Another Grade Dispute: When an A Isn’t Really an A

Posted by on Aug 13, 2012 in Communicating with Professors, General, General College Success/Responses to Other College Entities | 0 comments

What constitutes an A? You'll want to find out for sure!

Here we go again! Remember the grade dispute that turned into a four-part series? How could you forget, right? Well, another interesting write-in, this time from a student at a major university. A different situation and for the sake of anonymity, I’m going to heavily paraphrase, but keep the general theme. One other note: At the end of this piece, I found an interesting link written by an attorney about “legally sound syllabi.” Very interesting! Are you ready? Let’s go…)

Before I start with this student’s situation, I want to make a huge plea to all students reading this blog. Whether you are just starting college or you are knee-deep in your education… I say this with the utmost care for you:

These grade disputes that I’ve been writing about–and those that could come up in the future–boil down to one thing: communication. You are the owner of your education. You have to stay on top of your grades at all times, you have to ask frequent questions about your standing, and you have to self-advocate when something doesn’t seem right. My whole message is here to help you do that, and in my 14 years of teaching, not staying on top of grades early enough and often enough is the one mistake I see students making over and over again. So, please… as you read these students’ situations, let them be a reminder to you about your own grades and the need for you to use your voice about them in the right way.

Okay, I’m done now… on to the student’s issue:

Dear Ellen:

I’m in summer school at Major U. My friend and I realized that our professor changed the grading pattern on the syllabus and never announced it to the class. It was a 3.5% change. Is that allowed? Apparently the professor changed it partway in the program. [Adding that the student was only finding out about it at the end--we exchanged several e-mails].



I’m going to start my full paraphrasing now: As I inquired further, I feared that we were right back to the student with the grade dispute, but this is different. So, in this student’s program, apparently “summer grading standards” are different than in the regular year. The student had syllabi in classes that all reflected the same grading scheme–that an A- was what most of us would consider a high B (so high 80s). The prof for this course was probably saying, “Hmm… that can’t be right. An A- is usually a 90%.” Hence, the 3.5% change that the student is complaining about.

My suspicion was that the faculty member was not a regular prof at that institution and I was correct. So, the syllabus may have been handed to them with the grading standards. Here is what I told the student to do after I asked more questions and felt I understood the situation:


Dear Student,

Go back to the prof and have your other syllabi in hand to show that this grading standard is the standard for your program in the summer. Your first “argument” is that you entered into the class on the premise that the 86.5% was going to be an A-. That should stand and if there is to be a change, the entire class needed to be notified well before the final (so, essentially, that needed to be an open discussion).

Second, it appears that other classes use a different grading standard for summer and this class should follow suit. Maybe the prof is unaware of that since the prof does not teach there regularly. This is why having your other syllabi will be helpful.

Of course, you will want to reference the rest of your performance in the course, which sounds like it has been strong.

In a case like this, similar to the blog post that you have seen with the other grade dispute, you do have the option to take this to the division chair. This situation *may* be a little trickier because due to academic freedom, the prof could have the right to not follow the grading standard. However, by the same token, the department may have uniform grading requirements, so the prof could be bound to that … which could work in your favor.

I would go back and question it quickly, though, and preferably in person while you are still in finals.

I wish you the best of luck!



I did some more investigation just for my own benefit. I know many syllabi are posted publicly and I also wanted to understand this curving issue further. In my years of education, I did not experience courses or programs that involved grade curving; however, in my exploration, let’s just say I found syllabi without any grading standards and school policies that told me curving is far more commonplace. So, students, this is yet another example of knowing how you are being graded before you are graded! You want to be informed, right?

This goes without saying, but know your professor’s individual grading policy and, if applicable, your program/school’s grading policy. Make sure you fully comprehend it and if you do not, ask questions until you do.

In the exchanges about professors/syllabi/grading over these past couple of weeks, I did another search as I mentioned in the preface. Take a look at this piece regarding “legally sound syllabi” ( What struck me most is a statement at the bottom that reflects what I was taught about syllabi: Any changes are made with student fairness in mind.

Some incredibly interesting conversations these past couple of weeks. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts!


Speaking of asking the right questions to clarify grades and get feedback about your grades, take a look at how many chapters cover this topic in Say This, NOT That to Your Professor. Give yourself the proper words to tackle these tough conversations!




  1. Five Must-Say Tips for Week One of College Classes - [...] I can’t thank everyone enough for the ongoing support for the grade dispute posts and also the incredible feedback ...

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