Handling Grade Disputes: A Guide
If you’re anything like me, you keep a close eye on your grades throughout the semester. For every assignment you receive back with a grade, you meticulously go over each and every point you missed — asking yourself why.
At many universities, there is a process for handling a grade dispute that is often outlined in your student handbook or in a resource guide somewhere online. But in case you attend a university that doesn’t seem to have an obvious policy in place, here’s how you should go about handling a grade dispute:
1. Gather all of the facts
Grade disputes are pretty serious accusations, so before you begin the process of filing one, make sure you have all of your ducks in a row. The biggest piece of advice I can give you is to document everything. You’ll want to have a copy of the syllabus for the course, the breakdown of grades, any email correspondence you’ve had with your professor, etc. If you have an in-person conversation with a professor about your grades, it’s smart to send a follow-up email to create a paper trail with an overview of the conversation summarized in the body of the email. You’ll need this for when you walk into a committee meeting regarding your final grade!
2. Make sure you have legitimate documentation
Don’t think you can show up to a grade dispute hearing (and yes, that’s probably what they’ll call it) without proper documentation. Print off emails, rubrics, directions, feedback, and any other information you might have that a committee would find helpful. Organize all the information you have in a timeline — labeled, color-coded, however you want to handle it. The more legible and easier to interpret you make your case, the more likely the outcome will land in your favor. As the student in the situation, you need to have all the documentation that’s out there in order to make your case clear.
3. Avoid “blindsiding” your professor
It’s completely unprofessional to file an official grade dispute with a professor without talking to them first. Once you file something with the university, it creates a paper trail and ignites a whole process for how to deal with the complaint. There are many times that this whole process can be avoided, as most professors will deal with the dispute privately, in-person, with you. This will save you both a ton of time at the end of the semester. They’ll likely want to keep an officially filed grade dispute off their record, and it’s much easier to smooth over if you haven’t gotten administrators involved.
4. Your peers’ grades do not hold any weight
You cannot argue that you deserve a higher grade because so-and-so wrote a crappy paper and “got an ‘A’.” Don’t plan on using any information you have from your peers in the actual grade dispute. Professors cannot discuss the grades or performance of your peers due to FERPA, the Family Educational Rights Privacy Act. They cannot discuss any of your peers’ grades with you, so that does not qualify as “grounds for a grade dispute.” Don’t plan on using this information in a hearing.
5. Too many grade disputes makes for an irresponsible student
If you get in the habit of disputing your grades too often, your reputation isn’t going to be too great. Saving actual grade disputes for times when you know you deserve at least a letter-grade higher. A few points aren’t going to make much of a difference, and filing an official grade dispute is going to be a lot of effort for just a few points. Try not to become so obsessed with your grades that you forget the bigger picture — what have you learned? How can you do better next time? The difference between an “A” and an “A-” on your final transcript might not be worth the hoops you have to jump through in order to successfully complete a grade dispute.
6. Get advice from peers/mentors/advisors
Discuss a possible grade dispute with people you trust — like an advisor, mentor, or trusted peer. There are several ways to go about ensuring you handle a grade dispute in a professional manner. Instead of trying to navigate new waters by yourself, look for some direction with advice from someone you trust.
7. Don’t feel guilty about filing a grade dispute
You are paying for this education — and it’s likely that you’ve taken out a lot of student loans to finance it yourself. If you’re border-lining between an “A” and a “B” and you think you’ve been unfairly graded, it’s time to dispute it with the professor. You absolutely have every right to a conversation with your professor about the way they’ve graded your assignments. Professors have to be able to back up their thinking and grading process just like you would have to defend yourself if you were accused of plagiarizing a paper.
8. Anticipate having to give a statement
Before you walk into a grade dispute hearing, I suggest you practice giving a statement about the problem at hand. There’s nothing more unprofessional than listening to a student say “um” five hundred times in a two-paragraph statement. Write up a draft of what you’re going to say. Practice it in front of your roommate. Make sure you list all the important points, and leave out anything that’s worthless. The committee listening to your dispute will be much more willing to listen if you show up with your crap together.
Disputing grades can be intimidating for college students. And in the scenario where it’s a student against a faculty member, you are the weaker team. You have to prove yourself beyond reasonable doubt. You have to show up with everything in line, documented, and organized. Provide explanations for everything and look like a professional. Though grade disputes can be a long process, it’ll be worth it in the end.
L. Roberts graduated from the University of Tennessee Knoxville with a degree in psychology. In her spare time, she enjoys spending time with her pup at the dog park and binge watching Netflix with endless cups of hot cocoa.
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