What to do if students don’t like their grades

Three accounting academics offer advice on how to handle grade change requests.
By Sarah Ovaska

One of Janet Samuels's Arizona State University accounting students approached her this year about poor grades, noting he'd gotten caught up in the social aspects of college and subsequently hadn't done well in Samuels's class. Could she, he wondered, offer some extra credit so that he could bring the grade up?

The answer was no, but the inevitable scenario is one that Samuels, CPA (inactive), Ph.D., has faced plenty of times in the 20-plus years she has taught accounting. She has developed processes to deal with this, from including opportunities for extra points that are universally offered to a class, to offering clarity about grading calculations and ensuring everyone in her classes is treated equitably.

"You try to respond very positively to the students saying, 'It's great that you are refocusing your efforts on academics, because that is why you're here,'" Samuel said. "'But on the other hand, it wouldn't be equitable to the other students who made the deadlines and who studied for the exam.'"  

We spoke to Samuels and others in higher education settings about how they handle requests from students for grade changes or adjustments. Here's their advice:   

Be open to discussions. Everyone makes mistakes, and that's one reason why James Long, CPA/ABV, CGMA, Ph.D., listens to his students when they raise concerns about the grading of a test at Auburn University's School of Accountancy, where he is a professor.

By having an honest and respectful exchange, Long has at times realized a test question was unclear and opened the door for multiple or more nuanced answers. In those cases, he'll often issue partial credit and ensure adjustments are made for the entire class.

"Professors aren't perfect, and students generally understand that," he said. "When you frame it from an equity perspective, it's a win for you and the student when they point out a mistake and you correct it."

More often, however, the discussion reveals that the student still hasn't grasped the concept they're being tested on. Long then has the chance to go over accounting principles with the student one-on-one to help them understand.

"To me, the key is to be open to the discussion, to let the students know you are on their side and want them to do well, but that you also hold them to high standards," Long said.

Use your syllabus. Ensuring that students have equal opportunities is paramount, and having a clear and transparent explanation in the syllabus about grading goes a long way in heading off requests for changes later on, said Lori Jackson, CPA, an accounting instructor at Michigan State University's Broad College of Business.

Jackson goes over the grading process on the first day of classes, and that clarity strengthens the trust between her and her students.

"Address these grading issues at the beginning," she said. "If you don't, it's going to get in the way of your relationship between you and your students."

Build in extra opportunities. Jackson doesn't offer extra credit to individual students upon request, in line with her department's policies.

But that doesn't mean there aren't chances for students to get extra points. She lists opportunities in her syllabus at the start of the semester for students to listen to guest speakers or lecturers for extra points.

This approach puts the onus on students, she said, and avoids scenarios where complaining students get chances their fellow students wouldn't. It also allows her, when a student approaches her at the end of a semester taking issue with a grade, to inquire if he or she took advantage of known ways to earn extra points.

Give grade updates. Samuels takes time before the deadline for dropping classes to update students on how they're doing. Even though the grading system she uses is available to students and explained in detail at the start of the semester, she has found that reaching out individually to students has enormous benefits. Many college campuses utilize learning management systems that are used across the campus, so that students and instructors have familiarity with how grades are determined. When Samuels teaches large classes, where she might have several hundred students in a lecture, she uses technology and email tools to make the task easy, and in line with student privacy regulations.

For those who are behind, Samuels can start up a discussion about how to improve or, if they've fallen too far behind, let students decide if they're too overextended and should drop the class.

"My job as a teacher isn't to assign grades," Samuels said. "My job as a teacher is to help them learn the material so that they can earn the grades they want in the course."

Framing it that way, she said, shows students that the responsibility rests with them to meet the expectations. She also requires that students use her grade sheet to calculate their anticipated grade before meeting with her, so that they are well aware of where they stand and they can then discuss during the meeting what the student needs to do to improve.

Samuels suggests professors take time to reach out as well to students who are doing well. Too often, interactions come when students are doing poorly, but dropping a note to a student who is doing well can spark further engagement. This approach was particularly appreciated when teaching during the pandemic, when many students were learning virtually or were socially isolated. Having that extra interaction with a professor was meaningful, she said.

Refer students for help if needed. Some students asking for grade changes may indeed be dealing with extraordinary situations, whether those scenarios involve mental health challenges, financial pressures, family issues, or disabilities that make classroom settings challenging.

In those cases, it's important to reach out to the campus offices that are better equipped to help students in crisis, Long said. Auburn University has a program called Auburn Cares expressly for that purpose.

"I am always available to have the initial discussion with a student, but when they communicate that there are underlying 'crisis' circumstances, I get them to Auburn Cares as quickly as I can because they are trained to help students beyond just lending an empathetic ear," Long said.

Samuels also keeps a list of the various people and programs on campus that can help struggling students in her office, including lists of university resources to evaluate disability accommodations requests and student health or mental health resources. That way, she can easily pull up the information to pass on to a student or reach out herself if the situation warrants that approach.

While it's important for faculty to listen to students about issues with grades, it's ultimately up to students to apply themselves, Samuels said. She sees a lot of parallels to the auditing work she did at the start of her career, where an auditor strives for a good working relationship with a client but ultimately is required to hold the company up to well-defined standards.

"I will do as much as I can to help them learn," she said about her students. "But ultimately, I'm accountable to society, for making sure these students have learned something and that grade represents something."

Sarah Ovaska is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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