Talking your way into a higher grade: is that allowed? We asked the DUB panel

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The week without classes is done and exam results are coming in. For some students, this is the last chance to read their through their tests carefully, especially if they're right below a passing grade or if they'll miss out on the chance to resit those exams. Did the teacher grade it right? Is the grade really fair? If they think not, then they do not hesitate to approach the teacher and request a higher grade.

Some students wouldn't be caught dead "begging" for a higher grade. Teachers aren't exactly thrilled when they receive such a request either. But is it always a bad thing to do that? We sent an e-mail to our panel of students and teachers to reflect on the following question: trying to talk your way into a higher grade, should that be allowed?

“It’s never a bad idea to discuss your grade with your teacher”, finds Philosophy, Politics and Economics student Mario Parolari. “Students often underestimate the success rate. Teachers can make mistakes and, if the test comprises open questions, then an answer can have multiple interpretations”.

However, Parolari stresses that asking for a review requires a certain approach. “I’ve seen friends approach teachers with the arrogance of someone who thinks they're always right. That’s just asking for a dialectic fight about minimal details”.

He says it’s better to listen to the explanation carefully, with the mindset that you might be able to learn something from it. Teachers tend to like it much better, and it'll be good for your own learning process too. “I did manage to raise my grade by half a point once, just because I tried this approach.”

Arguments are rarely, if ever, convincing

“I would like to encourage students not to do this too often”, says innovation scientist Frank van Rijnsoever, highlighting how long it takes for teachers to go through something again, discuss it, reply to the student, and possibly adjust a grade. “It increases our workload, which can hurt the quality of education”.

Teachers are careful in their grading, Van Rijnsoever stresses. He himself re-checks those that are just below a passing grade to prevent such discussions. “I often think: if instead of spending this time arguing about your grade, you’d spend some time studying, then you would easily pass this course”.

Furthermore, he never engages in these discussions in person. “People can address their issues in writing, and then we'll take a serious look at it. In practice, it’s very rare for this whole process to lead to the grade being adjusted”.

At Educational Sciences, too, students can express their criticism in writing, or digitally via Remindo, says educational scientist Casper Hulshof. “That way, you prevent discussions during the review (which generally don’t lead to anything anyway)”.

Hulshof doesn’t mind being corrected in the case of an actual mistake, but says most teachers hate students who try to scrape extra points together. “Of course students will try, especially if they are just below passing grade, but that usually doesn’t have any effect. The arguments are rarely, if ever, convincing”.

Encourage this behaviour

They might be a minority as Hulshof says, but teachers who don't get bothered by students coming to them requesting a higher grade do exist. Chemistry teacher Stefan Rudiger is one of them: “All students have the right to a fair assessment. At Chemistry and Molecular Life Sciences, the correct answers are usually clear. But it’s possible that a student thinks you should look at a question from a different perspective. If they are right, I’ll gladly give them – and other students who didn’t ask – the points they deserve”.

Rik Vangangelt, coordinator of the Centre for Academic Teaching, thinks that students who ask for further explanations display a critical mindset. In his workgroup, he recently spoke with a few students who asked for elaboration on his feedback. “Perhaps they did so with the idea that they’d get a higher grade, I’m not sure. In a few cases, they did get it”.

But Vangangelt was happy to receive the request for clarification. “Because of my students’ questions, I knew they had thoroughly studied the feedback, which contributes to their learning process. So I say we should encourage this behaviour!”

Students Inge Vliek and Melissa Alberts find it a complex dilemma. Psychology student Alberts can imagine why students approach teachers in the case of papers or exams comprising open question, as different interpretations are possible. “But the behaviour becomes more questionable in the case of multiple-choice tests. I’m not against it, but I’m not sure if I’d do that myself.”

Vliek, student of Media and Culture, doesn’t sympathise with students who try to raise their grade just because they don’t like the original one. “Teachers don’t just randomly give grades. I think we can trust their expertise”. However, it’s different if the student in question can substantiate their opinion with clear arguments. After all, they can genuinely disagree with a teacher’s assessment, or there can be personal circumstances that influenced their learning process or the way they took the exam. “In my view, these are cases where talking to your teacher can be useful, but I’d prefer to call it ‘having a conversation’ rather than ‘talking your way into a higher grade’”.

‘This makes everyone vulnerable in the #metoo era’

As a research analyst, Mies van Steenbergen doesn’t deal with this phenomenon much. He understands both the students who try to improve their grades and the teachers who don’t want to, and don’t have the time to. His personal view on such conversations? "Don’t have them".

“In these times of #metoo and harassment, this practice makes everyone vulnerable. Students perhaps subconsciously feel as though they have to ‘push a little harder’, while teachers may end up with a complaint if they fail to respond to the request for a higher grade”.

Philosopher Floris van den Berg has two separate thoughts on the issue. Although he appreciates the assertiveness of such students he also thinks asking for higher grades is a sign of distrust. This attitude is symbolic of the "demand culture", where students feel as though they're clients of the university, thus having "the right" to a good grade, even without doing what it takes to get one. “These requests to re-check their work take time and they're not among my favourite things to do as I don’t think it’s very constructive”.

Van den Berg can’t remember taking any action himself when, as a philosophy student, he wrongly received a much lower grade for his thesis than for the thesis he’d written for a different study programme. “The teachers are still around here, perhaps I should object after all”.

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