Friday, August 24, 2007
Ask My Readers: Grade Appeals
(I'm thinking out loud in this post, looking for constructive suggestions. This is not some sort of position paper.)
How does your college handle grade appeals by students? Has it found a fair, reasonable, and aboveboard way?
I ask because we're going through another catalog revision, and having taken a fresh look at some sections that nobody has looked at in a while, I found a pretty untenable grade appeal process. I've called it to my colleagues' attention, who agree that the existing policy doesn't make sense, but we aren't quite sure what to propose to replace it.
(A policy like this would have to be approved by the Academic Standards Committee, which is composed primarily of faculty, so there's no spectre of administrative micromanagement here. We can propose or suggest, but we can't enact. But I don't want to propose anything stupid, since that doesn't solve anything.)
I'm thinking that some of the parameters for a reasonable policy might be:
Above the department level, there will be no 'content' judgment. To carry an appeal over a department chair, there would have to be a claim of some sort of process irregularity (a computation or recording error, a meaningful deviation from the syllabus, favoritism, bias). My thinking on that is that you need subject-matter expertise to judge content, and the higher you go, the farther removed from any given subject you get. If a student claims that his Spanish professor graded his oral presentation incorrectly, I'm in no position to make sense of it one way or the other.
The burden of proof is on the student bringing the appeal. A professor's grade is presumed valid until the student shows that it isn't. The benefit of the doubt goes to the professor.
There should be a pretty strict statute of limitations on grade appeals. I'm thinking a semester or a year, though I'm not wedded to that. But asking a professor to recall the details of an oral presentation four years after the fact strikes me as nuts.
In cases in which the professor is no longer present to be asked, the department chair may make the call. (I've had professors die mid-semester before. You need to have a contingency plan for this sort of thing.)
But...if a student follows the entire process and manages to show convincingly that her position is correct, the grade should, in fact, be changed. This is even true if it happens over the objections of the professor. While the professor's determination of the grade is given great deference, it is not inviolate.
Has your college found a reasonable balance that gives faculty the confidence that it won't be sold out at every complaint, but that still offers a wronged student a remedy? If so, how does that work?
I understand the need for faculty to feel that they are not being "sold out" on every complaint, but you might also consider including some mechanism in the process (at whatever threshold) that triggers consideration of any systemic issues underlying a given appeal. Such issues may originate with deliberate actions an instructor is taking or simply artifacts of particular processes already in place that need to be reviewed and updated. In the cases where administration feels a grade needs to be changed over faculty objections, the ability to point to such reasons may help justify such a decision or make it "more acceptable".
I think also that you should be careful with the 'deviation from the syllabus' standard. Classes often deviate a little or a lot from the initial syllabus in terms of schedule and material covered. Perhaps a better standard would be something like significant deviation from the assessment methods and method for grade calculations as stated in the initial or revised syllabus. This prevents a complaint on the basis of a mid-term date getting moved, a paper assignment changed etc.
I guess I could admire their persistence but its really upsetting to see great colleagues smeared with such a label.
The main exception I can see is someone taking a class with Prof. X and doesn't want to complain because she knows she's going to have to take a required course with him next semester and is worried about subtle retribution.
We have a one calendar year limit for initiating an appeal. (In reading our policy, however, I notice that it is vague as to which step must be taken within that time limit. It should be the filing of a petition with the VP, who acts as a gatekeeper to the appeals committee, but it could be the step of contacting the instructor.) This limits the retention period for exams and papers to a reasonable time frame.
Our process is instructor, Dean, VP, referral to appeals committee, recommendation to VP who has final say. The President and Board have no role in changing grades.
I like the Illinois policy. Comparing it to ours shows that we lack a requirement that the instructor get a copy of the student's written argument and an opportunity to provide an written reply. Our published policy only has a "may request" by the committee in addition to the hearing.
Timelines for student complaints vary widely and wildly. 30 days to one semester seems reasonable, but I remember dealing with an issue that was nearly a decade old.
Well, we've got the Honor Principle, which necessitates the student first contacting the faculty member to try to work it out informally, then bringing it before the Honor Council (mediation) or J-Board (more formal arbitration, though I think when faculty are the accused, it gets kicked to the admin board). If that is not satisfactory to either party or no resolution can be reached, students may talk to the Dean of the Faculty, at which point this happens:
a. Any member of the Student Body, Staff, or Faculty may file with the Dean of the Faculty a formal signed complaint against a faculty member. If after discussion with the complainant, the Dean (or his or her designee) concludes that the complaint is without foundation or cannot reasonably be investigated due to the passage of time, and if no duly enacted policy or compelling legal reason mandates further investigation, he or she shall dismiss the complaint. In all other cases, the faculty member shall receive a copy of the signed complaint and shall have five working days in which to reply and to state his or her position. Every effort shall be made to protect the complainant from retaliatory action.
The Dean of the Faculty (or his or her designee) shall promptly discuss the complaint and the response with the complainant and the accused faculty member. A resolution of the complaint may be agreed to by the Faculty member, the Dean of the Faculty (or his or her designee), and the complainant. If no such agreement is reached within ten working days after a complaint has been filed, the Dean of the Faculty shall forward the complaint to the Chair of the Grievance Review Panel, unless the alleged conduct appears to warrant fixed-term suspension or termination of tenure or of fixed-term appointment prior to expiration, in which case the Dean shall consult with the Committee on Advancement and Tenure as to whether to initiate proceedings under the provisions of Section H of these Rules of Procedure.
b. In the absence of or independent of a formal signed complaint, the Dean of the Faculty (after informal inquiries and consultation with the Committee on Advancement and Tenure), or the Committee on Advancement and Tenure itself, may determine that an investigation of unprofessional conduct may be warranted according to the procedures of Section G or Section H. Any informal inquiries undertaken by the Dean or the Committee shall be strictly limited to determining whether a formal investigation is warranted. If the Dean or the Committee on Advancement and Tenure determines that possible charges do warrant investigation according to the procedures of Sections G or H, the faculty member in question shall promptly receive a written statement of the nature and grounds of the possible charges to be considered and shall have five working days from receipt of this statement in which to reply and to state his or her position. The Dean of the Faculty and the Committee on Advancement and Tenure shall have five working days from receipt of the faculty member’s reply to determine whether the possible charges require investigation.
If the Dean of the Faculty and the Committee on Advancement and Tenure determine that plausible grounds for investigation or adverse action do not exist, the Dean of the Faculty shall immediately so inform the faculty member in writing. If the Dean of the Faculty or the Committee determines that plausible grounds for adverse action may exist, the Dean, the Committee, and the faculty member are bound in good faith to seek an informal resolution of the matter among themselves before formal steps are taken. If a resolution does not seem possible or is not agreed to within fifteen working days of the determination that grounds for adverse action may exist, and if the alleged conduct appears to warrant a sanction less than fixed-term suspension or termination, such as a warning or reprimand, the Dean of the Faculty shall promptly forward charges to the Chair of the Grievance Review Panel. If the Dean of the Faculty or the Committee on Advancement and Tenure determines that the alleged conduct appears to warrant fixed-term suspension or termination of tenure or of fixed-term appointment prior to expiration, then the Dean of the Faculty or the Committee on Advancement and Tenure, whichever has so determined, shall promptly initiate proceedings pursuant to Section H.
c. In the event that a hearing according to the procedures of Sections G or H overlaps in time with a personnel review affecting title, salary, or term of service of the accused faculty member, that review shall be suspended pending the final outcome of those procedures.
d. In the event that a hearing according to the procedures of Sections G or H comes about because of an allegation submitted to the Committee on Advancement and Tenure, that allegation shall normally remain in the faculty member’s evaluation file. In cases where such an allegation is discredited by a hearing which clears the accused faculty member of wrongdoing, the Committee on Advancement and Tenure shall either insert a statement to that effect into the evaluation file or delete the discredited allegation.
e. The Dean of the Faculty, the Committee on Advancement and Tenure and the President, and any Grievance Hearing Board or Investigating Committee, shall make every effort to safeguard as fully as possible the confidentiality of any disciplinary proceeding according to the procedures of Sections G or H.
[section on record keeping omitted]
G. Procedures for Sanctions Less than Fixed-Term Suspension or Termination
a. Within five working days of the receipt of a complaint filed by a member of the Community or of charges forwarded by the Dean of the Faculty or the Committee on Advancement and Tenure, the Chair of the Grievance Review Panel shall appoint from that panel a Grievance Hearing Board, made up of three members of the Faculty, taking care that the board is composed in a way likely to be impartial with respect to these allegations. The Hearing Board shall meet not more than five working days after its appointment to discuss the allegations, and shall normally complete its deliberations within twenty working days from receipt of a complaint or charges.
b. The Hearing Board shall conduct an investigation, call witnesses, and gather information it deems necessary to assist it in reaching a determination as to the merits of the allegations. Unless the Hearing Board concludes that the allegations are without merit, it shall invite any parties to a dispute to appear before it and to confront any adverse witnesses.
c. In any appearance before a Hearing Board, a complainant and the alleged offender each have the right to be accompanied by not more than two advisers from within the Reed Community, each of whom shall be a currently enrolled student or a current member of the Faculty or Staff. No such adviser may participate in the hearing as representing any party, or in any other way. Legal counsel, including College counsel, shall not be permitted to observe or participate in any appearance before or meeting of a Hearing Board.
d. In arriving at its ultimate determination as to the merits of the allegations, the Hearing Board shall be guided by a standard of the preponderance of the evidence in the information before it, considered as a whole.
Section G-2 Report of the Hearing Board
a. In cases arising from a formal complaint, the Hearing Board shall communicate its determination as to the merits of the allegations in writing to the complainant. A summary of the basis for the board’s determination shall be provided to the complainant upon request. In all cases, the Hearing Board shall supply the Dean of the Faculty and the person charged with a report consisting of its determination as to the merits of the allegations, any recommendations for sanctions against the faculty member, and a statement of the evidence gathered in the course of its investigations.
b. If the Hearing Board recommends seeking fixed-term suspension or termination of tenure or of fixed-term appointment prior to expiration, the report of the Hearing Board shall immediately be forwarded to the Committee on Advancement and Tenure, at which point the procedures of Section H shall come into force. If the Hearing Board recommends the imposition of some lesser sanction, such as a warning or reprimand, the Dean of the Faculty shall forward this recommendation to the President, who shall determine whether to impose that sanction.
c. The affected faculty member may appeal to the Appeals and Review Committee any action by the President that is based on a recommendation by a Hearing Board.
H. Procedures for Fixed-Term Suspension or Termination of Academic Tenure or Fixed-Term Appointment Prior to Expiration for a Reason Other than Financial Exigency
Section H-1. Proceedings for termination or fixed-term suspension for a reason other than financial exigency shall be carried out as follows:
a. Prior to or in lieu of Section H proceedings, the College and the faculty member may agree to arbitration or mediation. If such a resolution of the matter cannot be agreed upon, either the Committee on Advancement and Tenure or the Dean of the Faculty, after consultation between them, may present formal charges against the Faculty member to the Committee on Tenure. The burden of proof of the charges shall lie with the Dean or the Committee on Advancement and Tenure, whichever has initiated the proceeding, and will be satisfied only by clear and convincing evidence in the record considered as a whole.
b. The Committee on Tenure shall consist of the Faculty members of the Appeals and Review Committee with the following exceptions:
If the person whose termination or fixed-term suspension is proposed is a member of the Committee, he or she shall withdraw until his or her case is completed.
Any member of the Committee who feels in his or her own judgment that he or she cannot participate impartially in a particular case shall withdraw for the duration of the case.
Vacancies because of one or two withdrawals shall be filled by Faculty members chosen by the remaining members of the Committee. If there are more than two vacancies because of withdrawals, all of the vacancies shall be filled by Faculty members elected by the Faculty from nominees of the Committee on Advancement and Tenure in a number equal to twice the number to be elected.
c. The Committee on Tenure shall promptly appoint an Investigating Committee of five Faculty members on academic tenure, one of whom shall be chosen from among three nominated by the individual under investigation, one of whom shall be chosen from among three nominated by the President, and one of whom shall be chosen from among three nominated by the Committee on Advancement and Tenure. The Investigating Committee shall choose its own chair.
d. The Investigating Committee shall investigate the charges, hold hearings, and make recommendations as follows:
The person charged shall be fully informed in writing of the charges against him or her and shall have the opportunity to respond to the charges, to confront witnesses in hearings and to cross-examine them, to be heard in his or her own defense, to produce witnesses in his or her own behalf and to have with him or her at most two academic advisers of his or her own choosing. Where witnesses cannot or will not appear, but the Investigating Committee determines that the interests of justice require admission of their statements, the Investigating Committee will identify the witnesses, disclose their statements, and if possible provide for interrogatories. Legal counsel, including College counsel, shall not be permitted to observe or participate in any appearance before or meeting of the Investigating Committee.
The Investigating Committee may see all documents held by the College that pertain to the case. The Committee shall hold such hearings as may be necessary to fully explore the charges. If the charges include that of academic incompetence, testimony may include that of teachers and other scholars from the College or from other institutions of higher learning. A complete stenographic record of all hearings shall be kept and a transcript shall be prepared and supplied to the person charged upon his or her request. The hearings shall be open to the Faculty only if the person charged so requests.
The Investigating Committee shall normally complete its investigation within thirty working days of its appointment. Upon the completion of its investigation, the Investigating Committee shall meet, consider the evidence, and reach its conclusions by a secret ballot in which the chair shall have the right to vote.
If the proceedings have arisen from a formal complaint, the complainant shall receive a written statement of the Investigating Committee’s determination as to the merits of the allegations, and upon request, a statement of the grounds for this determination. The Investigating Committee shall submit a written report to the President, the person charged, and to the Dean of the Faculty or the Committee on Advancement and Tenure, whichever has initiated the proceedings. The report shall include a summary of the Committee's findings and recommendations for the disposition of the case and shall have attached a transcript of any hearings of which transcripts have been prepared. If the Investigating Committee concludes that adequate cause for suspension or termination has not been established by the evidence in the record, it will so state in its report. If the Investigating Committee concludes that an academic penalty less than suspension or termination would be more appropriate, it will so recommend in its report, with supporting reasons.
e. The President or his or her designated representatives shall have the right to attend any hearings or meetings of the Investigating Committee or the Committee on Tenure as an observer.
f. The President may seek clarification or further information from the Investigating Committee, and this additional information will become a part of the report of the Committee. Within five working days of receiving the final report of the Investigating Committee, the person accused may submit a written statement of his or her position to the President. If the President rejects the recommendations of the report, the President will state the reasons for so doing, in writing, to the Investigating Committee and to the faculty member, and will provide an opportunity for response before transmitting the case to the Board of Trustees. The faculty member or the President may request a review and recommendation from the Appeals and Review Committee, based on the record of the Investigating Committee hearing, supplemented by any written statements which the Investigating Committee, the President, or the affected faculty member may wish to submit.
g. If the President recommends termination or fixed-term suspension, the President will transmit to the Board of Trustees the entire record of the case. The Board of Trustees’ review will be based on this record, and the Board of Trustees will provide opportunity for argument, oral or written or both, by the principals in the case or by their representatives. The decision of the Investigating Committee will either be sustained or the proceedings returned to the Committee with specific objections. The Investigating Committee will then reconsider, taking into account the stated objections and receiving new evidence if necessary. The Board of Trustees will make a final decision only after study of the Committee’s reconsideration.
h. The President, after consultation with the Committee on Tenure, may suspend a person charged during the proceedings only if immediate harm to him or herself, the College, or others is threatened by his or her continuance. Any such suspension shall be with pay.
i. The Board of Trustees shall fix the financial arrangements with respect to termination. In the case of tenured faculty, unless the grounds for termination include personal conduct covered by Article V-1 C, the individual shall receive 12 months' salary from the date of termination at his or her prevailing rate. Fixed-term suspension shall normally extend over not more than one academic year. Such suspension will be without pay or benefits, except for health insurance benefits.
As far as I can tell, this holds for any complaints involving faculty members, grades or otherwise. If the complaint is from a faculty member to a student, it goes through the normal honor code (which has much the same provisions as this, only worded differently and involving more peers).
My only thoughts on the matter are that I'd like to see safeguards for students who worry about taking courses with the professor while making their complaint (which is why I'd think that a semester is a good amount of time, provided that the initial complaint is made within that time period.... or, if not that, that some level of caution be taken in the proceedings so that the student isn't retaliated against), and that as mentioned earlier, some concern be taken for systematic problems.
I have had professors whose overall class conduct has definitely been unfair, but who I was either too scared to take on or too tired, and in each case it wasn't really direct punitive action so much as designating a couple students who could do no wrong and holding everyone else in the class up to their (obviously unattainable) standards. I think that's incredibly hard to prove, especially when that performance is in areas where grading is absolutely subjective - in socratic conference sections, 'how much you contribute to the conversation' is huge; how does a student prove that his/her contributions aren't properly measured? Especially when the only two gradeable elements are class participation (attendence not formally taken, of course) and two or three essays?
Of course, at a CC you may not have that particular problem - I don't think I've seen a CC class yet that didn't take attendence.
If a student didn't like the grade received, the Instructor had to explain why the student earned the grade. This usually entailed regurgitating all the grades and syllabus polices back to the student (who usually claimed not to know any of it).
This rarely satisfies most complainers, so they are next supposed to complain to the Department Chair, who organizes a Grievance Committee. In theory, this committee of department members will look over the case, evaluate all sides, and then decide if the grievance has merit. In most cases I know of, this meeting usually results in this committee deciding to raise the grade even before hearing from the instructor. The student is almost always right.
All of this is designed to keep the grievance from going to the Dean, most probably because ignorant students usually trek over there first instead of following the necessary chain. Apparently the Dean's office(s) get cranky dealing with grade disputes and just want the problem taken care of.
Oh, and I almost forgot! We're also supposed to lie on the grade change card and put "computation error" instead of "committee over-ruled instructor's grading rubric."
A bad grievance meeting last summer has been instrumental in my decision to leave grad school, so this topic strikes close to home. I like the idea that anyone overseeing a grade appeal will have the expectation that the student is the one who has the burden of proof. It makes it easy for the grievance to be dismissed when it's uncovered the student has fibbed. Although that won't stop mollycoddling Pollyannas from deriding an instructor for lowering a participation grade because little Johnny decided to sleep in class or little Janie skipped out early for Spring Break.
I have to echo this concern expressed by Magniloquence. The fear of retaliation can be tremendous for students with regard to speaking up about anything, not just a grade.
It should also be up to the student to provide concrete reasons why they deserve a higher grade. "I think I deserved more marks" isn't good enough; "no essay that disagreed with the professor scored more than B-, and here's the class list and the marks" is worth considering.
Since many schools use electronic media a lot, your tech support chaps might have to keep good logs of when posted policies were changed. If a professor changes the rubric 1 day for an essay is due, that could be grounds for an appeal, but how would a student prove it? With handouts, at least he would have the original paper.
You also need a mechanism to deal with students who file a lot of appeals -- which may help convince your faculty that the new system will actually be to their benefit. A student with a history of filing grade disputes warrants closer attetion from admin, just as a professor with a history of lots of disputed grades. Some may be gaming the system, others may have genuine communicaton problems…
"Inside the Philosophy Factory responded: I think also that you should be careful with the 'deviation from the syllabus' standard. Classes often deviate a little or a lot from the initial syllabus in terms of schedule and material covered."
However perhaps by deviation DD is actually referring to some change that wasn't reasonably made known or communicated to students, so they could adjust accordingly, thus serving to adversely affect their grade...?
So for example, say the initial syllabus stated that midterms would occur during the 6th or 7th week of the course, but are later moved up to the 5th week. However, the instructor only announces this change during the 5th week, instead of several days to a week in advance of this change.