5 Excellent Ways to Respond to the Grade Grubber

Stacey Taylor_square_v1Almost every professor who has stood before a classroom has heard the standard lines of a grade grubber before:

“I worked really hard and put a lot of effort into this project.”

Or…

“I’m an A student who ALWAYS got straight A’s in high school.”

Or my personal favorite…

“But I’m paying for this degree!”

These are the calling cards of the “grade grubber.” This is the student who underperforms on an assignment—and then embarks on an extended grade-raising quest. This endeavor usually consists of exploring the extraordinary lengths he or she can go to pester an instructor over the most trivial matters imaginable.

For the unfortunate instructor, it is one of the most annoying aspects of teaching at the university level.

So how do you manage grade grubbers in the classroom? Below are a few tips I have found to be extremely helpful. 

1). Understand the causes of grade grubbing.

Grade grubbing is a complex phenomenon, but it almost always boils down to a variety of misaligned incentives and expectations. The first place to start, then, is to ask yourself a question. 

Did the student’s experience before college encourage him or her to become a grade grubber?

The most persistent grade grubbers often enter college with up to a decade of finely honed experience at squeezing an extra point or two from an assignment.

Too often, education utilizes grades as a measure for alleged performance. Unfortunately, this signaling device also typically reflects an appallingly weak standard of work. Therefore “high” grades are relatively easy to obtain. They also acquire added significance as one of the few readily accepted and accessible metrics by which high school students may differentiate themselves from their peers in an exceedingly standardized and bureaucratic environment.

The worst offenders in this system typically arrive at college expecting a continuation of the same.

The result is a combination of the beliefs that high grades should be easy to obtain with only a small amount of effort, and that “extra” efforts to boost the grade of an assignment will typically meet minimal resistance.

2). Stand your ground, within reason, when a student asks for higher grades.

Students engage in grade grubbing because they have probably succeeded at it before.

By giving in, you only reaffirm this belief. Worse, you’ll ensure that another professor will have to deal with the same issue later on. Note that you will probably encounter types of excuses, both legitimate and otherwise. College students can be a highly emotional and perpetually stressed bunch.

With that in mind, it is perfectly reasonable to accommodate genuine extenuating circumstances, so use your discretion and be flexible as the situation merits.

However, also note that you are not obliged to account for how a student manages his or her time outside the classroom. Be ready to inform them of their own responsibilities in this area.

As a rule of thumb, the more trivial the grade grubbing plea, the less inclined I am to make a special exception. Furthermore exceptions are just that—a rare deviation from the rule invoked only in the most pressing of circumstances.

3). Be willing to give tough grades, but manage your students’ expectations from the start

I like to stave off grade grubbing by setting firm expectations at the outset of the class.

  • Clearly explain your grading rubric in your syllabus. Openly state how much each assignment is worth. Reinforce your expectations on the first night of class.
  • State your requirements for attendance, participation in class discussions, and completion of assignments on time.
  • Outline what it will take to receive an “A” on any substantive and original research you require as part of your class.

To most students, this last signal alone will be sufficient to get the message across. To those who don’t take the cue, it will give you a clear fallback when they come to quibble about a low grade. It will give you something concrete to point to if and when a student protests that your standards are too stringent.

4). Require advance notice to preempt the grade grubber 

One way to manage grade grubbing is to preempt it. Grade grubbing always occurs after-the-fact when a student expresses dissatisfied with a completed assignment.

As an alternative, I use the first night of class to establish an “advance notice” rule for all graded assignments. Basically, I state from the outset that I adhere to a firm rule of fixed deadlines and will not revisit grades after they have been assigned. I state my willingness to be flexible, within reason, for any student who gives me advance notice of a need or special request on an assignment.

If the cause of an unfinished assignment is a genuine emergency, I also ask that they let me know before the start of the class on the due date.

As long as they meet this minimal requirement, I will be reasonably flexible. And on major assignments such as end-of-term research papers, I let students know that I maintain an open-office policy. I will happily discuss a draft of their work in office hours before the due date.

The attached and stated caveat though is that deadlines are firm. Anything turned in or requested afterward will be treated as late. Generally, I also won’t reconsider a graded assignment when the student failed to avail himself at office hours before the assignment was submitted.

5). Point out the costs of being a grade grubber

If all else fails, one way to disabuse students of grade grubbing is to politely inform them of its long-term costs to their reputations.

Nobody likes a pest. Students who habitually clamor for undeserved credit qualify as pests in the minds of most faculty.

This frankly stated piece of advice may be especially relevant if the offender plans to head to graduate school. (Or worse, already is a graduate student.) Simply put, a GPA is not the end-all measure of performance that it was in high school. It actually matters exceedingly little in an atmosphere where research quality and output is the main metric of success.

It is therefore a complete waste of time for a graduate student to fight over the inconsequential difference between a B+ and an A-. Additionally, it is a waste of social capital. A student gains little and loses much as he or she acquires a reputation for pettiness.

Advice on grade grubbing from Professor Antony Davies:

“Occasionally, I have students who are grubbing for a D in my class. The week before the drop/add deadline, I send a note to students who are failing my class with the advice that they consider dropping.

This diminishes the number of end-of-semester students who ask for points or extra credit work to push them from an F to a D.

Be careful with your wording, however. You don’t want the student complaining that you had determined the grade before the semester was done. I say something like, ‘If your performance continues as it has, you’ll likely fail this course.’”

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