What You Can Learn From My Advice to the Student Petitioning the ‘Grade Tank’

Posted by on Jul 30, 2012 in Communicating with Professors, General | 6 comments

Preserving relationships in academia is key. Read why... (Photo credit: ElvisFan76)

(Not my usual blogging day, but if you saw last Friday’s post, you already know that the student whose grade tanked is going to petition. Just coming into this unexpected series? Start here and continue here and here. I’m continuing this discussion through one more post because I believe other students could face a similar issue and the add-on advice (that I provided via e-mail) is important to share. What I told the student is universal, not only when challenging a grade, but if you ever have to stand up for yourself. I have had to take this advice, myself. Read on…)

Okay, before I get to it, two quick things… First, I promise to update everyone if and when I hear about the final outcome of this situation.

Second, I want to say one last time how much I valued every single comment supporting this student. I realize that none of us knows the complete story, but I learned a great deal about social media bringing people together.

And now for my two main suggestions and, please, I’m open to any feedback you may have, as well:

Recommendation #1:  Pick the “charge” you can actually prove.

The student had the option to petition the grade dispute on the basis of ‘mistake’, ‘bad faith’, or ‘fraud’.

My recommendation was to choose ‘mistake’. A mistake can be more concrete to prove, as opposed to the others.

When we are angry, accusing someone of fraud or bad faith feels damned good. Delicious even.

(Ooh, did I sound “eeevil…” like Mike Myers… both the one as Austin Powers and even Michael Myers, as in from the Halloween movies? Okay, back to the matter at hand…).

However, both of those labels are difficult to prove and, in my opinion, (and that’s what this is, after all… my opinion) the burden of proof is totally and completely on the student in a grade petition.

I do not believe it is easy to prove the intention of bad faith in most situations (yes, even in an after-term syllabus alteration. How can we say that any prof ‘intended to do harm’?). I believe that showing that a person knowingly committed fraud would be even more ominous to prove.

What I did tell the student is that he could say (with attached documentation), “I entered the course and here is the syllabus, which I understand is like a contract. The syllabus shows this points structure. I expected to be graded based on these points, but then when I received my final grade, the points did not match. There appears to be a error, so I will petition this grade on the basis of ‘mistake’.” (Then I suggested that the student go on to show, line-by-line, how the points changed).

If the student is hell-bent on mentioning the other charges, my recommendation is to say them without saying them, to make them “lesser” complaints and let the reviewers come to their own conclusions i.e., to add: “One could question whether bad faith or fraud is involved here.”

Sometimes, what we don’t say explicitly is incredibly powerful over what we do say.

My rationale also stemmed from this idea: If the student chooses the discrete accusation of “fraud” or “bad faith,” he’d have to weigh his chances of “winning” on that singular charge. We can’t bank on the reviewer(s) saying, “Oh, no, no… this isn’t fraud, but instead it does seem to be a big mistake. Let’s grant the petition.”

What is more likely is that the reviewer will say, “The student could not effectively prove fraud here. Petition denied!”

My hypothesis is that if the situation was as the student described and the syllabus grade standards were actually changed after the term ended, “mistake” would be the most likely, easiest argument to, well, argue!

Recommendation #2:  Keep your eye on “relationship preservation.” 

Sure, when I was in college and received my low grade that I once blogged about, I wanted to blast the professor and everyone else who would listen. But the truth is that the professor and his superiors weren’t going anywhere. My wildfire rant would only stand to hurt… me. I told this student with the grade dispute the same thing and I believe that some commenters brought up similar perspectives.

Academia is not like other businesses. People do not come and go. You can’t just get someone in trouble and then they disappear. Tenure means that, sure, a professor might (and that’s a loose “might”) be reprimanded, warned, even retrained or rehabilitated, but rarely fired, and the grounds would have to be very serious. Faculty in pre-tenure would likely be counseled, but a number of complaints would have to emerge for them to be let go (all colleges differ on these situations, however). Even sub-par part-time faculty may linger longer than they should if they teach in a hard-to-find discipline or at a hard-to-fill time slot.

Therefore, to any student with a grade dispute, remember that you may have to work with the professor or his/her higher-ups again, so be very, very careful what you say and the words you choose to accuse. You can be assertive without being ugly or angry. You can be direct, state the facts, and still be professional. You can even say, “I respectfully disagree with you. I believe strongly enough in my case that I want to continue the attempt to resolve my situation. I would like to see the next person in command.”

This way, if you have to take another class from the professor, or his her “boss”—yes, a department head or division chair is often a teaching professor, too, and you could end up in a class with that person—your dignity will remain intact, whether or not your situation ends up in the category of ideal. And, crazier things have happened… you may end up actually having a good relationship with the person. Stranger things have happened. Leave your doors open by using the right words.

Thank you for staying on for this difficult series of posts!


  1. Ellen, I think you provided very solid advice and I agree with your reasoning behind it. I work with high school students and have found few who could lay out their arguments in the factual manner you present. Too often emotions take the lead and the purpose of challenging a grade takes a back seat to venting frustrations. Thank you for cleaning explaining what to do and why.

    • Hi, Megan,

      Thank you so much for commenting and also the validation. It is so true that the tone of the argument can become the main player in a situation like this, rather than the problem at hand. I know I have had to wait out dealing with a conflict situation just so I could separate my emotions from the facts and lead with the latter.

      I hope this student is able to keep the big picture in mind. I am rooting for a favorable outcome.

      I’m appreciative of your support :-) .

  2. Perfect advice… We should all proceed with such diplomacy.

    • Thank you, Sara! I can’t wait to hear the outcome.

  3. Is there an outcome?

    • That is an excellent question. I need to e-mail this student and find out what happened!


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