Getting Students to Talk about Those Disappointing Grades

Handing back graded work or posting grade results is not usually a favorite course event for teachers. There are always those students disappointed in their grades. Some simply look disappointed; others quickly switch from disappointment to anger. A few take it up with the teacher after class. Still fewer show up during office hours to talk about the grade. Bottom line: Most students don't talk with their teachers about those grades they don't think they deserve, though they should, for their own benefit and the teacher's. Students can get additional feedback that may help them understand the grade and avoid similar mistakes on subsequent assignments. Teachers can learn how students understood the goals of the activity.

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Handing back graded work or posting grade results is not usually a favorite course event for teachers. There are always those students disappointed in their grades. Some simply look disappointed; others quickly switch from disappointment to anger. A few take it up with the teacher after class. Still fewer show up during office hours to talk about the grade. Bottom line: Most students don't talk with their teachers about those grades they don't think they deserve, though they should, for their own benefit and the teacher's. Students can get additional feedback that may help them understand the grade and avoid similar mistakes on subsequent assignments. Teachers can learn how students understood the goals of the activity.

Courtney Wright asked 586 students if they'd received a disappointing grade and if they'd discussed it with the teacher. Of that cohort, 261 said yes, they had received a disappointing grade and no, they had not talked with the teacher about it. Wright asked why they had not, in an open-ended question, and received 343 reasons in response. Most of those reasons fell into these six categories.

Utility of the conversation—
These students didn't see any benefit coming from having the conversation. It wasn't going to result in the grade being changed. “This narrow focus may cause some students to misjudge the utility of meeting with an instructor, missing out on the many potential benefits afforded from doing so.” Reasons in this category were the most often given, counting for 27 percent of all the reasons offered for not talking about the grade with the teacher.

Understanding of the grade causes—
In this case students didn't talk with the instructor because they understood the reasons why they got the grade. They were disappointed, but realized that they deserved it—they didn't spend enough time on the work, they didn't study, etc. Also in this category were reasons related to the feedback provided. It adequately explained the reasons for the grade. Twenty-one percent of the reasons given belonged in this category.

Instructor relational issues—
This category of reasons related to student perceptions of the instructor. They didn't think the instructor was approachable or they had previous unsuccessful experiences trying to communicate with the instructor. “He had failed at explaining [the material] to me when I had gone to office hours,” one wrote. (p. 51) In some cases the students felt the instructor didn't “like” them or was in some way “biased.” Reasons here accounted for 22 percent of the responses given for not discussing the disappointing grade.

Judgment of the evaluation—
Here students were disappointed but didn't consider the grade all that important. It may have been lower than they expected, but it still wasn't all that bad. Or after having considered the grade, students simply decided they deserved it. In some cases, the grade just wasn't that important to them—it was in a required course or a small part of the overall course grade. Twenty-one percent of the reasons fell into this category.

Student characteristics—
These reasons had to do with students just not being comfortable having the conversation. They didn't think they could make the case for a different grade, or they didn't want to try. Some reported feeling embarrassed, others said they were afraid, and some fessed up to being lazy. Sixteen percent of the reasons belonged to this category.

Situational factors—
Circumstances prevented some students from discussing the grade. They didn't want to wait to see the professor. They had other priorities, such as exams in other classes. They opted to drop the course. Reasons such as these accounted for 14 percent of the responses.

The reasons for not discussing disappointing grades are a blend of legitimate and not-so-legitimate excuses. Wright offers this wise counsel to teachers: “By giving greater attention to facilitating grade conversations instead of regulating grade disputes, instructors can enhance students' understandings of the diverse benefits of discussing disappointing grades and their legitimate right to initiate them.” (p. 57)

Reference: Wright, C.N. (2013). Examining the silence of academic disappointment: A typology of students' reasons for not discussing disappointing grades with instructors. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 13 (5), 46-60.