I found through my stats that someone came here looking to find out how to argue their graduate school grade. Because that’s not really a topic I’ve covered, I figured today (especially after receiving an email from a student re. his grade) would be a good day to talk about that.

My short advice? Unless the situation is particularly grave (see the last paragraph of this entry), don’t bother, no matter what level you are in your schooling. Unless it’s points added incorrectly, usually the professor feels s/he has done a fine a job grading/preparing you. Some people react terribly to having their grading questioned, and people leave upset and with no satisfactory results.

There have been a few times in grad school I thought the grading was terribly unfair, as did several other students. By unfair, I mean we were penalized every single point of the problem for not having plot labels formatted exactly as the professor wanted; the plots were only a small part of the problem and certainly not the topic of the class. Why did the bulk of us not argue? Too much to lose. For some, this was their advisor and maintaining good relations was more important at the end of the day. They had about a year or so they needed to work with this professor. For others, they had more things to worry about or knew that they would have this professor again in the future. I’d also add in that if you are expecting recommendations from a person, you should tread lightly. Regardless of whether you should be able to question your grade without fear, we live in a world where people have egos. People also talk, so you also don’t want your reputation viewed poorly by someone gossipy. I reiterate that these things shouldn’t matter, but they can, so you may as well beware. Tread very lightly.

If you chose to pursue arguing your grade, I’d think about the following questions:

  • Why are you arguing your grade? Why do you think your grade isn’t fair? In my story about being given 0 credit for improper labels on a plot, that exam question had more components than just plot labels and the exam was not on plot labels. Do I think that we should have been docked for incorrect plot labels? Absolutely, just not every single point if a student managed to get the spirit of the problem down pat. If you’re arguing your grade because you’ve always been an A student/you can’t fail this class/you tried really hard/you didn’t study hard enough/etc., those aren’t good reasons. Base your argument on something that is substantial to academics and the topic.
  • Are you being petty? Grading is somewhat subjective, even physics (I tend to grade on work more than the end answer). I personally think it’s a waste of time to attempt to argue your A- to an A or argue that 95/100 on your lab report to a 97/100. You’ve done good work, but according to your grader, it could be a bit better. Having discussed this issue with others, this again comes off poorly. Why? None of us have seen a case where the person has a good reason why they should receive a higher grade. For myself, I don’t like when students become more about the grade and less about the learning.
  • What is this professor like? Granted, even personable professors can become irritated easily, but I’d say your chances of having a good conversation with this professor re. your grade are slimmer if the person is already snappish about questions.
  • How are you going to approach the person? Catching them 5 minutes before class or stopping them in the middle of the hall is never a good idea. I’d send an email or ask to meet with the person. I’d be humble and not accusative towards the professor, even if you find the person to be a jerk.
  • Are you capable of remaining calm and professional, should the meeting go sour? This goes back to future contact with the professor. You may, regardless of how you behave, leave a bad impression on a professor, but again, your odds are quite that you will if you become belligerent, whiny, and overall unpleasant. People gossip, and if you need this person to not have a negative view of you (future prof for another class, your advisor, semester not over…), you need to put your best face forward.
  • Are you willing to discuss strategies on how to do better? Before you arrange to discuss your grade, you may want to also ask the professor, particularly if this isn’t your final grade, how you can improve. I like when people ask me how they can improve their grades. Not students who are digging for extra credit but students genuinely interested in learning how to write, solve physics, whatever. It shows that you realize you can improve and that you aren’t necessarily blaming the professor.

I have yet to argue a grade; at most, I’ve inquired why I’ve received some grades when the comments have not been apparent on the work. I’ve had numerous students attempt to argue their grades with me. Typically, they’ve been people who been any of the following: hostile, condescending, hysterical, insulting, or just plain nasty. They also have typically been people who don’t realize that we have the rest of the semester to get through together, and leaving a bad impression on anyone is always a terrible idea. I have yet to see someone argue his/her grade and present a good reason why a higher grade is deserved. That’s why I think it’s important to consider what you’re doing and why.

If your situation is grave (I’ve heard stories where professors allegedly have intentionally given inaccurate grades) and justifiable in arguing, I would talk to your department head or advisor on how to proceed. If that doesn’t go well, talk to a dean on campus. Go up the food chain in your school. While I think grade arguing is often not done for the right reasons, I know there are cases where it should be done. However, always proceed with caution and make sure you have all the information to present a strong case. It isn’t fair, but things can come back to bite you in the butt.

Good luck!