Unhappy with that C minus? Think you have a legitimate complaint? Here are some strategies to help students complain about grades effectively.

It happens to every college student now and then. After studying for hours for that midterm or final exam or cranking out that term paper, a less-than-favorable grade comes back that doesn’t seem fair. But is there anything a student can do?

Maybe. Yes, the professor or instructor holds power. Moreover, college teachers generally have little inclination to change grades, and many consider student grade complaints to be among their least favorite student pet peeves. However, if a student genuinely feels that he or she has an excellent case to make about why a grade was made unfairly, speaking up may well be the right thing to do.

Here are some tips for complaining about a grade effectively.

Identifying a Legitimate Grade Complaint

When faced with an unexpectedly lousy grade, it’s easy to declare that the professor is wrong immediately. But is this the case? Keep in mind that the professor is a trained, experienced professional, and there’s at least a chance that the professor is correct. Maybe even a good bet.

Never complain about a grade immediately. Cooldown first. Then pick up the paper or exam and look it over carefully. Pay close attention to the instructions, the grading criteria, and feedback from the teacher. Then think honestly about whether the grade is legitimate.

The third set of eyes can be helpful too. Show the paper or exam to a good student who’s already taken the class or someone else with knowledge on the subject. Be sure to pick someone who’s not going to be a “yes man” and automatically say the professor is wrong no matter what. Honesty is what’s needed here, not moral support.

How to Complain About a Grade

To make a strong grade complaint, a student has to establish that they have met the criteria needed to earn a higher grade. To confirm this, a student needs to come with a strong argument that this is indeed the case. The student has to demonstrate an understanding of the grading criteria and provide evidence that he or she met this criterion.

Grade complaints should generally follow this form:

  • I understand the grading criteria for this portion of the paper, which are (explain).
  • I see you didn’t feel what I wrote met these criteria because of (reiterate feedback).
  • I don’t see it this way. I feel that this portion of the paper meets your criteria, which is why (provide evidence).

It’s imperative to make grade complaints respectfully. Handle the encounter with professionalism. A professional, polite grade complaint may work. A rude grade complaint will not.

How Not to Complain About a Grade

Grade complaints need to take the form of, “Here’s how I met your criteria.” Questioning the criteria themselves is a bad idea, as is asking the professor’s authority.

The following grade complaints have been heard by every professor who’s ever lived. These fall under the category of things professors hate to hear, and they don’t work.

  • The questions were too hard!
  • The other professor who teaches this class doesn’t grade so hard.
  • I studied for nine hours for this test. I deserve more than a C!
  • Ashley got a 92, and Sarah got a 93, and they barely even studied, and I studied for nine hours, and that’s not fair!
  • I worked too hard to get the grade I got.
  • I’m an A student. I can’t get a C!
  • My life sucks. Feel sorry for me because of X and Y and Z and give me a break.

On a related note, professors are much more likely to listen favorably to a grade complaint that comes from a responsible student. If Logan comes to class most of the time, participates, turns things in on time, and gets a B+ on the first exam, the teacher will take Logan seriously when he comes to discuss the paper grade. But when Jason comes in to complain after slacking off all semester, the professor doesn’t want to hear it.

Another thing to avoid is to come across as a “Negotiator.” The Negotiator is a budding lawyer who argues every available point and tries to nip away at a better grade. (Think Cher from Clueless.) Students who do this come across as spoiled brats.

Escalating a Grade Complaint

Most grade complaints can be resolved between teacher and student. Sometimes, though, a student has a legitimate gripe that the professor won’t address.

If this is the case, the best place to go is to the academic department. Call the department secretary and find out what the procedure is to escalate a grade complaint. It may mean a meeting with a department chair or other faculty member or may indicate a referral to a grade complaint board.

Grade complaints are difficult situations. Professors don’t like to hear them, mainly because they’ve listened to more than their share of whiny grade complaints that are not legitimate. A student’s best strategy is to come with a polite, professional attitude, along with solid evidence that the paper or exam in question meets the criteria for a higher grade. There’s no guarantee that this will work, of course, but it just may be worth a try.



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