What to do when students complain about grades

Here are some tips to help preempt and handle grade disputes.

December 8, 2015

If you’ve been teaching for any length of time, you’ve probably heard every excuse from students about their abysmal grades. Students say they had car problems or work issues. They were sick. They had a personal crisis. They were pushed too hard. They partied too much on the weekend. Or the dog ate their homework.

Most of the time, faculty members say, these excuses are not legitimate. “I don’t mean to be old school here, but if you are taking one of my courses, you should study,” says Donald Williamson, CPA, J.D., a graduate-level accounting professor at American University.

Many accounting professors say grade complaints are not a huge problem among accounting majors because, in general, these students are hard workers and need a good grade-point average if they are serious about the profession and want to secure internships and jobs. But instructors still need to have a system in place to deal with complaints should they surface, and they need to protect themselves from what could be disgruntled students or, in some cases, overly concerned parents.

“Parents are more involved in students’ lives than they ever were,” says Marcus Odom, CPA, Ph.D., an accounting professor at Southern Illinois University. “They know almost immediately if their child is having a problem in a course, and want to try to fix it for them.” Professors say they are not allowed to discuss grades with parents unless the students sign waivers, but that does not mean parents won’t be involved in a complaint if they deem it necessary.

Most colleges and universities have processes in place to deal with any grievances. Students often start with the faculty but can move up the chain to department heads or provosts if they feel the complaints are warranted. But there are ways to preempt these grievances or keep them from escalating. Faculty offer these tips to fellow accounting professors for warding off and handling complaints about grades should they occur:

First and foremost, create a solid syllabus. A syllabus should be detailed and not leave anything open to question. The syllabus should include such topics as day-to-day course topics and activities, assignments and their worth, deadlines, requirements, exams, and what students need to achieve to get good grades. It can also detail extra-credit options and ways for students to improve their grades should they do poorly early in the semester.

It is not unusual for syllabuses to be more than 10 pages long, and some professors—particularly those who teach undergraduate courses—ask their students to sign the documents. “The syllabus more and more is being looked at as a contract,” Williamson says.
Odom requires that his students sign the syllabus, primarily because doing so forces students to actually read it. “If there are any grievances over grades, the syllabus is the overriding document,” he says. Odom covers the syllabus on the first day of class, and tells students about the school’s tutoring lab and student organization Beta Alpha Psi, both of which can provide assistance should students need academic help.

Create ways for students to boost grades during the semester. Extra-credit assignments can give students who are anxious about their grades a chance to make up for an assignment they botched—or a little extra “insurance” if they’re doing well. Plus, it’s hard for students to make a serious complaint about their final grade if they had an opportunity for extra credit and didn’t take it.

Joseph Ugrin, CPA, Ph.D., associate professor of accounting at Kansas State University, has offered students “optional bonus assignments” and a “double-weighted final” (basically a replacement test for one they may have bombed earlier). The bonus assignments are rigorous, requiring students to read an additional book and correctly answer a series of questions about it. Few students have opted to take the double-weighted final exam, which is different from and more difficult than the final the rest of the class takes, Ugrin says. But at least one of his students did so and passed the class with a reasonable grade.
Be clear about how you will handle grade issues or questions. Make your policy for handling disputes known, either on your syllabus or through an in-class announcement. Ugrin, for example, lets students know they have 24 hours from the time grades are posted to respond via email only. He typically announces this policy several times and well in advance of the final exam to ensure his point is clear.

“At the end of the semester there is really nothing that a student can do to change their grade. The course is over,” he says. “Thus, there is no real need to meet in person, so I find email the best mechanism to communicate about grades. Meeting in person can also result in students pleading with you in the office, and that can be uncomfortable and unproductive.”

Don’t cave in to students’ pleas. “If you make a concession for one student, word gets around quickly and the complaints will continue to grow,” Ugrin says. “Don’t open Pandora’s box.”

Ugrin notes he also does not spend much time addressing students’ grade complaints unless he believes they are legitimate. If a student had a family emergency and was unable to complete the course, for instance, he would grant the student an incomplete and work with him or her individually to finish the course during the following semester.

“I try to develop a trusting relationship with students so they know I am there to help,” he says. “I don’t know of an instance where a student has had a ‘real’ situation and didn’t seek out assistance from me with my class.” 

Realize that your role is not to make students happy, but to educate. Professors may feel compelled to boost grades just to satisfy unhappy students, but they help no one by doing so. “Our goal is to provide the best graduates,” Odom says. “And if we are not doing that, then we may as well walk away.”

Cheryl Meyer is a California-based freelance writer.

To read more
Extra Credit articles, click here.