‘Give Me a Better Grade—I Deserve It’

The grades I just issued in my post-calculus, differential equations course – a sophomore math offering taken mostly by engineering students—followed the usual bell-shaped curve, roughly 10% A’s, 20% B’s, 40% C’s, 20% D’s and 10% F’s. The complaints came more from the D students than from the Fs.

The students who failed the course largely knew that this was the likely outcome before the final exam, so I had virtually no blowback from them. But from the D students, an avalanche of email cascaded down upon me as soon as the grades came out. Though D is a passing grade, the Engineering School will not give credit for the course unless the student obtains a C or higher. Thus, students who earn a D feel that although they did “good enough,” their effort was unrewarded and they resent that they have to repeat the course to get credit toward their degree.

Here is a typical example from the slew of emails I received – almost all of which matched this one in tone and content:

I am a second-year chemical engineer and I need at least a C to pass the course. I honestly put a lot of time and effort into your class and I felt like I learned more than my course grade is reflecting. While studying for the final exam I spilled milk on my laptop, rendering it unusable. My father had to take me to the Apple store for repair. This whole ordeal took up most of my study time. I don’t mean to make excuses, but due to these circumstances I had a very short amount of time to study for the exam, and my performance was impacted. I honestly put a lot of time and effort into your class and I felt like I learned more than my course grade is reflecting. Considering all the good I’ve done throughout the semester, I think I should at least get a C. I will get kicked out of my major if I do not get a C in the class. Please reconsider my grade or even allow me to do any work to boost my grade. Once again Mr. Lipsman, I am asking out of the kindness of your heart please bump my grade up a little more, please! Please, if there is anything that you can do, I would very much appreciate it.

My typical response is a polite email, which points to the course web site (available to the students from the first day of class) that contains the grading scheme for the course; and then I highlight the specific poor points of performance on the student’s part that account for the unfortunate grade. (Conversations with colleagues reveal similar strategies.) That usually settles matters; but in a small number of cases, a student persists in pleading/demanding/scheming for a higher grade ex post facto. In that case, I turn the matter over to department or college administrators. On rare occasions, matters can become rather unpleasant.

Even when I avoid such unpleasantness, I find these emails quite disturbing. Two generations ago, such an approach to a professor by a student would have been unthinkable. But this kind of plea bargaining/begging has become increasingly common over the last decade or so. In fact, I believe this university student phenomenon reflects patterns of behavior that are prevalent throughout modern society. In this regard, universities reflect, as well as inaugurate and instigate various unwholesome features of our current culture.

In order to illustrate, I will identify the main themes that emerge from the email cavalcade that I endured:

  • The student claims to have worked hard on the course. In some instances, this may be true; but in many, I know that it is not. Too many students have a warped idea of what hard work actually entails.
  • The student is always a victim of some special circumstance (illness, accident, family crisis, poor advice, exceptionally challenging workload, etc.). The victim card is played often and instinctively. “It’s not my fault!”
  • The student asserts his “right to pass.” Implicit is the belief that if he is properly enrolled, in good standing and pursuing a legitimate degree program, then he is entitled to be passed through this checkpoint in his journey – regardless of performance. He is entitled to a C merely by his legitimate presence in the course.
  • “If you don’t give me a C, my future is in jeopardy.” Not only is he entitled, but the penalty for depriving him of his right will be severe. The resulting consequences for him will far outweigh any moral anguish suffered by me for distorting the legitimate outcome of the course’s process.
  • Finally, “You, professor, can fix this.” No notion of personal responsibility enters the equation. The burden of this unfortunate affair lands on my doorstep to correct the injustice. The student inhabits a cosmos in which he is not in control of his destiny.

I propose that each of the above five manifestations of the student entitlement mentality is reflective of patterns present in society in general.

  • Admittedly, this might be too heavily concentrated among government employees, but who hasn’t encountered an employee that complains of being overworked at the same time that both his inbox and outbox are suspiciously empty.
  • We’re all victims these days; of racism, sexism, ableism, and other isms you haven’t yet recognized. We’re being screwed by big corporations, small businessmen, unscrupulous co-workers, bad neighbors, even members of our family. We are all categorized into boxes according to race, gender, age, geography and so on. And we are certain that those in the other boxes are working feverishly to limit opportunities for the occupants of our box.
  • As a victim, my rights are being violated. I speak not of the rights granted to me by the Constitution, but instead those guaranteed to me by politicians.  These include my right to a great paying job, a fine home, the best medical care, a secure retirement, an exceptional education – not to mention nice clothes, top notch appliances, a month’s annual vacation and a great set of wheels. To all this, I am entitled because … well, because from FDR to Obama, I’ve been told so.
  • And if I don’t have these things, then not only are my rights being violated, but my life is being ruined.
  • Finally, it is the primary responsibility of the government to ensure that my rights are not violated and that all the things promised to me by government are delivered to me by that government.

Well, perhaps I’ve engaged in a bit of hyperbole to make a point. In fact, most students are hard-working, conscientious and respectful. But the fact that the number who are not is increasing is troublesome. That they are increasing in number could be a reflection of unhealthy trends in society in general.

Dealing with these societal issues is a topic for another time and place. But the university is equipped to cope with their manifestations on campus. I have communicated to the Department Chair, College Dean and Dean of Undergraduate Education some recommendations to do exactly that. They include:

  1. It should be explained emphatically at freshman orientation that grades are not a commodity to be bargained for or negotiated over. Grades express faculty evaluation of student performance over an entire course. They are not an opening bid in an auction. They are arrived at carefully by faculty based on specific course performance criteria spelled out in detail at the start of the course. On most campuses, faculty are already obliged to make these criteria known to students at the outset of the semester.
  2. If a student feels very strongly that the grade he was issued violates the terms of the criteria, he may politely ask the faculty member for a clarification. If, after the reason for his grade is outlined to him by the faculty member, he is convinced that the faculty member has violated his own rules, then the student may file a formal grievance above the faculty member’s head at the Department or College level. American campuses have long experience in setting up structures to administer such a procedure. However, also at freshman orientation, it should be stressed to students that grade grievances should only be filed in the extremely rare instance that a faculty member has manifestly behaved unjustly.
  3. Students should also be apprised that anyone who files more than one grievance over the course of an academic career will be called in by the Dean of Undergraduate Education for an interview. At that time it can be pointed out to the student how multiple grievances are telltale signs of one or more of the unhealthy societal behaviors outlined earlier. The student would then have an opportunity to confront, evaluate and perhaps alter his cultural axioms.

The university has traditionally played a societal role in converting callow youth into mature and responsible adults. Let us not subvert that role by giving in to immature and irresponsible behavior.

Ronald Lipsman

Ronald Lipsman

Ron Lipsman, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the University of Maryland, writes about politics, culture, education, science and sports at http://ronlipsman.com. Though formally retired, he continues to teach part-time.

23 thoughts on “‘Give Me a Better Grade—I Deserve It’

  1. You guys are evil, too many people lose their jobs and their life is ruined because you can’t stop thinking politically correct and self reightous and relate to them as a human. I’m not saying a D to an A is acceptable but to see what you can do and work with them for they won’t lose their jobs and ruin their lives. You teachers make me sick, if the world had people looking after people and not like how you guys are, the world would be a better place. FACT!

  2. I have read only part of the article, but from what I did read, I agree with. Some college students do try to find a way to get their grade up to what they think they deserve instead of what they can do to correct their mistakes so they can get the grade they want.

  3. A very long time ago, I overslept my French midterm test; blurting out my excuse to my professor after a long run to get to the class, he smiled, and said, “well that’s T. S., if you know what I mean.” I did not whine, and thought I was doomed. Having a zero on the midterm meant that I needed to get better than a 95 on the final to pass the course. Luckily, my final exam schedule left me with a whole week between my first four finals and the French final. I studied diligently for the entire week and scored a 96 on the final. I am prouder of that D than any other grade I received in my college education.

  4. Dear Student,

    No problem, I’d love to change your grade. One problem though, I just spilt milk on my laptop and have no way of doing it, sorry.

  5. Reminds me of a history class I took my first year of college. Three tests only. First test was my first bluebook exam I had ever taken, written by a sadist, and bombed badly. Second test was a fair C, even though I’m a slow writer. Third test was a middling B. Final grades given out: D, with one-half a point away from a C. Much arguing was done with the sadist to raise my grade that half-point, and I lost, but I learned my lesson.

    Next time I bombed a first test, I dropped the class, got my money back, and sold the book back for the purchase price. If at first you don’t succeed, give up. No use being a dammed fool about it. Retake it later with a different instructor who isn’t such an (censored).

    1. Nobody is obligated to give you half a point that you didn’t earn.

      “Rounding up” is discretionary. I would have done the same as your professor did. 89.99 is still a B+, not an A-. Eighty nine remains 89 until it becomes 90.

  6. Great story; it really connected with me. I liked Differential Equations my sophomore year so much that I took it twice. Heh. My first instructor was dull and a poor communicator. I stupidly wrote him and the course off, starting to skip more and more classes. Like your failing students, I also knew the outcome well before the grades were posted. Unlike those who provided lame excuses or demands in your class(es), however, I didn’t whine, but merely registered for the same course next quarter. What a difference from the kids of today and their “entitlement mentality”. (I just missed getting an “A” my second time.) The course requires disciplined thought, and it is definitely one that “separates the men from the boys”, sorta like sophomore Dynamics of Rigid Bodies or junior Thermodynamics. Thanks for having the guts to give appropriate grades to those who don’t realize they are studying mathematical techniques that are fundamental to engineering. You wouldn’t be doing any favors by passing these people who refuse to take responsibility for themselves, or who are just plain unqualified for advanced technical studies.

  7. Hahahahaha, reading those excuses brings back so many memories. I was a graduate teaching assistant back in the late 90s, during which time I taught a genetics lab class. The vast majority of the students who took the class fancied themselves as “pre-med”, thus they all expected to get As, regardless of how much work they did. I heard every single excuse in the book, and then some. The one that I remember most vividly is the student who claimed she did poorly in the class because her uncle was ill. How her uncle’s illness had a bearing on her grade is anyone’s guess. She begged and pleaded with me to change her grade. When it became obvious I wasn’t going to change her grade, she started crying loudly and then started issuing threats. She failed the class.

  8. You forgot to include the part where the parents contact you and threaten to have you fired because they pay your salary. If you point out that your job description is to teach and evaluate their child for mastery of the material then they make life miserable for the dean or provost, also threatening their job; which they might actually do.

    I would love to be helping convert callow youth into upstanding adults but, really that job falls on their parents. And if the parents are immature and irresponsible…

    1. I once had parents play the “I pay your salary” card.. I took two dollars out of my wallet and offered to give it to them, on the grounds that given the number of taxpayers in my state, two dollars was more or less about what they had contributed toward my salary. That shut them up.

  9. I would also suspect the reason that students continue this technique is because they have experienced success in utilizing these pleadings for higher grades. People don’t ask for extra money from bank tellers because they will be flatly refused. If all professors had refused these requests I would expect they wouldn’t be occurring. Just a thought.

  10. I would add 2 factors;

    1. The ease of electronic communications has aided in the tendency for students to whine. In the olden days before social media or even email, a student had to call or physically go to an instructors office. These days communication is 24/7 at the touch of a smart phone.

    2. Electronic communication has made communication less civil. Students who are perhaps used to making hyperbolic statements on social media are going to do the same thing in whining about their grades.

  11. Another thing — Professor Lipsman’s grade distribution appears to be exactly centered around “C.” This for differential equations, which at most schools is a 2nd year i.e. following the first full year of calculus. This grade distribution seems to be somewhat on the low side for a semi-advanced course. I would wager that the freshman grade distribution in calculus is centered around C+ or even B-. After the first year, many of the weaker students drop out, so I would expect the grade distribution for diff equ to be at least as high. So if Professor Lipsman is really giving grades centered symmetrically around C I am not too surprised that he would be getting a lot of complaints. (That is not to say that many of the complaints aren’t lame; of course they will be.)

      1. Why should it be bell curved at all?

        Forgive me, I was a mathematics major, and math answers are right or wrong. Close does not count.

        These students are engineers, and our personal safety depends on them having a very high standard.

        I do not want bridges designed by anyone but the top 20%.

  12. “Students should also be apprised that anyone who files more than one grievance over the course of an academic career will be called in by the Dean of Undergraduate Education for an interview. ”

    Is this the current policy at the University of Maryland or is Professor Lipsman inserting his own views of what the grievance policy should be?

  13. You have identified and described the problem very accurately. But I think there is another culprit as responsible as governmental promises: our K-12 school system. It gives students too many “feel good” ideas and seems to never mention – let alone stress – individual responsibility.

    1. Especially when schools adopt the position that there are no winners or losers. Everyone gets a prize. Children never learn to accept failure gratefully and resolve to try harder to achieve whatever goal they are after. This approach surely must feed what you are subjected to as a university lecturer.

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