University of Minnesota
Office of Human Resources

How Do I Respond to Students Who Complain about Grades?

Ask students to put their complaint or request in writing and include the rationale for WHY their answer is correct or their essay deserves a better grade. This policy tends to result in fewer complaints because when students try to justify their request they often discover that the instructor was right! It also provides the time necessary for students to cool down and time for the instructor to calmly consider the student's point of view without feeling defensive. In addition, the act of writing a request and justification is an excellent learning opportunity for the student. If you decide that the student has a good case, adjust the grade accordingly. If you decide against the student's request, make arrangements to talk with the student about your decision.

When talking with students about the grade:

  • Listen carefully. You can show students you are listening by summarizing what they have said and checking to see if you are correct in your understanding.
  • Avoid acting defensively (even though it may feel like you are being attacked).
  • Show empathy for the student with statements such as, "I can understand that it's frustrating to get a lower grade than you expected when you've worked so hard on this."
  • Have all necessary materials on hand. Provide a thorough description of the criteria you were looking for and, if possible, show the student some examples.
  • Provide encouragement and offer guidance on how the student can do better on the next test or assignment.

This tip sheet on Grading Practices by Barbara Gross Davis contains a number of good examples for both minimizing the likelihood of grading complaints as well as for handling them when they occur.

For serious problems/disagreements, contact the Student Dispute Resolution Center

Consider adding a statement in your syllabus next semester about how you will handle grading complaints.

Cross-cultural notes: Students in the U.S can be very pragmatic. They generally want to know the purpose of what they are learning. The also tend to be concerned about their grades and the way points are awarded to individual assignments and exams. If they disagree with a grade, they may ask the instructor to reconsider his or her scoring. This is generally not considered an affront to the authority of the instructor. Only rarely do students contest a grade in an inappropriate or hostile manner.

A good quality check on your grading is to ask another instructor (a native English speaker if the work is language-based) to independently review the work to confirm your scoring.