Avoiding Grade Appeals


No part of teaching carries more potential anxiety than grading. Faculty can often feel trapped in grading “jail” (see also: how to break out), and of course many students take grades quite personally. Some faculty have also reported conflicts with their administration, or with students, about standards that others believed were inappropriate–usually, of course, too high. There are even occasional horror stories about grades being changed without a faculty member’s input, as well, of course, as stories of faculty members who, for one reason or another, refuse to turn in grades. So it is a stressful process.

Most schools have a policy for grade appeals, which allows students who feel that they have received an erroneous course grade some recourse. These policies, which are designed to protect students from capriciousness and to ensure the integrity of the course grade, only compound the stress associated with grading. In my first semester at my current job, a student began the grade appeal process in one of my classes, asserting that there had been so much reading that it had caused an eye disorder (it is true that the student developed one during the semester), preventing successful completion of the course. The chair at the time defused the situation, and everything turned out for the best. The experience still feels like a body blow, however, because a grade appeal necessarily suggests that I’ve failed a student in some incredibly basic way, or, worse, that I’ve been unfair or malicious in my duties. Grade appeals might well be especially stressful for faculty on contingent appointments, who might fear that the existence of such appeals, however frivolous, might cause them to lose their courses.

It’s worth mentioning that the existence of the grade appeal process is collectively bargained at my school. Here’s what the contract says:

The determination of grades is the responsibility of the instructor of the course. . . . A grade shall be changed only with the consent of the instructor of the course and with the approval of the appropriate Chief Academic Officer or Dean, except that, in cases of absence of the instructor or of a palpable injustice, the appropriate method of adjusting grades established by the Senate in each university, in agreement with the President, shall be followed.

This is drawn from a contract article enumerating professional rights and responsibilities, and follows directly after a discussion of academic freedom in the classroom. There are three crucial bits here for grade appeals: 1) no one can change the grade, unless 2) there is a “palpable injustice,” and 3) that determination is made by a panel of faculty. (That’s the upshot of “Senate-established method.”) Palpable injustice seems like a high bar, but it preserves the faculty member’s ability to determine appropriate standards for a course, and makes clear that routine grade-grubbing is not appropriate.

And so it was with great interest, then, that I observed the annual report of my campus’s grade appeals committee to the faculty senate. (Part of being union president is to attend all senate meetings as a guest.) Most of their report, and some of the floor discussion, was given over to some basic strategies for protecting yourself against grade appeals, and so I thought I’d share them here.

  • Have a clear way of determining the course grade–preferably, as the report says, one that “does not require a higher math degree to understand.” This obviously belongs in the syllabus, and especially if there’s anything unusual about the way grades are determined, that should be explained. (For example, I use letter grades on assignments in my classes, which I convert to their GPA equivalents to determine the course grade.) For a related discussion, see Billie’s earlier post on course grading contracts, and the discussion in comments.
  • A corollary is that students should understand their grades on each assignment, and how they connect to the overall course grade. This is especially true when participation or other less tangible factors contribute significantly to the course grade, or if there’s anything else that might influence the grade one way or another. This is actually something we’ve written about a fair amount here. See, for example, Brian’s post on grading participation, or Ryan’s on grading participation rhetorically. I’ve written about rubrics, while Jeff and Julie offered strategies for evaluating student blogs, and Mark shared his excellent rubric. Your absence policy might come into play, too.
  • The committee also noted that it is helpful for chairs to investigate student concerns, and write a report. A panel of faculty from across the school–but not one’s own department–might not recognize a commonly-accepted practice in a particular discipline.
  • The floor discussion of the report included the recommendation that faculty keep clear, well-organized records, either in digital or paper form. While this may seem obvious, it is easy to scrawl grades for impromptu assignments (quizzes, presentations, etc.) on scraps of paper that–well, let’s say are easier to lose than your gradebook probably is. Billie reviewed several grade keeping programs, and of course many faculty use their course management system.

Nothing can definitively prevent the possibility of a student filing an appeal, of course–but these steps might help you prevail without too much hassle.

How about you? What strategies do you have for avoiding grade appeals, or for otherwise communicating effectively about grades?

Photo by Flickr user MinivanNinja / Creative Commons licensed

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