“I feel completely powerless.” More From The Student Whose Grade Tanked.

Posted by on Jul 24, 2012 in Communicating with Professors, General | 27 comments

In matters of any dispute, take an in-office meeting with a prof, division chair, etc. over e-mail, if at all possible.

(I didn’t properly message my stay-cation of last week. I apologize about that! Back to business here, and revisiting the post about the student whose term ended and received a grade that he was not expecting because the prof changed the grade standards. Based on a follow-up comment that just came in, we’re continuing that conversation now. I encourage everyone to please weigh in for encouragement or feedback!)

Here were some Twitter comments from the last post:

Kathryn Siranosian (@corpwriters said): This happened to my son, too! “The class had too many As” on the final (including his).

Samra Bufkins MJ, APR ‏(@Samjb said): No! That can’t happen. The syllabus is a contract. You can’t change the grade structure, ever, after that.

Jo VanEvery ‏(@JoVanEvery said): In the UK, that is actually true. And grading structure needs approval beyond prof designing course.

And here is a little more background to the story:

“I emailed the professor and he did not reply for a couple weeks so I went to the head of the division. That professor talked to my professor and then the division head told me what my scores were and how many points they were out of. This information did not match the syllabus, so I pointed out this discrepancy in a reply email and he replied saying he was simply siding with the professor because my test scores were too low (he did not take into consideration that I earned a 71% according to the syllabus). After emailing the division head, I got a blanket email saying he was siding with the professor, as well. I also got an email from his secretary saying that I could pursue a formal grade challenge if I wanted to, but it won’t help because the same three people would be the only ones looking at a formal grade challenge and respond the same way. I had a 71% in the class with no curve and the syllabus says a 70% or higher is a C, but I got a D+.

I scheduled a meeting with the Dean next week. I’m going to compile all of the emails, bring the scores I got and the original syllabus. I don’t have contact info for other students in the class. What can I do if he doesn’t listen to me or take me seriously? This is for a 5 unit Organic Chemistry class and I’m not being taken seriously. I have all of the evidence that I earned a C but I feel completely powerless to get the grade I earned.”

*****

And now more of my feedback:

Dear Student,

First and foremost, I am terribly sorry you are still going through this situation. But what I want to say to yourself and other students who may face a similar issue is that even if things do not end up satisfactorily, you can feel informed without feeling completely powerless. We all get information that we may not like, but you can walk away feeling like you at least know why.

What concerns me is that you feel blindsided and you shouldn’t. If your grade remains, you should know why it is staying the same. You may still feel like, “Damn, there was nothing I could do to change that situation, but I gave it my best fight,” which is different than feeling completely powerless. So let’s attempt to move you from that place. Based on the syllabus change, as I said in my previous response, there seem to be grounds for ongoing discussion.

I’m glad that you are meeting with the Dean face-to-face. I am concerned that so much of this went down over e-mail, but you had no choice, given that your prof had already submitted grades and probably went on break after that (which is what most of us do, myself included!).

Just a general statement for other students going through a similar scenario, in matters of dispute, press for an in-person meeting with whomever will give it to you (I’ll explain more on that in a second). E-mail leaves too room for miscommunication or “dead-end”/complicated communication (like an administrative assistant responding for another person–too many people in the mix). However, a department or division chair, administrator, college officer, etc. typically answers e-mails and may meet with students even during breaks, or their superior might, in the absence of your professor (and they can get a hold of the person while on break, if necessary). I would continue to ask for that, and one basis for it is if you need to resolve the situation to plan for the upcoming term.

I realize e-mail feels far less scary, but it takes longer for a remedy, and you will miss the important verbal and nonverbal cues from the person you are dealing with.

Once you are in the meeting with the Dean, work with your facts one by one:

-Show the Dean the syllabus and say, “This is the points breakdown upon which I entered the class.”

-Then show the Dean your individual scores and say, “Here are the grades that I received on my assignments/exams. As you can see, these equated to a ‘C’ based on the original points breakdown. I was shocked when I received my grade and it was a D+.” 

-You have two choices at this point. First, you can remain silent, which might be best. Let the Dean digest the information and ask some questions.

Or, you can recount more facts, such as the process that you’ve already taken: “I contacted the professor and he said the scores were too high. From what I understand, our lab scores were curved lower (or whatever happened), which negatively impacted my grade. I went to the department chair and the division chair and was told that since my individual test scores were low, there was nothing I could do.” (The latter doesn’t have a clear correlation to me; your individual test scores shouldn’t have a bearing on the syllabus issue, but I would have to have heard the person’s comment in full context). Be very careful not to place blame; keep your own nonverbal tone even, regardless of how much you want to sound a little Tony Soprano.

-State clearly what you want. “I believe I should have the C based on the original syllabus contract I entered the course with and the scores I received. If I will not receive the C, then I need a clear understanding as to why because the ramification for me is that I will have to retake this course. This will cost me money/affect my financial aid/negatively affect my transcript/put me behind on my graduation plan.”

There may be other options, such as giving you an “I” (Incomplete) for the course until the situation is figured out. Not the best option because you did complete all of the work.

Hopefully, this meeting is going to give you answers as to what happened and there will be a further plan, or better yet, a solution!

But let’s say this does not happen. I do not believe you are at a dead end. Truth be told, students file grievances for all sorts of reasons. Beyond this point, you would still have a Vice President or a Student Affairs Officer at the next level. You can also go to Counseling Services to find out the proper chain of command, confidentially.

You mentioned concern over having to retake this course, but realize that the grade can be changed even into fall term. It is usually as easy as a hard copy or electronic form. I know that the mental anguish and the unknown of if you will have to retake the course, however, is far worse, and hopefully you won’t have that hanging over your head much longer.

I realize this all feels like a horrible situation, but asserting yourself this way is giving you tremendous and critical conflict management experience. Own that.

I will be interested to hear how your meeting goes and I will look forward to further comments from others to provide more insights.

Ellen

*****

Students, would you know the chain of command in a grade dispute? Chapter 31 of Say This, NOT That to Your Professor tells you how to “Go Higher.” There’s even a Kindle edition! Have you taken a look inside?

 

27 Comments

  1. I think that Ellen (Professor Bremen) gave excellent advice. I fully agree that you have been treated unfairly, and I am chagrined, if not surprised, that other professors preferred to side with one of “their own” rather than see an injustice corrected.

    I would only add that you should see your meetings with the Dean, Vice President, etc. as opportunities to show yourself in your best light and perhaps make a few good connections. If you come across as petulant and threatening, you will not accomplish this. But if your arguments are measured and well-reasoned, you will not only impress the people to whom you speak, but you will be far more likely to achieve your desired result.

    Good luck!

    Jon

    • Hi, Jon,

      Thank you so much for commenting! I love your point about making connections here. As painful as this scenario is, you are so right that it is an opportunity. I also thought about that in a situation like this, a student can also use the experience as an example to discuss with a future hiring manager. It is conflict resolution, after all, and self-advocacy.

      I am very interested in the outcome of the situation. I appreciate you weighing in.
      Ellen

  2. I am currently an MBA student and fully understand the misunderstandings that so easily occur between students and profs. My advice for this student and others experiencing similar situations is threefold:

    First, even if you ARE powerless, there is something worse than lacking power. Far worse than lacking the power to stand up for yourself is lacking the desire to do so. Clearly, from your relentless persistence, you actually WANT to do well. That’s more than many students can say. Many students don’t care. They just put in a half-hearted effort and take whatever they get without question. At least you care. At least you’re fighting and, even of you fall flat on your face, there is some consolation in that.

    Second, keep doing what you’re doing. That thing the secretary mentioned, DO IT. Ignore her cynicism and exhaust every possible channel available to you. If anything, it will officially document that you are trying, you are serious, and you are NOT going away. As long as there’s another step to take, you aren’t powerless.

    This last suggestion is extreme, so take it with a grain of salt. If an administration and its faculty are unapologetically behaving duplicitously and unethically toward you, you can always LEAVE. There are other institutions our there that can serve you better. Will it set you back? You bet! But you owe to yourself and to the honorable institutions who actually listen to students when they are in the right. Chances are, you won’t make it this far. But keep it in the back of your mind that it’s always am option. Education is a competitive marketplace.

    • Hi, Doug,
      I am inspired by your words and I’m inspired by this student’s persistence, as well. I agree that if the this situation is as the student describes, the persistence is warranted. I noted in my last blog post that many faculty make errors and we grade inflate at one point or another. Sometimes, we make other teaching errors. If we make a genuine error in our grading or in the instruments we create (and I have so been there…), a student should never suffer for the mistakes we make in the instructional process. And, again, I still echo the Twitter comment that a syllabus is a contract. It’s what I was taught, so I am unclear how the points were able to be changed after the fact, if that is, indeed, the case.

      I am sure the student will see your note and find support from it.
      Ellen

  3. There’s lots of good advice here and undergrads need to know: Institutions don’t care about you (people do, but institutions like universities don’t) so you have a right to take care of yourself. Do what Doug said and proceed through all the processes at your disposal.
    At most universities there are explicit regulations that prevent instructors from changing grading in courses once the semester begins. At my school the syllabus is a contract between instructors and students. So, this is a rotten situation for you.
    You are not entirely powerless, although you should be prepared – sad to say it – faculty and administrators tend to circle the wagons since many undergrad complaints are not well executed and faculty want to protect their authority – or else all hell would break loose, frankly. Your degree will have value when you’re done BECAUSE you had to defer to the authority of profs and not just do whatever you thought was right.
    In any event, if I were you, I would immediately contact the student society on your campus and see what resources they have. There’s probably a student rep there who can come with you to meetings and otherwise help you navigate this situation. If all else fails, if you can, retake the class, hire a tutor at the beginning of the semester and get a better grade to replace that D. Being in the low 70s, you are skating on thin ice as it is. You really want grades that are solidly in the ‘B’ or ‘A’ range since, to many instructors and employers, a C- is not much different than a D+.

    • Prof. Susan,

      Thank you so much! Student senate is an excellent suggestion for advocacy. I appreciate you bringing that up.

      I have one C on my own transcript due to a horrible experience in an Environmental Science course. I never retook the class (I couldn’t stomach the thought at the time), but retaking the class is an option, like you said. I suppose this will depend on the student’s major, how the rest of the GPA looks, and what the outcome of this situation is. I hope that if the decision is made to entertain a retake that it is based on the student’s choice, not being forced because of the syllabus change.

      Again, I am glad you added some suggestions and insight. I know the student will appreciate your thoughts!
      Ellen

  4. I have to be frank and say I am appalled at this departments attitude. In my entire academic career I have never seen such a thing. Its a sad fact, sometimes tenure comes with the assumption that the professor is right in the eyes o the administration. Academic freedom has gone from freedom to study and offer educated opinion to, “what I say goes.” Do not relent, do not quit, make noise in a constructive way and keep pressing. They expect you to give up and will likely relent after it has cost them to much effort to maintain.

    • Thank you so much, JR. Based on some of the conversations on Twitter after the last post, the situation seems to be more common than I realized. I am hopeful that there has been a major misunderstanding via e-mail and that once the face-to-face meeting has occurred, it will get sorted out. But I agree with you, the student needs to see the issue through to resolution and that is happening.

      I appreciate your words!

      Ellen

  5. My meeting with the Dean is in 2 days. In preparation I emailed the Dean to ask why I have no recourse in this situation. His words were as follows: “A grade is entirely a matter between instructor and student. State regulations permit intervention by a third-part only in cases of “mistake, fraud, bad faith, or incompetency.” I don’t believe any of those categories apply to your situation.”

    How should I respond?

    • Joe,

      I would not continue to engage with the Dean via e-mail. You need the in-person meeting. I would say “As far as I can tell, the syllabus points were altered after the class ended. This would represent a mistake.”

      If you have the e-mail where the professor told you that the class grades were too high, you will need to include that for proof.

      Ellen

    • THANKS for this, Peggy! I always have drames like this, especially ones where my undergrad mentor is sitting quietly in the back, watching me as I lose control of my class! And you are right about being able to think reflectively I’m slowly learning that the more I teach, the more I think I’ll do it SO much better next time after each class, and come up with ways to constantly improve. If I knew exactly what was in store for me each semester, I wouldn’t get as excited to be involved with the class!

      • I really appreciated the comment here! Thank you so much :-) .

        We’ve all had those moments where we’ve lost control. You are not alone at all!
        Ellen

  6. Ellen, please add this to the beginning of my previous response:

    Thank you to everyone for weighing in. Your advice is much appreciated.

  7. I would also like to add that the division head has now changed for Summer session 2012. The division head that sided with the professor will resume as head of the department starting Fall 2012. I’m now talking with the Dean, should I go back down the ladder to inform the new division head? (The new division head has been cc’ed on the emails sent to the Dean, but did not receive emails originally sent between myself and the instructor)

    • Hello, again,

      No. I would continue with the Dean at this point since that is the person you’re corresponding with currently. But I emphasize: Keep your in-person meeting.

      Ellen

      • One more note: Research “grade dispute” on your college’s website for the formal process. You should find it there, or within the student handbook. Regarding the “state regulations,” there is a mechanism at every institution for a student to challenge a grade, when necessary. Ask for a copy of what the Dean is referring to so you can read the interpretation yourself.

        Ellen

  8. Fight for what is yours with kid gloves… I hope this all ends positively for you!

    • Thank you, Sara! I’m so inspired by the support for this student. I hope the answers come soon.
      Ellen

  9. I met with the Dean face to face today. He told me that he would allow me to file a Final Grade Review because there “may be a chance of grade mistake,” as he put it. He also told me his secretary was incorrect in telling me that the same people who did not help me in the informal process would be the ones deciding my grade in the formal process. The next step is to write written statement in my formal grade dispute to the board. I need to clearly state why the instructor made a mistake, fraud, bad faith, or incompetency. He told me that he would not file the dispute as a mistake, but rather a situation where the professor acted in bad faith. But I was thinking “fraud” fits the best since the instructor intentionally changed the weight of the laboratory to lower final grades. Which reason or reasons (mistake, fraud, bad faith, or incompetency)should I choose to help my claim and why? It seems as though he has done most of these, but I need concrete reasons otherwise I won’t be heard. Please weigh in and help me. Thanks.

    • Hi, Joe,

      Oh, thank goodness. I knew there was a mechanism for you. Are you on Twitter? You have no idea how much discussion is going on and how many people are rooting for you there and here, too, of course! I’m going to e-mail you to respond more fully to this.

      Ellen

      • Joe, I have e-mailed you at the e-mail that I think is correct. Please comment again here if you have not received it. Or email me at chattyprof@gmail.com. Ellen

    • List all reasons and explain each. Once you begin writing it, the strongest ones will become clear.

      • Lisa, thank you! I think scratching something out is hugely important to start clarifying the issues! Also, it feels empowering :-) Ellen

  10. Thank you Ellen. I’m looking at the comments on twitter and appreciate the support. Any advice on whether this is a mistake, fraud, bad faith, or incompetency is helpful.

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