Before You Demand What You Believe You Deserve, Ask Yourself These Questions

Posted by on Dec 4, 2012 in Communicating with Professors, General, Interpersonal Communication | 35 comments

It’s that time of the year when some students will awaken from hibernation and suddenly decide to care about their grades. Ask yourself some questions before becoming too grizzly with your prof.

(End of term craziness is here! My last post involved students talking to their professors about grades before the end of a term. This post reflects the next stage of that conversation. I have to believe that some of this advice translates to workplace evaluations, too).

Can you feel an uprising afoot?

I’m not talking about lingering sourness from those dissatisfied with national or local election results.

I’m talking about students who are calculating/seeing their final grades and thinking (in a huge huff!), “I don’t deserve that!”

Yep! Floods of students around the country will e-mail and suddenly storm professors’ offices about grades that are Just. Not. Fair! It happens every single term.

There are many versions of this scenario, of course. Students who haven’t paid any attention to grades suddenly awaken from their hibernation and realize that things don’t look so great. Those students say to themselves, “My professor just has to rescue me. I need a U-Haul of extra credit or something…”

Let’s not forget about the students who believed they were doing everything they possibly could, but their work perpetually fell between “average” and “good.” They’ll stomp into a prof’s office and say, “But I worked soooooo hard! And I really need a 3.5 for my scholarship (degree program… whatever).”

Now let’s say you fall into a category above. Am I discounting my constant advice to talk to your prof? Am I telling you to stay home? No!

I still recommend that you see your prof. I mean, I wanted you to check on your grades all term, but if that didn’t happen, I have to deal with what’s real: Students flocking to professors’ offices or filling their in-boxes right now.

So in that spirit, I’m going to make a huge request. Students, before you have that talk with your prof, please run down my list of questions first. Take a hard look at yourself, a personal inventory of your actions this term. If you answer “yes” to one or more of these questions, don’t freak out. I’ll tell you at the end of this post how to prepare yourself for the conversation.

1.  If I was confused about an assignment, did I see my professor during office hours, e-mail him/her, or request help?
2. Did I ever check in on my grades/progress prior to now and express concern?
3. Did I ever mention any grade goals that I had for myself?
4. If this course involved a topic that was challenging for me in some way, did I let my prof know in advance?
5. Did I engage myself in the class/class discussion?
6. Did I frequently leave early/come in late?
7. Did I miss class a lot?
8. Did I text? Use my laptop for things other than classwork?
9. Did I take advantage of early review opportunities, if my prof offered them?
10. If my prof gave feedback on an assignment, did I follow the suggestions given and apply them?
11.  Did I make full use of the resources on campus i.e., the library, tutoring center, writing/math resource centers, etc.?
12. Did I check my e-mail to make sure I wasn’t missing critical information about the class?
13. If I was offered a chance to revise work (in other words, a gift worth gold!), did I embrace this opportunity or blow it off?
14. Did I utilize extra credit opportunities, if offered?
15. Did I have a textbook all term, if one was required?
16. Was I proactive about letting my prof know about any longer-term struggles that affected me during class?

Now you may be thinking, “Ohhhhh…. I get it. So you want me to blame myself for my grades?”

No. That’s not what I’m saying. This isn’t about blame. But when you go in and talk to your prof in these bitter final hours of the term, your prof may bring up one of these issues in the form of, “Well, why didn’t you…?” or “I noticed that you…” You need to be ready with an explanation.

I have had many conversations of this type and I know more are coming. When students challenge grades with me, my first mission is to ensure that we both have accurate information. Then, I look at the details of where things might have gone wrong.

If the student didn’t take advantage of benefits that I could have offered, such as early review, office hours, etc., then I definitely remind the student that those resources were available and I often ask why they weren’t taken advantage of.

And, yes, at times, when a student pops off with a, “But I needed a 4.0 in this course!” as if it’s totally my fault that the ‘A’ didn’t happen, I often respond with, “Why didn’t we have that conversation 10 weeks ago? Why am I just now hearing about this?”

What should you say in response to that? Tell the truth. Whatever it is. “I thought I had a handle on things.” “I was being lazy and now I’ve learned my lesson.” I don’t give a student a 4.0 based on that answer, but the rest of the conversation goes far better than the continued blame.

Here’s another hard truth: When you complain about your grade, your prof just might call you out for something that you didn’t realize he/she noticed, particularly if there is a policy or points surrounding that issue: “It seems like you were coming in at least 15 minutes late to class quite frequently. I didn’t dock points for that.” Or, “You know, class participation is part of your grade and you seemed really disengaged.”

Let’s not forget this: Some profs round up grades or make “qualitative” judgments about your work ethic when you are thisclose to one grade or another. This is when you really need to ask yourself if that work ethic, your behavior, etc. truly warrants whatever you are asking for. Sometimes it will. Sometimes it won’t.

Bottom line: Before you make demands for a grade that you are certain you deserve, look in the mirror. Be prepared for the reflection about your role/responsibility in that grade that may come back to you. Own up to places that you excelled or might have missed the mark.

The less defensive you are, the better of a chance you have to fully understand your situation. Whether or not you can resolve it just depends on the situation, itself.

I was a student, too… for a long time and not very long ago (I graduated with my last degree in 2000). Try as hard as you can to remember that your letter grade or numerical GPA is only one part of this college experience. The rest of it is about you and your journey of learning how you work.

As huffy as you may feel, if you can, take a breath and see the bigger picture. The grade is finite. If you find out something about your work ethic that you can fix, you just absolutely need to know this about yourself.

Your professor is actually doing you a favor, believe it or not.

(Pssst: You don’t have to send a thank-you note, but when you are employable and amazing, you will thank him/her someday).

Colleagues, what questions did I miss in the list above? Students, have questions about your final conversations with profs? I can try to help with advice. You are welcome to e-mail me at


  1. Excellent post! Every student should ask these questions of him/herself multiple times throughout the semester. Thanks, as always, for really helpful advice for the student/faculty dialogue. It’s a tough time of semester for everyone and being able to communicate with each other will only help.

    • Thank you, Vicki! I wrote this post because, as you can imagine, I’m in for these conversations, myself. I can only hope that students will ask themselves these questions. Many may be unprepared for some of the mirroring that I’m going to have to do regarding some of their actions. I am always kind, but definitely firm and reflective.


  2. Excellent post, Ellen, that touches every single conversation that I’ve had with students in the past couple of weeks!! Glad to know I’m not the only one who hears…and has to deal with…these types of interactions!

    • Hi, Kirk,

      Oh no… not at all. I have had a lot of feedback on Twitter that we are not alone! I never understand why the end of term grades are such a surprise. I want students to know where they are all along, but history just seems to keep repeating itself. I am going to hope that maybe this list will at least help students prepare some answers ahead of time.

      Thank you so much for writing!


  3. IMHO – This DOES translate to the workplace and easily transferable to “life lessons” as well. GREAT stuff. TY for sharing!

    • Bian,

      I totally thought so, too, even though I feel somewhat disconnected from the workplace. I appreciate you validating that for me!

      • I’m so glad that the inenrtet allows free info like this!

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  4. This is so spot on. When I worked with students in the High School and even now with College students I see a growing trend of what can you do for me. Where is the accountability? If you messed up, than admit it and take the class over again. They need this wake up call now so that when they go and get a job they won’t be surprised with their employer doesn’t accept their excusses or give them what they want.

    • Hi, Jason,

      I agree with you and believe me, I’m in for these situations, so I wrote this post before I put on my suit of armor :-) . I am absolutely glad to have you use this list in any way that helps you. And if I can help with another similar workplace related topic at any time, I’m glad to!

      Thank you so much for your comments!

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    • ten poslední odstavec je tak pravdivý.Mám také syna autistu aspergera.Je už dospÄ›lý.Ale ten poslední odstavec platí pořád doslova.Míša

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    • Deadly accurate answer. You’ve hit the bullseye!

    • November 15, 2009 at 8:49 amEduard: Thanks for the encouragement. I was actually quite surprised even by the reaction on my Facebook wall by the encouragement that people have given me on this post. My old roommate said I have a journey, and that I need to pursue that journey. Reply

  5. I would love to use your questions in a workshop at the college I work at. This would be helpful in opening up a discussion with them prior to any of these such problems surfacing.

    • I do accept as true with all of the concepts you have introduced on your post. Th2&y#8e17;re really convincing and can definitely work. Still, the posts are too brief for newbies. Could you please extend them a bit from next time? Thank you for the post.

  6. Dear Ellen, I appreciate your article very much. My own stance has been to ask the student if they are telling me that the paper I now hold in my hand represents the very best work of which the student was capable. Most of those with an “entitlement” issue, look crestfallen, and say :”No”. They don’t really want to be tied to a less-than-wonderful piece of writing. I have two concerns from the other side of the coin. Although borderline grades are convenient for softies (such as myself, I admit it), they allow the student to hope for the stars when the stars really shouldn’t be on offer. It is not always possible to grade on a curve, and many of us would prefer to encourage students. But we must be wary of grade inflation and try to make real distinctions between work submitted by different students. if students care enough to do an extra project, then they surely deserve a higher grade than the student who is merrily slip-sliding away. If we keep differentials, and assign real points for various aspects of an assignment, then a student can ask about it and be told without any waffling by the professor just how the particular grade was calculated–fair to student and to teacher. If everyone in the class is getting a B+, but their work is not identical in calibre, there is a problem with the grading that the professor must learn to overcome, no matter the level of discomfort it brings to the grader. We don’t want to keep the notion of tough and easy professors as a reason for a student to choose one course over another. We should strive to keep grading on a par with other classes. Right. Now my most important thought. I learned years ago that all my advising took place round the drinks (water and soda) dispenser at dinner (when I was a Dean at Harvard), or when I had just returned from a run, or when I lurked after class (when teaching). Students have a deep seated fear of office hours or anything that will leave them face to face with a professor. A scheduled time in the campus cafe is far more likely to get students dropping by early and often than posted office hours in some office in an unknown location. The relaxed setting allows the students to feel they are not presenting a federal case by having a “casual chat” despite the fact that the discussion covers precisely what would have been raised in an office. I do think the students run amok at finals time, but professors have it in their power to bring down the level of anxiety from the first class meeting onward through the semester. Approachability makes a big difference, and I am not referring to character alone. Students have no basis for complaining about unclear assignments in the comfortable situations I have described. The professor may also point out that the question will take some time to go over, and request that the student stop by their office. It is imperative that professors and all other officers of the University let the students (particularly Freshmen) know that peak periods will be crowded, and a student runs the risk of never having their questions answered, whereas at other times the student may have an hour to themselves.

    • Hello, Alexandra,
      Thank you for your kind words and I apologize in the delay for my response. I’ve been in severe need of decompression after a particularly challenging term!

      I really appreciated your question about “Does this paper represent your absolute best work?” I think many of my students would throw up their hands in despair and say that they worked so HARD so they deserve the high grade. I’ve gotten a ton of that.

      I agree with you that many students feel intimidated by office hours. Unfortunately on our campus, particularly with it being commuter, there aren’t those opportunities for other types of meetings. Or maybe there are and I’m not thinking of them. Of course, I also have to keep student privacy in mind, too. One thing I’ve always been cautious of is the layout of my office (which is actually the size of my very small home closet). My chairs are side by side with the student, rather than across. That way, I eliminate some of the power distance. I know that doesn’t absorb the anxiety, but from an environment sense, I hope that it makes the space feel at least a bit more comfortable.

      I 1000% agree with you about professor tone. This is a gigantic issue and many students complain about it. Too many profs do not come off as approachable. I believe a number in our midst just enjoy the perceived power, but then they are the ones who face the grade disputes and other issues. I’d rather have a more congenial relationship with students, although the problem with that is then when you have to lay down the law, they are very surprised and taken off guard. I can handle it, of course :-) .

      Once again, thank you very much for writing!

  7. Excellent post, I am greatly indebted to Professor Ellen Bremen for her contribution to all aspects of my work on this quarter , as well as my life at Highline Community College. She was a great teacher, educator, and advisor, who provided a lot of ideas and inspiration for my public speaking class, and taught me the beauty of optimization with her unparallelled intuition and excitement . Those question are really important to started with them in the beginning of your course starts and they will be a big line to follow them easily

    • Thank you, Amina! I’m going to miss you!

  8. I think generally we get out of any project be it a job or simple assignment, or a class what we put into it. After reading the article and reflecting on my grades in the current classes that I am enrolled in, I am satisfied. Granted I am a little older than the average college student and have probably had a few more life-experiences including extensive Military training and opportunities to lead, we are all adults and should be able to manage our time and responsibility to reach our goals. When we are having difficulties, I have learned to speak up about them and ask for help. Usually if I deprive myself of the proper amount of time needed to complete something, then I realize I have not given 100% and don’t usually expect 100% in return.

    • Studying and getting ready for exams for me requires a great deal of discipline and time management…I usually read the information first, and if it consist of terms, then I write down the terms(this is just the easiest learning process for me), and then I do the quizzes pertaining to the terms. Not everyone will have the same study habits. Some people can simply look at material for a few seconds and commit it to memory…wow they are very lucky.

      • Glenn,
        This sounds like an approach that every student should emulate, even if they know the material. The other way that you’re talking about typically gets dumped out of the mind pretty quickly. Thank you for commenting!

        PS: I was never one of those students who had quick retention either :-) .


    • Glenn,

      I am behind on commenting because my blogging lagged for a month–atypical for me. I am very appreciative of you visiting my blog and commenting. Students can learn a lot from the habits you’ve cultivated. I also admire the fact that although you are a non-traditional student, you ask for help. Many non-traditional students feel like they should already know the material or are apologetic about needing assistance.

      I hope you hear from you more. You can teach some of my readers in this venue, as well as in your classroom :-) .


  9. Ellen,
    This post is so relevant and we have all been there. I have actually used many of these questions when dealing with students around progress reports and report cards. We have an online grading system and I am very good about complete transparency. All assignments are posted online, most of them are graded and given specific feedback, almost immediately. Students have access to their grades and feedback and are always welcomed to come for a conference before or after a project and yet still they seemed shocked by the end result. There are some students who even do close to nothing in class, or projects and still seem surprised when they aren’t passing. I call this delusions of grandeur. They clearly don’t have a sense of reality. Seems you may have some of the same issues.

    Providing a frame work for students to use – specific questions to answer avoids a lot of unnecessary emotional outbursts and troubles in the end.

    Thanks so much for sharing. I think I will share some of these questions, if you dont’ mind with my students.

    • Hi, Starr,

      Yes, definitely feel free to share any part of this with your students. I have an online grading system, as well, and grades are available all term. I marvel at how many students have no idea where they are or seem surprised at the end when things aren’t where they expected or “needed” to be. I also find myself shocked when students are suddenly in a crisis in the 11th hour. I wish we could be in that crisis in the first hour of the term when we could actually do something about the grade… like work toward it :-) .


  10. Thank you so much! I think it was really helpful for me.

    • Thank you for reading!

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  1. Jacki Mcquirk - Before You Demand What You Believe You Deserve, Ask Yourself These Questions... [...]There may be a 3 card, 5 card, 9 ...

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