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In an earlier post about office hours, I argued that regularly visiting with a professor/teaching assistant should be viewed as compulsory. I also noted that student-teacher interactions in high school are drastically different than student-professor relationships in university. But what about those instances where you feel shortchanged on a grade or you have another kind of problem with your professor/TA? Do you know how to appropriately contest a grade, for example?

When you start university, remember that many of the mechanisms you used to solve problems/issues with teachers will be absent. No one will be calling or threatening to send a letter home. There will be no parent-teacher meetings. In university, you and only you will be responsible for doing things like contesting a grade. I know that you’ve probably never been told this before, but before you enter undergraduate studies, make sure you know how to navigate the waters of having difficult conversations with your professor/TA. Here’s some advice on how to do this appropriately.

Isn’t my professor the expert?

Many students find speaking with their professor/TA to be intimidating. Challenging a course director’s authority and contesting a grade takes this feeling to another level. Understandably, most students that have contested a grade with me in the past did so with incredible uncertainty and palpable nervousness. What you need to know however, is that professors/TAs make mistakes. With this in mind, you should understand that contesting a grade is a healthy part of undergraduate life and you’ll probably have to do so at least once in your years of study.

When it comes to this interaction, just remember that there are appropriate and less appropriate ways for you to carry yourself.

Good reasons to contest a grade

First of all, there are legitimate reasons to contest a mark. In some cases, you may be graded unfairly. In others, your grade could simply be wrong (there are various reasons for this to happen). There may also be instances where the expectations for an assignment are not clearly stated, causing you to produce strong work, but not to the exact specifications of your professor/TA. Additionally, you may feel that your grade is not reflective of the work you have produced (this last point requires some honest reflection and an understanding that everyone does not always get the grade they feel they deserve).

Reasons you should not use to contest a grade

There are plenty of reasons why you should not contest a grade – and I have heard many of them. In the past, many students have told me that they deserve a better grade because:

“I am going to law (or medical) school”

Let me be the first to tell you that using this line of reasoning to justify a higher grade is offensive to the grader. Professors/TAs spend a lot of time carefully considering each grade they give. To suggest that their perspective is an inconvenience to your future plans is probably not the best way to approach the situation. You should also avoid contesting a grade by claiming that “I worked hard on this”. In university, and probably life, there will be occasions where the amount of time you invest in a piece of work will not be demonstrative of the final grade you get. Sometimes, it works the other way as well.

How to contest a grade for writing assignments

Here is the process that I would follow to contest a grade. I have used the example of a writing assignment (I would slightly alter the process for an exam or participation grade – feel free to email me if you want an example for these situations).

  1. Take 24 to 48 hours to think about the grade and try to understand the reasoning behind it. While it may be difficult to digest, grades are not personal and taking this time will allow you to understand your grader’s perspective with more clarity.

  2. On a sheet of paper, create a table with two columns. In the first one, write down the expectations that were communicated by your professor or TA. Opposite to that, explain how the grade is inconsistent with those expectations. Record specific examples from the assignment.

  3. In a courteous, non-antagonistic, fashion, approach your professor/TA and communicate the discrepancies to them. Let them know that in light of these findings, a re-appraisal would be appreciated.

Before meeting with your course director, I highly recommend that you write down everything that you want to communicate. This should decrease the likelihood of you feeling too intimated to convey your grievance. Remember that it is absolutely necessary to keep the conversation on the facts and, while it may be difficult, avoid getting personal.

Grades are not always black and white

The final point to know, and it is a very important one, is that some grade discrepancies are not black and white. Oftentimes, the difference between an A and a C is a student’s ability to think critically, support arguments, and cite relevant course materials (which can be highly subjective). Without question, this is an area that many students struggle with when they transition to university. As my experience tells me, this is because high schools, to a much greater extent than university, reward descriptive thinking rather than analytical thought, which is what every professor and TA is looking for.

My point here is that even if you contest a grade appropriately, you may not get the answer you want. If this is the case, use the exchange to learn where you went wrong and how you can write a stronger paper next time.

There is a right and wrong way to navigate the unfamiliar road of contesting a grade. From my personal experience, most students do not do so appropriately or with any careful calculation. Typically, this prevents them from getting the answer they want and it may also leave them in poor standing with their professor/TA. Remember, when you get to university, you alone will be in charge of managing these relationships. If you take my advice, I assure you, you’re in good and experienced hands.