Why Undergrads Shouldn't Request Grade Reviews

With 13 years of adult teaching experience, I thought I knew how students and instructors felt about grade reviews. What I found through some basic research surprised me. My expectations had been...

Why Undergrads Shouldn't Request Grade Reviews
Photo by Scott Graham / Unsplash

With 13 years of adult teaching experience, I thought I knew how students and instructors felt about grade reviews.  What I found through some basic research surprised me.  My expectations had been that the process would be supported and welcomed, much as it often is at my university.  However, I found that the consensus from professors and students alike tended to be starkly against the process… except for certain parts of the United States.

Why Do Undergraduate Students Want Grade Reviews?

It’s easy to identify the reasons that a student should ask for a grade review, because there are very few reasons.  Obvious math errors, typos, and other clerical mistakes are typically processed quickly and come attached with an “Apologies for your troubles” message.  Requests for grade changes for other reasons are often processed just as quickly, but not in the student’s favor.

The three categories of reasons for non-errata grade review requests that will be covered in this post are:

  • Feeling a grade doesn’t reflect expended effort
  • Wanting to earn a particular score or GPA
  • Expecting grades to represent personal worth

Who Actually Grades Student Work at University?

In some cases, a professor may not be the person grading student work.  This is most common in large undergraduate courses where Teacher Assistants (TAs) are present.  The TAs are often graduate students working for the University as a part time job, to receive a tuition stipend, or as a part of their degree requirements.

While it may seem as if these situations are the easiest to get a grade review, they’re often the hardest. The reason is that a TA is often working as a part of a team to complete grades.  Either a single TA grades with the professor, or as a part of a team of TAs for a large course.  In either situation, significant resources are expended to ensure that all graders perform similarly, often to the style and expectation of the professor. Furthermore, TAs (and professors) may even cross-examine each other’s grading to perform either spot checks or a thorough review.  Therefore, in these situations, a grade is very likely locked in quite tightly.

Contrary to the popular zeitgeist, however, it’s been my experience that the vast majority of professors and other instructors actually grade their own work.  You’ll be hard pressed to find many TAs in community colleges, smaller state schools, and niche programs of study.  You mostly won’t find them at all in private for-profit colleges where TAs were cut decades ago or never hired on in the first place.

In these situations, a professor or other instructor still has checks and balances.  They often are required to grade according to a published rubric that all students and other faculty can access.  They’ve also likely worked with adjuncts and cross-trained faculty on standardizing the grading process for a course.

How Do Instructors Feel About Grade Reviews

It may seem as if you could get a variety of answers on this topic, but when you press for details there seems to be only one overarching viewpoint:  professors don’t mind grade review requests if they’ve made a legitimate mistake, but are utterly annoyed by them in any other situation.  One of the challenges is that many times, students are unable to discern the difference.

Notice that the three categories of review reasons given all start with emotional words: feeling, wanting, expecting.  This isn’t by accident.  Let’s look at each one of these systematically and address their particular nuances.

Feeling a Grade Doesn’t Reflect Expended Effort

Depending on the professor, you’ll get a completely mixed range of sympathy here, but very little in terms of willingness to review or alter grades as a result.  Sometimes, we don’t manage our time efficiently and could learn from the Pareto Principle, otherwise known as the 80/20 rule.  In fact, I teach this to students as a method for optimizing grades with minimal effort… assuming one can be happy with a B or C from time to time, and only expend additional effort to improve from that baseline.  Also, we must each face the fact that we’re not good at everything.  Personally, I had to struggle and work for hours on end to make an A or B in accounting, but I could walk right into a management course and pass the exam without so much as a lecture or textbook.  Guess what my undergraduate degree is in… it’s not accounting.

Wanting to Earn a Particular Score or GPA

Very little sympathy is to be had from professors on this one.  In fact, when I hear or read it, I blatantly roll my eyes, even if the student can directly see me doing so.  Your want of a score doesn’t make the reality so.  “Can you please review my assignment because I really wanted to make an A this time!”  Are you kidding me?  Did you put in the time and effort?  Maybe, but see the above paragraph and accept my condolences that you seem to require more time and effort.   If the criteria to earn a particular score wasn’t met, it wasn’t met.

Along with this desire to have a “perfect 100”, or “straight A’s”, there’s a whole subcategory that’s defined by expecting that more than once chance be given to earn the desired grade. It’s one thing to have that opportunity when you’re younger, as you’re still learning how to conform to requests and requirements, but as we progress in years and experience, there are often times in which something must be done correctly the first time.  Can you imagine a home builder getting to try as many times as they want to get a certain score on a final exam before getting their license?  No thanks!

Expecting Grades to Represent Their Personal Worth

Occasionally, professors will encounter students that take their grades entirely too personally.  They view earning a C on one assignment as suddenly becoming nothing more than an average person.  As if any above average intellect, athleticism, or other capability was instantly sucked away into the ether by one report on the Norman conquest of England in 1066.  A spiral begins and these students can sometimes become despondent in a class, leading to further disappointing scores that seem to reinforce their new-found bleakness.  Most of the time, these students need perspective mor than they need a grade change.  They need to understand we’re all great at something, and it’s okay to be middle-of-the-pack in other areas.  Nobody can be the top of all fields without looking like a complete fool… take Elon Musk for example.

Secret: Requests Almost Always Get Reviews

What students may not realize is that most requests for a grade review get one, even if otherwise declined. Simply think through the mechanics of a grader replying to a grade review request and you’ll see that it’s not possible to review a work simply through the lens of the request itself. The grader must find the work, look over the score and feedback they issued, check the alignment with the rubric, and roughly skim the work to check for obvious mistakes.  This in itself is a mini-review that must happen in order to determine if a review is warranted.

Therefore, if you request a review and the review is declined with an attached reason… it’s probably best to consider that the review and reply without pushing the issue further.

Of course, there are some classes, and graders, that will auto-decline any grade review, but generally, that’s made known up front.  In these situations, only errors or errata are on the table, and never under the auspices of a grade review.  To resolve these situations as a student, you’d contact the professor and TA to inform them of an error within an assignment, exam, or other work.  Be specific and indicate which activity contained the error, and very specifically what and where the error was observed.  The error in question can then be reviewed systematically and, if the error is confirmed, it will be addressed for all students impacted by the error outside the scope of one’s individual work.

But What if the Student is Right?

Let’s use our imaginations. Universities are machines.  The available labor force is a warehouse.  The university machines pump out knowledgeable and qualified workers into the warehouse.  Worker-products consist of product attributes: a degree specialization, an optional minor specialization, a GPA, any honors and awards, etc.

To make this worker-product, many widgets must be assembled and encased within the product.  These widgets are assignments, quizzes, exams, discussions, reports, and the like.  The varying worker-products all have equally varying widget qualities inside of them—A-grade, B-grade, C-grade, etc.—based on the quality of the raw person material placed through the machine, as well as the environmental factors at the time the person-material is processed into a finished worker-product.

The university machine does make mistakes.  Sometimes a C-grade widget appears in an A-grade rated worker-products, even if the raw inputs were flawless.  There is a certain level of quality assurance that is happening, however.  Maybe not to the tune of six-sigma, but certainly better than randomness.

Ending this imaginative scenario, we see that the ultimate result is that sometimes a defective widget is placed inside a perfectly working product.  A $2,500 TV that I bought had a dead green pixel straight out of the box, and one that would have been noticeable in QA. There’s no recourse for that, because the company had to set quality thresholds that accounted for the reality of dead pixels given the technology of the time.  The TV has otherwise worked just fine and served as a beautifully thin, frameless, smart TV for twelve years for me.

You see where this leads us and can therefore infer all the rest.

What about the United States?

Something that was surprising throughout my research was that the United States seems to be one of the only places where Grade Reviews are ever considered a good idea.  I’m sure that attitudes on this are changing across the globe, especially as various types of education are deployed. Even I would strongly advocate for review requests in certain types of liberal arts or progressive education that are currently not the traditional form at most universities.  However, if we leave the arts and leave concept-driven courses, there is a certain point at which proficiency must be demonstrated. Possibly in the future we can replace proficiency exams and projects with psychometric observations that can make accurate competency assessments, but we’re not there yet.