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.