How to Talk Your Way to a Higher Grade (When You Think You Deserve One)

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When we know the quality of our work on an assignment was not our best, we usually expect the grade to be lower than normal. But what if our grade doesn’t accurately reflect what we think we deserve? Maybe we thought our essay was right on point, but we got a D. Or maybe we thought we explained our answers clearly on the midterm exam, but the professor had other thoughts.
There are ways to deal with these situations other than venting on the phone to our parents or marching straight to your advisor’s office to report the teacher for unfair grading practices. No matter which class is frustrating you, HC has some advice from experts on how to handle some common “bad grade” situations.

in class stuentSituation #1: “I think I should have gotten more points on this test than my final score indicates.”
If you’ve looked over your graded test thoroughly and you absolutely cannot figure out how your 89 percent was given a D+ (maybe the curve was really high?), you may want to confront your professor. In some classes, professors will review the exam in a class session and explicitly state the grading policies, including the curve if there is one.
But this is not always the case. “If your professor does not review the test in class, ask the professor if you can make an appointment to review the test,” said Dr. Lynn H. Ritchey, a professor of sociology at University of Cincinnati, Blue Ash College.
“Professors like it when students take the initiative to understand and monitor their grades,” she explains. “Take 15 minutes to quietly review the test on your own. Jot down specific questions you have for your professor. Professors are always willing to clarify ideas for students! Don’t be shy. You never know, your professor may have made an error.”
“One time when I got an exam back, I noticed that the professor had marked one of the questions wrong,” said Stephanie, a senior at the University of Southern California. “I knew it was right because I had consulted with friends who had taken the exam and received points for the same answer. I approached him during office hours and explained that I felt my exam was graded incorrectly. He was actually very nice about it and he apologized.”
If you still believe you should have received more points after you meet with your instructor and they do not agree with you, make sure you have solid evidence to back up your claim before speaking with an academic advisor. If you don’t, arguing will do more to hurt you than help you.
Additionally, if a TA graded the exam, it is important that you speak to him or her before you approach the professor. By going over the TA’s head, you might offend him.  Remember, you don’t want to burn any bridges in an academic setting!

student teacher in class tutor studySituation #2: “I bombed the midterm. What can I do to make up for it?”
Sometimes midterms simply do not go as well as you had hoped. You could have been busy working on a project for another class and didn’t have time to study, or you could have been slacking on keeping up with the reading. Regardless, failing can cause your grade to drop fast. Although you can’t go back and retake your midterm, there are steps you can take to keep this from happening again.
“Talk to your instructor to see how you can best study for your next exam,” said Maryann Wu, an academic advisor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “Be proactive for upcoming assignments and exams by talking to your professor. Not only will this help you, but your instructor will then be able to know you on a more personal level.”
Luckily, many professors will count the final grade more than the midterm grade. If you’re still worried, you can also ask the professor if there are any extra credit opportunities. Some professors might empathize with your situation and be willing to help you improve your grade. Though you can’t count on this option, it never hurts to ask!

Situation #3: “I thought my essay warranted a higher grade than the one I received.”

bad grade failed test fSome students dread essays because they believe professors grade them more subjectively than they would an exam. Though the lines blur a bit when it comes to grading essays, most professors follow a rubric. If they do not, you can request that they provide you with detailed criteria as to how they graded the essay.
Once again, the best way to approach a professor about an essay issue is by scheduling an appointment. But before you do, make sure you’ve read the rubric and grading criteria thoroughly. Maybe the emphasis of the paper was to “persuade,” but you simply “informed.” Little nuances like these can cause even the best-written papers to receive bad grades.
“When you meet with your professor, begin by asking your professor to explain what would make the essay better,” said Ritchey. “Let your professor begin and detail what she was expecting—what needed to be included. This opens the dialogue and provides you the opportunity to agree with your professor and for you to show which essays meet her criteria.”
“I got a failing grade on a paper because I hadn’t done exactly what the professor wanted,” said Rebecca, a junior at the University of Southern California. “I ended up going to a one-on-one meeting with the professor, where we discussed what I had done wrong. Because I had taken the initiative to meet with him, he ended up granting me a one-week extension to make all of the corrections and resubmit the paper. I ended up getting a passing grade.”
Again, if a TA is grading your essay, you should approach him before the professor. If you then believe the TA was not adhering to the rubric, you can make an appointment with the professor.

Situation #4: “I don’t think my cumulative grade is an accurate reflection of how I’ve done on the assignments in this class.”
In most classes, chances are you’re turning in frequent assignments to professors and receiving feedback. Therefore, when you are getting mostly A’s on your assignments and you find out that you received a B in the course, this can be a cause for concern.
The likely situation is that you didn’t have a clear understanding of how each assignment was graded. “Take a look at the syllabus first to see how many percentage points each assignment or exam was worth,” said Wu. “Ask your instructor for a breakdown of how your final grade was assigned. If you believe there is a discrepancy, feel free to bring this up to your instructor.”
Because the course is likely finished by the time this issue occurs, the best way to get in contact with the professor is by sending him or her an email. If you feel you need to discuss the matter, ask to set up either an in-person or phone meeting. Although this likely will not result in you receiving a higher grade (unless the professor made a mistake), it serves as further proof that you should carefully read and follow the syllabus throughout the course to avoid this problem!
Things to Keep in Mind...
professor class student When speaking with a professor, there are a number of things to remember:

  • Stay courteous and professional at all times (Never whine!)
  • Be extremely clear and concise about your concerns
  • Don’t expect special treatment from the instructor and understand that they are trying to grade each student fairly
  • If the professor is clearly opposed to changing the grade, don’t become annoying or inconsiderate. (Professors talk to each other and you’ll develop a bad reputation.)
  • NEVER try to change an answer on a test after it has already been handed back to you. Not only is this dishonest and against university policies, many professors photocopy exams before handing them back.

“Always be polite and appreciative of the time professors are taking to meet with you,” Wu said. “If you immediately start pointing the finger at your instructor, it can instantly put the instructor in a defensive mode. Go in with an open mind, address your concerns and truly listen to what your instructor has to say first.”
Ultimately, all of the solutions come back to approaching your professor and having an effective conversation with him or her about your concerns. You may be tempted to run straight to your academic advisor with a grade dispute, but many of these issues can be solved in a one-on-one meeting in office hours or after class. If you truly believe the professor is being unfair, and you’ve tried to resolve it through conversation, then you are justified to approach your advisor. 
Lynn H. Ritchey, PhD, Professor of Sociology in the Behavioral Science Department, University of Cincinnati, Blue Ash College
Maryann Wu, Assistant Director of Undergraduate Advisement and Academic Services, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, USC
Rebecca, University of Southern California, Class of 2013
Stephanie, University of Southern California, Class of 2012

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About The Author

Rebecca Buddingh is a senior at the University of Southern California, pursuing her B.A. in Public Relations with a minor in Marketing. Throughout the course of the last year she has completed three public relations internships. However, having spent time as a news writer for USC publications and as editor of her high school newspaper, Rebecca's favorite hobby (and method of relaxing) is writing. Born and raised in sunny San Diego, she is an avid fan of both the Chargers and Padres. She can usually be found with an iced vanilla latte in one hand and her BlackBerry in the other. When she graduates in May 2012, she hopes to start a fulfilling career at a public relations agency. Connect with Rebecca on Twitter @RebeccaBuddingh