Teaching Advice: How to Deal With Grade Grubbers

By: Dr. Phil Magness, IHS History Program Officer

Almost every professor who has stood before a classroom has heard the standard lines 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 – the student who underperforms his or her own expectations on an assignment then embarks on an extended grade-raising quest that usually consists of exploring the extraordinary lengths to which a student can go to pester an instructor over the most trivial matters imaginable. It is one of the most annoying and recurring aspects of teaching at even the university level, and can become a substantial tax on your own time and patience.

So how do you manage grade grubbers in the classroom? A few tips:

1.   Understand the causes

Grade grubbing is a complex phenomenon, but it almost always boils down to a variety of misaligned incentives and expectations. It is usually incentivized and inculcated by pre-collegiate schooling, and 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. Lower ed utilizes grades as a measure for alleged performance, though this signaling device also typically reflects an appallingly weak standard of work. Therefore “high” grades are not only relatively easy to obtain, but 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 minimal amount of effort, and that “extra” efforts to boost the grade of an assignment will typically be rewarded or meet minimal resistance.

2.   Stand your ground, within reason

Students grade grub because they know it works, and because they have probably succeeded at it before. By giving in you only reaffirm this belief and ensure that another professor will have to deal with the same issue later on. Note that you will probably encounter all manners and types of excuses, hardships, and sob stories, 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, and 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, not a commonplace concession simply granted as requested.

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

One strategy I frequently employ to stave off grade grubbing is to set firm expectations at the outset of the class. Start by clearly explaining your grade rubric in your syllabus and stating openly how much each assignment is worth, but also reinforce your expectations on the first night of class. State your requirements for attendance, participation in class discussions, and completion of assignments on time. If you require a substantive and original research paper as part of your class, specifically convey what it will take to receive an “A” on that assignment. To most students, this 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

One way to manage grade grubbing is to preempt it. Grade grubbing always occurs after-the-fact when a student is 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. As an alternative though 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 a student knows he or she will miss a class presentation due to work/family/travel I ask them to tell me in advance with the stipulation that I will try to accommodate within reason. 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 and 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, and 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 him/herself at office hours before the assignment was submitted.

5.   Identify the costs of grade grubbing

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, and students who habitually clamor for higher grades and 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). The further one moves away from the “lower ed” model, the less important numerical grades become with the lone stipulation that grad students must pass their classes. Simply put, you might consider informing a grade grubbing PhD student that GPA is not the end-all measure of performance that it was in high school. It actually matters exceedingly little in the grander scheme of things where research quality and output is the main metric of success. It is therefore not only a waste of time for a grad student to fight over the inconsequential difference between a B+ and an A-. It is also a waste of social capital, with very little to be gained and much to be lost as the student acquires a reputation for pettiness or worse.


Update: Advice from Professor Antony Davies:

A technique I use (though it applies more to the students who are grubbing for a D) is to send, in the week before the drop/add deadline, 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 come asking for points or extra credit work to push them from an F to a D. Be careful with your wording because 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.”