Teacher tales: The “grade grubbers”

Dear friends,

Ask your professor friends, and most will agree: the moment you post final grades for the semester, the deluge of emails begins.  Students will beg you to “round up” their grades, forgive undone assignments, or create an extra credit opportunity after the semester has ended.  They’ll try to play “let’s make a deal.”  Some faculty call these students “grade grubbers.”

Nobody I know likes receiving these emails.

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Most educators (at least the ones I know) find it disheartening when students think of grades as a commodity.  To us – to me – your grade reflects your mastery of the course material.  A semester’s worth of course material cannot be understood and mastered in one “cram session” for an exam.  It takes time, thought, and study.  It takes engagement throughout the semester.

Students will argue that “I worked really hard” (this often means “I pulled an all-nighter before the exam.”)  But hard work, in and of itself, doesn’t lead to rewards – it’s the results that count.  I could work really hard learning to play the mandolin, or to speak Russian, but it doesn’t guarantee I’d achieve proficiency.  Similarly, I may take a course where my best effort results in a “C.”


Students will argue that the professor should “round up” their final grade (even though I explicitly state in my syllabus that I won’t do this).  I explain that in a 1000-point course, each percentage equals 10 points … so if you are 2% off the next higher grade, you’re 20 points off.  Since exam questions are worth 2 points each, that’s 10 exam questions.  You’re telling me you deserve the same grade as the person next to you who got 10 more questions correct than you did.  Sorry, but no.

Students will argue that they should get an extra credit opportunity at the last minute, or even after the semester has ended.  Often, these students did not complete all of the assigned work, which was designed to demonstrate their mastery of the course material.  Now they are asking me to create and grade a special, additional assignment,  Sorry, but no.  Also, I don’t believe that a student should be able to pass a class on “extra credit.”


We tend to blame the students for these behaviors, but there’s a larger problem, a cultural problem:  Grades (teaching, learning) are seen as commodities that can be bought or traded for, and students also see them as a ticket to a good future.  Not the learning the grade represents, but the grade itself.  When students beg for these grade increases, they often use the appeal that their future chances will be hindered if they don’t pass the course – never mind that passing the course means mastering the material.

Where do they get this idea that grades are paramount?  It’s built into the K-12 system, into our cultural attitude toward goals and rewards, and into our sense of self-worth.

What can we do?


I’m only one person, and I may be working against years of conditioning, but I try to help my students think differently about grades.  First, a grade is not a reflection of your worth as a person (I’ll never be a virtuoso on the mandolin, but it doesn’t mean I’m deficient as a human being).  Second, a hard-earned “B” is something to be proud of, if it represents your best work in that subject matter.  And third, there is value in the process of learning, whatever the outcome.  Life is most fulfilling if you enter the world with a curious mind.

In the end, I understand why professors hate “grade grubbing” – but I also understand why students are motivated to do it.  We’re at an impasse where neither party wants to concede, and both think the other is being unfair.  As the ones in a position of power, we can enforce rules and policies with compassion, while we suggest new ways of thinking about the role of grades in the educational process.

And to my students:  I believe in you.





Good books – April 23, 2018 edition


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Dear friends,

Here’s a roundup of some recent reads:

Upside of falling down

I didn’t expect to love this, but I really did!  “The Upside of Falling Down” is a light romance, “young adult” novel that, at first, seems like it will be predictable – a young woman is the sole survivor of a plane crash, and wakes up with no memory of her life before.  A young man befriends her and … you think you know the rest, but that’s where the twists and turns start coming.  I found it to be a page-turner, with some really surprising revelations at the end.  If you’re up for a light, fun read, this is a good one.  Available for borrowing on Kindle Unlimited.









Honestly, I didn’t love this one.  If you’re looking for a book that says “rah, rah, yay you!” then it’s for you.  But if you have deeper issues of anxiety and depression, you may not find it helpful.  To me, much of her advice has the flavor of “If you’re lonely, get out and meet people!” or “If you’re sad, look at how happy people act, and act like them!”  There *were* some useful ideas about where our attitudes and mindsets come from, such as growing up in an environment where relationships are difficult, or money is scarce.  But overall, I found that the advice did not account for the complexities of human emotions.  It has high ratings on Amazon, though, and it’s a bestseller, so a lot of people like it.

Year one

If you’re a fan of Nora Roberts, dystopian novels, or magic/witchcraft stories (or all of the above), you’ll love this one.  It starts with a common premise – a sickness has wiped out most of the human race, governments have collapsed – but the fascinating part is how the survivors find one another and come together in communities.  The book is meant to be the first in a series, and I can’t wait to read the next one.  Recommended!

Silver Lake

This is a romance / “haunted house” story about a group of friends in their mid-twenties who had gone to high school together.  One member of their group, Brandy, had disappeared years before and is presumed dead, but her other friends have been having mysterious dreams about her.  At the request of Brandy’s mother, the friends reunite at a cottage on Silver Lake – one of their former hangouts – to see if they can piece together the clues to Brandy’s disappearance.  The story?  It’s ok.  I found it a little predictable, but not in a bad way.  It’s a light story, and for me, it was a “palate cleanser” between other books.  It’s available on Kindle Unlimited to borrow.

Year of Yes








I really enjoyed this memoir by the creator of such TV shows as Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy.  Shonda Rhimes is a busy woman with an overbooked schedule, so she got into the habit of saying “no” to a lot of opportunities and engagements.  One Thanksgiving, as she was preparing dinner with her sister, her sister said “You never say yes to anything.”  This prompted Shonda to engage in deep self-reflection.  She committed to finding ways to say “yes” more in the coming year.  As she came to learn, saying “yes” sometimes means saying “yes” to your own well-being, instead of other people’s requests.  A great book for introverts and those who love them.

Have fun reading!




The most important grade you’ll earn


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Dear friends,

It’s finals week, and students (and their teachers) are thinking a lot about grades.

I hope that all of us – including my students – will take up this challenge.  It’s not a formal assignment, and it won’t be graded (at least, not by me).  Your “grade” will be reflected in your quality of life, relationships, and sense of self.

I want all of us to make a concerted effort to befriend someone different from ourselves.


If you’re a liberal, make friends with someone whose beliefs are conservative.  If you’re religious, befriend someone who questions, or disbelieves, the existence of God.  If you are American, make a new friend who grew up in another land.

I’m not here to tell you that we’re more alike than we are different.  Sometimes our differences are vast, and we should honor them.  But we need to talk to one another, and more importantly, to really listen.  To see each other as companions on the journey, wherever we started from, wherever our ultimate destination.

Challenge yourself to find that new friend, and to open your mind.  That’s our assignment, and I hope we all earn the highest marks.