June 08, 2005

One Way to Prevent Whining about Grades

There's a big discussion going on over at Scrivenings about students who whine about their grades. I used to think the way to prevent complaints was to be as specific about grading as possible. But I think that is tough in the humanities, when you are grading essays. Here's the problem: if the student had the critical thinking skills and reading sophistication to recognize why his lame, mediocre paper deserved a C and not an A, he would probably be writing better papers in the first place and would have no reason to complain. I try hard to teach my students to recognize good writing, but the ones who get low grades are the students who just don't get it.

Anyhow, here is my best strategy for preventing student complaints about grades:

At mid-semester, I ask them to hand me a manilla folder that contains all their work: usually, this includes three formal essays I've already graded (using an A through F scale), about ten informal pieces of writing that I've read and checked off, and a one page reflective piece in which they assess their class participation. I skim through this all and put a grade on the inside of the folder. I write nothing but the grade. (Otherwise I just wouldn't have the time to do this.) This grade is the grade that they are currently earning for the course.

Here's the spiel that they hear from me:

"I know that some of you are concerned about grades because you are applying for vet school or med school. And some of you have to keep a certain GPA to maintain scholarships. If you have some concern about the grade you are getting in this class, you need to make an appointment and come in to talk to me NOW. THIS WEEK. If you wait and come to talk to me at the end of the semester, IT WILL BE TOO LATE. At the end of the semester, there is NOTHING I can do about your grade. Except mark your grade in that little bubble sheet they give me.

Right now, we've still got half a semester left. There are things you can do to try to get a better grade. I can give you opportunities to rewrite papers. I can talk to you about strategies for writing the next paper. We have a writing center on campus - and other resources as well.

The grade I wrote in your folder is not likely to get higher. The semester will get harder, not easier. If you feel panicked about that grade, make an appointment with me THIS WEEK."

I repeat the gist of this several times until I know they've all gotten it. And a few will make appointments to meet with me. And the others? Well, they have waived their right to whine about grades.

It seems to work. I have not had a complaint about grades since I started doing this.


Mona Buonanotte said...

I'm laughing right now because that's how I deal with my children...lots of advanced notice, lots of 'do it now or it's too late'! It's almost like you have to be a mom in the classroom, too, except they don't earn allowance and you can't give them a time-out.

Yankee T said...

This sounds like an excellent approach, jo(e). I'd like to take a class from you!

jo(e) said...

Mona: Parenting and teaching do have an awful lot in common.

Friday Mom said...

I like this approach. I did something similar when I co-taught a couple of years ago. And we did free-writes every other week during which students could tell us anything that was going on with them that was affecting their engagement in class (either positive or negative). We were able to surface a lot of the anxiety about grades this way and could address it with encouragement to come talk to us before it was too late.

Scrivener said...

I do something more or less similar at times too. And my system requires that I turn in midterm grades for students, on which I always try to err on the side of a lower grade to give them warning, so they get that headsup too. But this semester, I turned in an unsatisfactory grade for one student at midterms, and he talked to me about it for three seconds in the hallway while I was headed to another class, but then continued to do the exact same things in the second half of the semester that got him the U at midterms. I turned in a grade of D for him and I got a series of 4 or 5 angry emails from him while I was out of town, ranting that he was completely surprised by his grade and demanded to know how it could have happened.

I.e., I may not have to give his whining much credence, since he' done nothing to address the issue, but that doesn't necessarily stop the whining.

jo(e) said...

David: Some students are just impossible. It does make you wonder ....

Students who don't do well in my course are often failing their other courses too -- and end up dropping out of school -- so perhaps that is why they don't even bother to complain.

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

This is a great idea--I wish you'd have advised me of it when I had all those whining students! AK! Next time, I'll know better! :-)

Rana said...

My approach was to provide a grading rubric and a grade calculator in the syllabus (so they could enter the numerical grade for each assignment into it as they went, and could calculate their ongoing grade) and to hold mid-semester meetings with all of them instead of class.

But that only works if your classes are small and few.

And some students continued to complain anyway. Like the senior who enrolled late, barely showed up, and tried to hand in all of his assignments in a wad at the end, then attempted to guilt me into giving him a D rather than an F so he could graduate. *sigh* (I didn't, to his horror, but it was frustrating -- he was perfectly capable of doing the work and getting an A, if he'd wanted.)

New Kid on the Hallway said...

That is a really great system. We have to give midterm grades here, too, but so far I haven't made a point of giving such a speech about them - I may have to start doing that (not that I get complaints especially, but if we're giving midterm grades they might as well be useful pedagogically). I especially like the warning that things won't get easier!

Jane said...

What a great idea! I'm pretty explicit about grading expectations in my courses, but I don't usually do anything at midterm time....I might try something like this in one of my next courses. Thanks!

purple_kangaroo said...

You sound like a great teacher.
Do you teach high school or college?

I remember a college class where I got excellent grades on everything except one midterm test, and that one test counted for something like a third of the class grade. At my mother's insistence, I approached the teacher (an intimidating figure who routinely made college students cry in class) immediately after the test. I asked if there was anything I could do to bring up my grade, or what I could learn from it and if he could help me figure out what had gone wrong. He pretty much just told me not to bother talking to him about it and to just study more next time.

I would have leaped at a chance to do extra work or anything like that. That's very kind of you to offer that to your students.

Terminaldegree said...


jo(e) said...

Purple Kanagaroo: I teach writing and literature at a small college.

academic coach said...

This is a great strategy -- warn them so you can say, shrugging, "well, I told you so."

I can't wait to share this tip with the profs and TAs I coach.

How do you handle the inevitable tales of woe and prayers for extentions and incompletes? What about the "I need to have the exam at a different (and super inconvenient)time because I've got to fly home to donate a kidney to my sister (or some other life-threatening, heart-rending, maybe-not-true situation?"

Do you think that you can tell, from the first few weeks of class, who the problem students are going to be? Can you guess from the beginning who the grade complainers are going to be?

And what about that discouraging question: "Is this going to be on the test?"

Please, do share more student management techniques.

Life of a Plainlady said...

really like your technique!