this with you because, frankly, what Student A does and what grades Student A receives are not your business. Probably you should never have mentioned in the first place that you are in college and still comparing grades because that’s what instructors expect middle school students to do. So, the instructor might offer to review your work but they are not going to compare your work to another student’s. Most likely they will offer to explain to you why you earned the grade you did, but will refuse to consider a grade change at all.
But What If You Still Want to Challenge Your Grade?
If you remain convinced that your grade is wrong or you deserved more points, you have to be careful about the way you present your case. Here are some helpful tips:
- First of all, acknowledge that you earn your grades. Suggesting that an instructor “gave” you a grade is going to make them skeptical about your claim before they even read it.
- Frame the conversation as you wanting to know how you can improve rather than as you wanting to know why the instructor gave you a grade you don’t like. Now you’ve impressed your instructor.
- You can also ask them if they can explain the point system to you so you understand how they calculated your grade. Be sure to frame this in a way that suggests you want to understand, not that you disagree with the way they set up their grade percentages.
- If you begin with “I am not complaining” or “I am not grade grubbing,” you have primed your instructor to assume you are complaining or grade grubbing. Don’t raise these possibilities for them.
- Don’t try to guilt instructors. If you tell them you need a certain GPA , they’re going to remind you that you earn the GPA. They also hear these complaints all the time, so it’s unfortunately difficult to exploit this as you needing extra help since everyone in the class likely wants a good grade for some reason or another.
- Remain polite. If the instructor refuses to listen to you but you truly believe your grade is too low for whatever reason, you can ask if there is someone above them who can arbitrate. You don’t have to get into an argument with them. There are policies in place for these sorts of things.
Grade challenges are unsuccessful in almost all cases, which should make you question whether you want to spend your time pursuing one. Consistently challenging grades or grade grubbing may also earn you a bad reputation throughout the department. So choose your battles wisely. Begin by asking your instructor to explain your grade to you and asking how you can improve your performance. After that, if you remain unsatisfied, you should seriously consider the pros and cons of raising a grade challenge. Don’t rush into one just in case.