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.
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.