Student talking with professor

—Alejandra C., Purdue University, Indiana

From my experience as a student as well as a professor, I can say that I’ve rarely seen a professor be unfair about grades. But it can and does happen.

As a department chair who has handled student complaints about grades, I found that the issue was often a miscommunication about expectations. Faculty often thought they were being very clear about how they’d grade and how grades would be calculated, and students often thought they understood how they were being graded. However, when there was a conflict, it was because one side was out of sync with the other.

That said, I recommend speaking with the professor first to see if there’s been a miscommunication.

You might ask:

  • “I’m not sure I understand how I earned this grade. Do you mind going over the graded work with me?”
  • “I’ve calculated my grade based on the information you’ve given us, but it doesn’t seem to match what you’ve recorded. Can I talk with you about the discrepancy?”

Approaching the situation as an opportunity to get clarity will make for a smoother conversation.

If you still feel as though the professor is being unfair, these tips can help lead you to a positive resolution:

Show good faith first

As I mentioned before, speak with the professor first and get as much information as possible before taking the next step.

Follow the chain of command

Find out how your institution prefers you to resolve conflicts such as grade disputes. You may be required to meet with a department chair or dean after you first meet with the professor.

Document, document, document

I have students who come see me to complain about a grade and they don’t bring the assignment or syllabus with them. It’s hard to help them when I don’t have anything in front of me to review. You should be able to demonstrate why you think you’ve been graded unfairly.

You’ll also want to document conversations you’ve had with the professor (when, where, what was said) and emails that you’ve sent. Bring all copies of assignments, graded work, grading rubrics, and feedback from the professor.

Be prepared for action

When I say this, I don’t mean get ready for a fight, but I do mean that if you feel the grade is unfair, you should be prepared to make an actionable request. For example, do you want to make a formal complaint against the professor? If you’re taking the concern to a higher level, then consider the possibility that you’ll need to provide in writing the issue and the request for resolution. Don’t go into a department chair’s office just to vent that you didn’t pass algebra.

Remember that learning to handle sticky situations like this with grace and fortitude will help you develop many important skills you can use later on.