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Confessions of a former grade grubber

My grad school molecular biology professor’s problem sets were legendarily impenetrable, but for once I thought I might breeze through. The topic that week happened to be a subject I’d studied in depth for my undergraduate thesis. In fact, the accompanying journal article he’d assigned, while dense and demanding, was one I’d read a dozen times and knew inside and out.

On the problem set, I knew one of the responses the professor wanted. But I also knew certain technical details that made the most straightforward answer not quite right. So—assuming that scientists reward precision—instead of writing a few sentences, I rambled for multiple pages, thinking it was a rare opportunity to impress the professor by pedantically harping on minutiae.

The next week, however, the teaching assistant (TA) returned my problem set with a point deducted—not because I was wrong, but because I didn’t answer exactly as the professor was expecting.

I confronted the TA and argued the hell out of that one point. I pushed, I quarreled, and I may or may not have thrown around the word “injustice.” In the end, however, she never conceded the point that I not only deserved, but I daresay mega-deserved. I still grieve for its loss.

A few years later, when it became my turn to evaluate students’ exams and essays, I didn’t want to inflict that pain on anyone else. I spent an excessive amount of time grading, prioritizing fairness and trying to preempt any accusations of inequity.

This made it all the more maddening when students requested regrades—which they did regularly. One of my students in a biochemistry lab literally said to me, “Please, please, I’m begging you,” over half a point I had deducted on his homework—half a point out of a possible 575 points for the semester. All of a sudden, the behavior I’d performed myself on so many occasions seemed intensely annoying.

I spent an hour and a half writing thorough comments on your freaking assignment,” I wanted to say. “I considered it in the context of all of your classmates’ papers, not to mention a carefully constructed set of criteria I’ve outlined in the syllabus and used for years. I didn’t just pull your grade out of a Random Disappointment Generator.”

Had I been that irritating as a student? Probably. For example, there was my first graded final exam in college. The class was general chemistry, and the grade was lower than I’d hoped. Without even pausing to check my responses against the posted answer key, I turned to the secretary and asked, “Does the professor still have office hours?”

“No,” she said, “not until next semester.”

“Then can I please schedule a time to meet with him?” I asked. “It’s about my grade.”

I had no real reason to distrust my score on the test. I hadn’t even looked at it, for goodness sake, only at the red ink at the top of the first page. In that moment, nothing mattered to me more than the number on the page and a corresponding indelible letter in the registrar’s database—not fairness to my classmates on the bell curve, not my own dignity, not whether I’d bother the professor, and certainly not general chemistry.

The grade was everything. The grade was the all-important, all-consuming, all-powerful proxy for my identity as a student. I wasn’t about to let it slip through my fingers when I had a possible shot at a higher one. “We’re going to go through this darn exam line by line,” I thought, relishing my upcoming appointment with the professor. “This is a worthwhile use of my time and his.”

I’m not proud of this attitude, which seems all the sillier now as I try to convince my two children that learning is valuable for its own sake. Sadly, harping on the grade itself was my default: Any deducted points warranted a demand for their justification. I assumed my entreaties for teachers and professors to reexamine my marks were all part of a standard academic transaction. It was simply a form of quality control, I thought, that I could impose on the grader’s rubric.

It’s completely valid to want one’s work to be assessed justly. As scientists, we demand accuracy, often at the cost of simplicity or social graces. We feel righteous, therefore, in retroactively pursuing credit we assume we deserve for answers we’re certain are correct.

But it’s also true that many of my complaints—and many that I received from my students—had nothing to do with fairness or accuracy.

By the time I graduated from college, I had mastered all of the grade-grubbing techniques: Arguing that a correct answer had been misinterpreted. Blaming ambiguity in the wording of the question. Finding a rare counterexample in a true/false situation. Disparaging the apparent arbitrariness of the partial credit guidelines. Questioning the wisdom of the assignment itself.

When I graded writing, students often challenged their marks, assuming that the subject’s innate subjectivity meant I could be cajoled into changing my mind. They never came equipped with reasons their papers might actually deserve more points, such as explanations related to the cogency of their arguments. Instead, they came with the same general refrain of, “Please give me a higher grade because I want one.”

It’s normal to want a fair grade. It’s also normal to feel aggravated when students bombard you, demanding points for frivolous reasons—or no reason at all.

Both problems would diminish, I think, if we’d stop placing so much importance on grades in the first place. Students aren’t begging for points simply because they like points. They’re begging for points because the education system has told them that these points are the currency with which they can buy a successful future. These points get you into college, grad school, or med school. These points earn you scholarships, fellowships, and internships. These points convince you and/or your parents that you’re not wasting the insane expense of college. Your academic transcript is a holy document that the registrar keeps under lock and key, only accessible by special request for a fee, and your GPA is so crucial to some sort of ranking that it’s calculated to three decimal places.

Yet we have the nerve to simultaneously assure students that education is its own reward. We even lump together the quest for accurate assessment with the foundationless complaints into a practice called “grade grubbing,” as though such requests are not only misguided but downright cowardly.

In a way, then, grade grubbing can even represent a student’s passive-aggressive rebellion against the establishment: Oh yeah? You’re going to base this much of my future on grades? Then I shall dispute every grade I can, for I am the monster you have created.

Most current or former students have stories of an unfair grade. Most teachers or professors have stories of unnecessarily passionate regrade requests. Since we live in a world of grades, at least for now, all I can offer is the suggestion that grubbers and graders need to meet in the middle: Grubbers should be respectful and remember the hard work that goes into every grade, and graders should apply logic and reason when evaluating answers.

And if my TA from my molecular biology class in 2001 is reading this, I still want that point back.

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