I say “grade-grubbing,” you say “it doesn’t hurt to ask:” on asking teachers to “bump” your final grade

The semester is over, and you’re in that limbo where all of your assignments have been turned in but the teacher hasn’t assigned final grades yet. It doesn’t look like you earned the grade you’d hoped for. Do you:

Email the teacher, asking them to raise your final grade to the next level?

Or

Accept that you earned what you earned and you need to try better next time?

Over 100 college professors weighed in to help you answer that question. Read on!

The end of the semester is marked, for many professors, by a deluge of student emails, asking if grades will be “rounded” or if theirs can be “bumped up.” You may have been told that you should email your teacher, because “it can’t hurt to ask.” This post explains why asking your professor to raise your final grade is not a good idea, and why, sometimes, it actually can hurt to ask.

Who Asks?

Before we dig deeper, let’s take a minute to think about who asks for higher grades. We tend to say “students” or “the student body” as though all students are the same. But that’s not true. Students come from a wide range of backgrounds, with differences that often affect how a student sees themselves in relation to their teachers. Many of the 111 professors that answered my questions noted, anecdotally, that working-class students and students of color are less likely to ask for their grades to be bumped.

Research shows that middle class and working class students have different expectations for their relationship with their professors. Middle-class students expect to be heard and accommodated in a way that others do not, and it matters in a multitude of ways. (See Negotiating Identities (disclosure: I get a small commission if you buy from Amazon through this link) by Calarco, 2018 and The Unwritten Rules Of Engagement: Social Class Differences in Undergraduates’ Academic Strategies” by Lee, 2016 for more on this topic).

Does this mean that it’s wrong for you to ask? Not necessarily. But it matters what you ask and when. Below, we’ll take an inside look at the grading process from the perspective of your teachers.

What Does Grade-Grubbing Look Like From the Professor’s Perspective?

Let’s start with a definition of “grade-grubbing.” When we talk about grade-grubbing amongst ourselves (as professors), we’re referring to students asking for grades that they didn’t earn. We recognize a difference between students who (1) were concerned about errors in their score (sometimes correctly), (2) were very close to a higher grade (more on this below), and (3) those who wanted a higher grade just because they wanted it. Of the three, only email from students in the first category is welcome.

The majority of these “it can’t hurt to ask” emails are coming from students who have not done the work. If you are having a problem that interferes with your coursework, the time to talk to your teacher is during the semester. Don’t wait until finals week. And certainly don’t ask your teacher to grade a semester’s worth of work a few days before grades are due. (Check out Email Etiquette – How Do I Communicate with my Professor? for tips on how to communicate effectively with your teacher.)

Many of these requests are paired with obvious attempts to manipulate. Common “reasons” my colleagues and I have received for students “needing” to have their grades bumped include:

  • I will lose my scholarship.
  • I will lose eligibility to play sports (and thus my scholarship).
  • I will not be able to graduate.

Your teachers want to see you succeed, but in these cases the student is trying to make the teacher responsible for their own bad choices. Teachers don’t “give” grades; students earn them. The only person responsible for earning the grade that maintains your scholarship, your sports eligibility, or your graduation schedule, is you.

Lesson #1: You know at the beginning of the semester what work you need to do in the course. You also know that you want to graduate, that you play sports, or that you have a scholarship that requires a certain GPA. Work from the beginning of the semester toward that goal.

It’s in the Syllabus

About one-fourth of the teachers who responded either don’t reply at all to students who send such emails (10.8%) or explicitly said that they refer students to the syllabus (14.4%). One professor even drops a student a letter grade if they email . . . because it’s in the syllabus; others round both up AND down if asked to review scores.

Knowing what your final grade will be in one of 4 or 5 classes may be a burning question for you, but understand that your teacher may have several hundred students per semester. Every email asking about a final grade or asking a grade to be bumped quite simply wastes the teacher’s time unless there is an actual error.

Extra credit and some kind of point forgiveness (dropping low scores, allowing students to re-do work, etc) is built in to the course structure for nearly 30% of the teachers responding. When the course structure is already lenient, your teacher is less likely to change your score . . . especially if you haven’t taken advantage of any of those opportunities. Your syllabus should tell you if these options are available and how to take advantage of them while the semester is still in play.

Lesson #2: Check your syllabus before you decide to email your professor about bumping your final score.

A Look Inside the Grading Process

Fairness.

If I had to choose one idea that stood out among the responses, it would be that teachers feel a responsibility to treat each student fairly; to apply their policies equally among students. For some, especially in math and science disciplines, this means that they do not round at all (20%). As one said, “math is math is math.” There’s no arguing with how many questions you got right on your exam.

Over half (55%) wrote that they automatically adjust borderline scores as they translate them into grades. The vast majority of those (39% of the total) only consider scores within .5% of the next higher grade. An 89.5%, therefore, would automatically become an A, but an 89.4% would remain a B (one was at .6% – check your syllabus!). A little over 6% only round at .85 or .9, and a few (less than 3%) consider grades as much as 1 – 2% from the next higher grade.

For over a fourth (26%) of the teachers responding, a borderline grade (see the paragraph above) triggers a deeper look at the student’s performance over the semester. Did the student attend class? Participate? Hand in their work? Meet with the teacher and show improvement? Do the available extra credit? In other words, did the student really try? A student that made a good faith effort to do as well as possible in class is likely to get a bump. A student who did not – their grade will sit.

Professors were clear: they do not ever give a higher score to a student that didn’t do the work. The effort that you put into a class over the entire semester? That matters. So does communicating with your professor early if something major goes wrong in your life.

Lesson #3: It’s highly likely that your professor either won’t round grades at all, or already considers borderline scores as they enter final grades. Emailing them changes nothing (and adds more work, which means you get your final grades later).

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