How to transform grade discussions from negotiation into learning
Plus musings on the importance of custom-fitting approaches to circumstances
Hello and welcome to my newsletter. I am so glad that you are here.
My first foray into academic administration was as department head and I was unprepared for how the work would consume my schedule. My research time was replaced by meetings and email, followed by more meetings and email. I consider research central to my role as a teacher-scholar, and grew concerned that my headship term would be the death of my research trajectory.
I confided my research time woes to a senior leader, who suggested I talk to Frank (not his real name), who had maintained his research momentum throughout years of academic leadership. Buoyed by the knowledge that balancing academic leadership and research was possible, I set out to speak with Frank. Here is what he said: “I don’t have any time to research either, so I rent a private condo in another city, lock myself in, and write uninterrupted for a week at the end of each semester.”
Frank’s approach was not an option for me. We had different realities: his kids were grown, while I had elementary school children; his spouse evidently was fine with the expense and time apart, whereas mine would not see this as a good use of family resources or time.
Different options work for different circumstances. Any idea, including the small ideas I put forward in this newsletter, will work for some people now, other people later, and still other people never. But even ideas that on their face do not seem to fit can have value. A common adage in recovery groups is “take what you need and leave the rest”, and I think this is a useful mindset. The trick is to identify what you need and what part of an idea you can take.
I could not (and still cannot) disappear for a week for writing. But I could (and, once the world reopens to travel, can) create small pockets of writing time by taking a morning flight to a conference, arriving a half-day early, and writing in my hotel room for an afternoon and evening. Frank’s idea didn’t work for me, but my bespoke adaptation of it created valuable research time for me over the years. A small improvement is still an improvement.
And with that, it is time for this week’s small thing to try in your own life. We are heading into a busy grading period so this newsletter’s idea is specific to a common grading concern. If you are or are soon-to-be eyeballs deep in grading, it can be immediately relevant to you. If you are not teaching classes, consider how the general idea of reframing discussions might apply to your own work.
One Small Thing to Try Immediately: Reframe Grade Discussions
“But I get straight A’s in everyone else’s class.” Student grade discussions are never fun. I understand student stress about grades, as grades can impact students’ ability to stay in university, get scholarships, and be accepted into professional programs. (Thoughts and prayers to all instructors whose students are or consider themselves “pre-med” or “pre-law”.) I also understand instructor frustration with student grade queries, particularly when students seem to ignore the substantive comments we provide and just focus on the grade itself. These conversations are emotionally fraught on both sides.
Many instructors identify grading as a difficult part of teaching, and stress about anticipated student grade complaints makes the grading process itself even challenging. Grading stress may be heightened for female and/or racialized instructors, who face systemic biases in student evaluations.
Student grade discussions are a “known known” in higher education, so creating and articulating a positive plan to deal with them can help to reduce stress and, in my experience, save time. Here is how you can implement this right now:
(1) Decide to approach grade discussions as an opportunity for student learning. It is reasonable for students to have queries about their grades and to strive to understand how to improve their performance. Only a few students start out determined to argue their way to a higher grade at all costs. Approaching student grade discussions as teaching outside the classroom as opposed to immediately assuming this will be a negotiation or a challenge to your authority as the instructor can reduce the ‘high stakes’ feeling of grade discussions.
(2) Identify a plan that requires students to reflect on their work prior to meeting with you. To set the stage for the discussion, ask students to do front-end work to think through the grade and why it was given, and then to share this advance work with you. This practice alone will strengthen student reflection and learning.
(3) Explicitly articulate your grade discussion approach to students. Ideally, you will outline your approach in your syllabus (more on this below), but absent a time machine you can simply communicate the information now. Here is some text you can adapt and send to students:
I hope you had a nice weekend. I look forward to receiving your next assignment, due this Friday at 4 pm. I realized that I have never explicitly let the class know what to do in the event that you wish to discuss a grade. To increase transparency and to ensure fairness to all students, here is how to initiate a grade discussion: (1) Email me a one-half to one page written summary of what about your grade is unclear to you or what area you are struggling with. Your written explanation should refer directly to the assignment overview and the grading rubric. Along with this summary, include a copy of your assignment. (2) Schedule a 10- 15 minute meeting with me to discuss the assignment. Please note I do not hold grade discussion meetings in the first three days after returning grades to allow students sufficient time to review their grades properly against the assignment overview and the grading rubric.
You might be concerned that this communication could lead to more students wanting to speak with you about their grades. In my opinion, students wanting to discuss how they can improve their work is a good thing, and being transparent that you are open to such discussions can help to address gender inequities in grade appeals. In fact, a grade query might be the only reason for a student to initiate contact with you at all, so it opens the door to wider conversations and an ongoing relationship. But if you are concerned about the workload, I can report that in my experience, the self-reflection step decreases ‘frivolous’ appeals (students appealing just to see if you will budge) by creating ‘friction’ - students must do work prior to meeting with you and will be less likely to do so if they are not serious about wanting help. It may still take time, but this approach is generally more satisfying than arguing over percentage points.
(4) Manage the discussion carefully. When you meet with a student to discuss their grade, make it a true discussion and not a negotiation. State clearly at the start of the discussion that you will not be re-grading the work during your meeting itself, nor will you be defending the assigned grade. Work with them to ensure that they understand the purpose of the assignment, the areas in which they did well, and the areas in which improvement is needed. Make it clear that marks/points are earned rather than lost. Ask questions and listen carefully to their concerns. If, at the end of the meeting, one or both of you feel the assignment grade should be revisited, conduct the grade review outside the meeting itself.
Important note: If it is your practice to review assignments in their entirety when re-grading (i.e., the student’s grade might be lowered after re-grading), make this transparent to the student.
(5) Use grade discussions as an opportunity for your own learning. I hate to be the one to tell you this but you are not perfect (only cats achieve this quality, and even then only for certain hours each day) and it is possible that your essay instructions, exam questions, and other communications could use improvement. In my own discussions with students, I have discovered that some things that seemed obvious to me were not explicitly stated in the assignment instructions. This became an easy fix for the next time I use that (or a similar) assignment. (The trick here is to record this so that I actually make the change in the future.)
(6) Add information about your approach to grade discussions to your future syllabi. (Syllabi or syllabuses? Turns out that the answer is: whichever you prefer, because syllabus is a fake “Latin” word that resulted from a typo. How weird is that?). Assuming your institution allows you to add such information to your syllabus, state your approach clearly in the syllabus.
Bottom line: Reframing grade discussions is a small investment in time that can save you considerable time and stress in the long run, as it decreases the likelihood of formal (and time-consuming) student grade appeals. Students reasonably want to feel that the grades they receive are fair, and unresponsive instructors may lead them to conclude that a formal appeal is their only means to ensure they were treated fairly. As formal grade appeals consume a lot of time for many people, a fifteen-minute discussion is, in my opinion, a good use of time.
Chipping Away: What I Have Been Up To
A quick update on some of my own activities since my last newsletter, since I have your attention:
My March Skills Agenda column in University Affairs is now available online. In this month’s column, Not sure which career skill to teach? Start here, I provide faculty and instructors with practical suggestions on how to select a career skill to include in their classes. (Previous Skills Agenda columns include Integrating career skills training into your teaching (January 2021) and Three reasons to include skills training in your classes (February 2021).) Please share this column with people interested in university skills training. I welcome your feedback on the series so far.
Over the past two weeks, I have spent a fair bit of time participating in our Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy internship interviews. It is exciting to talk to our students about their career aspirations!
Saskatoon weather has been very mild and I have been loving my outdoor runs. My shoes are soaked by the end due to my inability to leap large puddles but it feels so good to get outside.
Until next time…
If you find this newsletter useful, please forward it to your colleagues and share it with your social media network. I would love to build the audience for this newsletter and your help with this is very appreciated. And if you have yet to read them, please be sure to check out my past newsletters, where I share easy ideas for how to say no to requests and how to spend less time in meetings. Lastly, if you haven’t subscribed to this newsletter yet, please do so.
Until next time, I hope you will connect with me on Twitter at @loleen_berdahl where I tweet ideas about academic life using the hashtag #AcademiaMadeEasier.
Stay well, my colleagues.
PS. You are still reading? Awesome. I would love to hear your thoughts on reframing grade discussions. Are you explicit about your approach with students? If so, how does that work for you? Hit reply to this email (or comment, if you are on the webpage) and let me know your experience!
Loleen Berdahl, PhD: I am a twin mother, wife, runner, cat lover, and chocolate enthusiast. I spend far too much time on Twitter and binge-watching television, and my house could be a lot cleaner. During the work hours, I am the Executive Director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, and the author of University Affair’s Skills Agenda column. My most recent books are Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences or Humanities PhD and Explorations: Conducting Empirical Research in Canadian Political Science.