Tuesday, May 05, 2009


Appeals and Do-Overs

For reasons too sensitive to blog about, I've recently had occasion to revisit the idea of grade appeals. From this side of the desk, I'm convinced that a commonly-held student perception, and a commonly-held faculty perception, are both wrong.

(For the record, I'm referring here to grade appeals that go beyond just talking to the professor. This is the stuff that happens after the professor has already said 'no.' Whenever a student appeals a grade at this level, the first question is always "have you talked to the professor?" If not, the process stops until they do that.)

A small but non-zero group of students seem to think that a grade appeal amounts to a free do-over. Their preferred approach -- and I've seen this enough times over enough years to feel some confidence in saying this -- is to bring in a few examples of graded work, hide the grade, and ask "what would you give this?" I don't answer that, which seems to strike them as evasive.

My reasons for not answering are several. First, obviously, I'm not a subject-matter expert in everything. Second, I don't know the class average, or what the professor was trying to do. But third, and this is the point that seems to elude many, what I think isn't the point. It isn't about what I think.

To my mind, that's the key difference between 'grading' and 'judging an appeal.' An initial grade determination is the expert judgment of a student's work. A grade appeal isn't. For a grade appeal to carry any weight with me, it isn't nearly enough to show that the professor made a judgment call differently than I would have. They're allowed. A student has to show either that the professor made a provable mistake, or that untoward factors were brought to bear. In other words, show that the grade for student 23 was entered for student 24 -- I actually saw that happen once -- or show either disparate treatment or extreme favoritism.

In other words, if you got a C on a test that you and I agree should have received a B, the C stands unless you can prove far more than that. You'd need to show that the answer key was wrong, or that it was misapplied, or that the professor singled out one group for favored or disfavored treatment (and "those who studied" doesn't count as a favored group). If it came to light that the professor accepted money for grades, or completely disregarded the syllabus and just made stuff up on the fly, then you've got something.

The reason for that is basic. Across the college, every semester, thousands of grades are issued. I have to assume that they're right, unless proved otherwise. I'm not shocked to hear that some professors are harder graders than others, or that some do things in ways that I personally wouldn't. In an appeal, I'm not looking for whether s/he did it my way. I'm looking for a sign of malpractice so egregious that it's worth intervening in the professional judgment of faculty. That bar gets cleared once in a great while, but most of the time, it's not close.

The faculty perception that I battle is the idea that no grade should be changed, ever, without the consent of the professor.

Imagine this standard applied to any other kind of appeal. No defendant shall held accountable without his consent. It's self-evidently absurd. By the principle that nobody should be a judge in his own case, I find unethical the idea that the most that an appeal can lead to is 'reconsideration.' Otherwise, I could find that a given professor graded out of personal pique, then refer the grade back to that same professor for reconsideration. What do you think would happen?

No. For an appeal to mean something, it has to be enforceable. Enforcement should be rare, and reserved for exceptional cases, but the possibility has to exist. Otherwise, 'appeal' is just another word for 'run-around.' From the perspective of a wronged student, the idea that the best you could hope for would be a repeat of the initial injury is insulting at best. I can't imagine that holding up in court. I'd have no problem with remanding it to a committee of other faculty with the subject-matter competence -- that would get around the 'administrative power-grab' objection -- but to remand it to the very professor whose judgment has already been found compromised violates common sense and basic fairness.

Appeals aren't do-overs, and they aren't polite requests to take another look. They should be narrowly argued, sparsely applied, and enforceable. Administrators who go overboard are accountable to higher administrators and to the Trustees, so there's a check. That's not perfect, but the alternatives are either chaos or petty tyranny. In the absence of a better alternative, rare-but-enforceable strikes me as the best we can do.

I suspect that the reason for many grade appeals is poor communication with the student. I've been teaching at CC's for nearly 10 years -- at my current school for almost 6 and I've had exactly ONE Dean-level grade appeal.

This is because my students, near the end of the semester, nearly always get a 'gade report'. This report sometimes just tells them what grades they're missing, other times it gives the exact grades they have in the grade book. The students are given until the end of the semester to produce the graded work that shows me I've made a mistake.

BTW, the one grade appeal I did have was a claim by a woman who a) thought I was racist because the other black student didn't finish the course, b) whose husband, who is getting a PhD in Ed couldn't understand the pretty simple grading plan and c) Didn't understand that "you won't fail if you do x, y, z does not equate to 'you will get a C if you do x y, z. She got a D in the coruse... This was a logic course -- and BOTH of them needed to take another one...
I've taught online for the past ten years and the best thing about that is that I set up the online gradebook so that students can see a running weighted total of their current grade in the class at any given time. They know immediately if they've slipped from an A to a B or C or from a C to a failing grade. I also state clearly in the syllabus that if they want to challenge a specific grade, they may do so within 14 days and there are guidelines to follow (such as providing concrete evidence explaining why they should have gotten a higher grade).

The final exam only counts 5% of the total course grade so they have to be borderline on a grade and get a zero on the exam to get the lower grade. That's never happened. Once or twice the final has failed to raise a borderline grade to the next level but they know their course grades going into the final exam so there are no surprises.

I've never had a student question final course grades, honest - never.
I haven't had any grade appeals either. I have had plenty "I need an A in your course to graduate" appeals of course (I teach a lot of senior level courses).

My approach (works best if student brings parent in for this discussion) is to go over every course they ever took that wasn't an A and ask "Why aren't you blaming this professor for your inability to meet gaduation standards?"

But I digress.

What the stuident needs to show is that their work is comparable to the work on the same assignment that received a higher grade in the same class.

How many professors keep copies of all graded work for all students?

If hte student can't demonstrate that their work was graded to a *different standard* than other students in the same class, what exactly is there to appeal?
"How many professors keep copies of all graded work for all students?"

Ummm *raising hand here*

I'm a packrat in the strictest sense of the word. I have all the work my students have done for the past ten years. Yep ALL the students I've ever had.

But I have not ONE piece of paper filed away. Even when I taught on campus, I only accepted work electronically. I have all the originals plus the duplicates with my comments and the grades.

It's easy to organize all this by school and semester. I've worked for over 25 schools in these last 15 years and not only am I a packrat but I'm organized to the nth degree. I can find anything as long as I know a student's name, the school, and the date of the term in which he or she was in my class.

By the way I use carbonite to back up and store files on a daily basis so I don't even have to keep track of cds or portable hard drives.
my grades are figured out of 100 points, so it's easy for students to tally what they have. At least, that worked when I was adjuncting at a fancy R1. Students in my current class can't seem to add to 100.
I have to second the use of an online gradebook in which students can always see all of their grades. This has significantly reduced the number of grade appeals around here. Students know if there is a missing grade, and so they can ask about it (this happens to me more often than I would like, but our course management system is not the world's best).

That leaves the issue of fair treatment. I've been doing this for 36 years (I originally typed 306 years, but it only feels that long) and have not had an allegation of unfair grading in that time (in fact, I can't remember a case in which a student appelaed a grade, on an individual assignment or for the course) past by department chair--and only one appea to a chair, who basically said the grade is fair, live with it).
DD -- do you seriously hear from faculty that if the grade for student 23 is entered for student 24, it shouldn't be changed, or is the general consensus that it doesn't happen?
As a longtime adjunct who doesn't give a ----, I always honor students' appeals that I change the grade. I teach writing courses, and grades are pretty fluid, so if they think a B is a B+, I won't argue. It's always listed as a "clerical error" when I make a change of grade. It doesn't happen often, but I think in every case it's a judgment call, and since I don't give a ---- about grades, I'm all too happy to change them. Who cares? Believe me, it's a lot less trouble for administrators. What I've learned is that whenever administrators hear an adjunct's name, it's never a good thing.

So who gives a ---- about standards? They're all arbitrary anyway, and anyone who thinks otherwise is a moron.
I want to second what IPF said about communication, and add to that how important it is for students to be graded early and often. The only surprises that happen grade-wise with my students at the end of the semester tend to be positive ones - and nobody complains about those!
I had to laugh at what Virtual Prof wrote about being a pack rat. I got a rather apologetic e-mail from someone in the registrar's office about a grade appeal concerning a course taken almost 9 years ago. Yeah, that deadline was missed along with the class itself, but they were being nice for some reason.

Stu claimed ze had never enrolled in the class so the F must be a mistake. Registrar said they had the receipts for payment (accountants don't throw anything away!) but wanted any info I could supply as backup. I had my hand on the gradebook in less than a minute and sent him a scan showing Stu had taken an exam in the class Stu never took.

Like others, I make a point of giving them a mid-term grade and a pre-final grade that shows just where they stand. But they are still surprised at the effect of getting only 40% on the final.
I agree. Grade appeals are only reserved for technical errors only - not some sort of a do-over.
Interestingly, the standard you've chosen for grade appeals appears to be functionally identical to the standards a court uses when reviewing the action of an administrative agency. The reviewing court gives deference to the agency's findings of fact and will uphold the agency's decision unless it is "arbitrary, capricious, or an abuse of discretion."
What about a grade appeal that would overturn an instructor's classroom policies?

For example:

If a prof had a policy on the syllabus that no late assignments would be accepted, but a student filed a grade appeal because she demanded her late assignment be graded, how would you [any of you...] respond?

(sound of banging gavel)

Most of my colleagues require students to sign a statement attesting that they have read and understood the syllabus and will abide by it's direction.

I use the acknowledgement document as the first quiz of the semester.

All of the other obvious stuff (on line, real time grade reports etc.) apply as well.
"Everyone Must Be Treated the Same"

(Equal Opportunity ensures Unequal Outcome)

Accepting a late submission would be unequal treatment.
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