University students not shy about
asking profs to reconsider grades
Compiling final grades for students in Sharon Thoma's Zoology
101 course is fairly simple.
Students take three multiple-choice exams, plus a final, during
the semester. The grading scale is spelled out at the start of
the year in the syllabus, which also notes there is no way to
earn extra credit.
"So it's solely objective and it's pretty clear where you fall,"
says Thoma, a University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty associate
who co-teaches the huge lecture with two professors.
And yet, over the past two years Thoma has observed a surprising
uptick in the number of students who e-mail her at the end of
the semester, asking if she'd reconsider the grade she awarded
them "because they worked so hard."
Thoma estimates she received 20 such e-mails this spring out of
some 850 students. "They'll typically say, 'I know you said
there won't be any grade adjustments, but I worked really hard
and I don't feel that the grade reflects the effort I put into
the class,'" says Thoma, who stresses most students work hard in
class and understand the ground rules. "And so I have a new
standard reply: 'I can't quantitate your
UW-Madison engineering physics professor Greg Moses is all too
familiar with this scenario, and is frustrated by how some
students feel they are practically entitled to better grades.
"The point is that we are in the business of
higher education, not mediocre education,"
Moses wrote in an e-mail while traveling in Europe. "This sounds
elitist but the challenge of global competition to the U.S. way
of life does not call for trying hard, it calls for performance.
Students tell me they spend hours on the homework and therefore
deserve better grades, even when my exams are mostly made up of
homework questions, often verbatim, and they cannot do them."
The phenomenon is not a local one. The topic of grade disputes
and the mind-set of today's students became a hot-button issue
on campuses across the country this past winter after the New
York Times published an article headlined "Student expectations
seen as causing grade disputes." The piece used a study by
researchers at the University of California-Irvine that suggests
these grade complaints might stem from students' sense of
The introduction to the 2008 study -- titled "Self-Entitled
College Students: Contributions of Personality, Parenting and
Motivational Factors" -- notes that "anecdotal evidence suggests
a substantial rise over recent decades in the number of students
who beleaguer their professors for higher grades, forecast dire
personal outcomes if they do not get the grades they feel they
deserve, and expect professors and teaching assistants to go to
exceptional lengths to accommodate their needs and preferences."
Part of the study surveyed 466 undergraduates at an unnamed
"large public university" about academic entitlement. It found
that two-thirds of students surveyed felt that if they explain
to a professor that they are trying hard, the professor should
give them "some consideration" with respect to their course
Sure, effort is good. But at this rung of the education ladder
it's somewhat surprising all students don't realize it's the
results that matter. So in an effort to clarify expectations,
educators across the UW campus are taking steps to nip potential
misunderstandings in the bud, starting with freshman
orientation. Additionally, professors are seeking to avoid
potential grade disputes by spelling out in class syllabi and on
their websites what is expected of students and how grades are
determined. Still others are using lecture time early in the
semester to further outline expectations.
Wren Singer, director of UW-Madison's Center for the First-Year
Experience, which helps facilitate students' transition to
college, has been interviewing faculty who teach freshman
classes about these issues. Many, she says, have had students
who have challenged their grades. Singer says it's time to
refocus attention on the real goals of a university education:
"I think it's important to turn the tide
on how students view learning and how they view higher education."
The study by the Cal-Irvine researchers found
that nearly 41 percent of students thought they deserved at
least a grade of B if they completed most of the reading for a
class, and more than a third believed they deserved at least a B
for simply attending most classes.
"What strikes me most profoundly is the notion that students --
and I don't know if it's a generational issue or a matter of how
kids are trained in K through 12 -- have this strong sentiment
that if they work hard enough they should get an A," says Irene
Katele, an adjunct professor at the UW who teaches a large
undergraduate course each semester on legal studies. "There is a
belief that there's a correlation between the effort and the
Allison Wolfe, a UW-Madison senior majoring in psychology, says
she's never personally felt she deserved a higher grade in
class, but knows people who have. "I agree that some students
feel entitled to higher grades. They may
have gotten good grades in high school without a lot of effort,
and think the effort they put into their college classes is a
lot in comparison, when really they haven't established a good
work ethic yet. Some people adjust and work harder, and some
blame their professors."
But others note that learning is a two-way street -- and that
not all professors are good at teaching or conveying their
expectations. Chynna Haas, who will be a senior at UW-Madison
this fall, says she expressed her frustration to her professor
after receiving a D in an upper-level American Indian Studies
"I got in a bit of an e-mail argument with the professor,"
admits Haas, who ultimately accepted her grade. "Throughout the
semester, he changed the assignment and the scope of the
research and didn't effectively communicate his expectations. It
was very, very frustrating."
Haas says students today generally feel it's appropriate to
approach professors to discuss grades. "I also think students
see the need to be proactive in their lives and are more willing
to shoot an e-mail to a professor. We do tend to ask a lot of
questions. But is that a bad thing?"
To be certain, not everyone on campus seems overly concerned
about today's students and their purported sense of entitlement.
In fact, even though Katele has been approached by students
grousing about their grades, she nonetheless cringes when the
topic is broached in the media.
"The hair on the back of my neck stands up when I see that word
'entitlement,'" says Katele. "I think it does a disservice to
our students. First, it puts all of them into a neat category,
and that's dangerous. It makes me very uncomfortable, because I
certainly don't think all students have a sense of entitlement."
Notes Aaron Brower, UW-Madison's 51-year-old vice provost for
teaching and learning: "It is an issue that's talked about on
campus. And one stream of the conversation has a 'What's wrong
with students today?' kind of tone. And that's probably the same
thing that was going on when you were in college or I was in
Monica Theis, a senior lecturer in the Department of Food
Science, adds that if some students do have a sense of
entitlement, it's simply a reflection of
today's society as a whole -- and not some character flaw
unique to today's generation of young adults.
"This idea about entitlement among students has been floating
around for awhile now," says Theis, who has spent nearly 20
years on campus as a student and educator. "But I personally
just don't see it. At least not any more than I see it in any
other segment of society. And personally, I get really offended
when I see that targeted at students. I think we have very
committed and hard-working students here, and from my
perspective a student with a sense of entitlement is the
From study titled
" Self-Entitled College Students: Contributions of
Personality, Parenting and Motivational Factors"
percentage of participants endorsing (slightly agree or
strongly agree) academic entitlement items. Participants
in this study were 466 undergraduates at an unnamed
large public university.
If I have explained to my professor that I am trying
hard, I think he/she should give me some consideration
with respect to my course grade
I feel I have been poorly treated if a professor
cancels an appointment with me on the same day as we
were supposed to meet
If I have completed most of the reading for a class,
I deserve a B in that course
If I have attended most classes for a course, I
deserve at least a grade of B
Teachers often give me lower grades than I deserve on
Professors who won’t let me take an exam at a
different time because of my personal plans (e.g. a
vacation or other trip that is important to me) are too
Teachers often give me lower grades than I deserve on
A professor should be willing to lend me his/her
course notes if I ask for them
I would think poorly of a professor who didn't
respond the same day to an e-mail I sent
If I’m not happy with my grade from last quarter, the
professor should allow me to do an additional assignment
Professors have no right to be annoyed with me if I
tend to come late to class or tend to leave early
A professor should not be annoyed with me if I
receive an important call during class
I would think poorly of a professor who didn’t
respond quickly to a phone message I left him or her
A professor should be willing to meet with me at a
time that works best for me, even if inconvenient for
A professor should let me arrange to turn in an
assignment late if the due date interferes with my
UW educators say there are a few reasons why
some college students might feel frustrated with the grades they
receive and motivated to change the outcome. For starters,
grading scales and expectations can vary greatly from professor
to professor, and among the numerous departments within
During the 2008 fall semester, for example, undergraduates
taking a course in UW-Madison's School of Social Work in the
College of Letters and Science earned an average grade of 3.70
on a 4.0 scale -- with 78.8 percent of those undergrads earning
either an A or AB. During that same period, the average grade
for someone taking a course through the Department of
Mathematics in L&S was 2.79 -- with 34.6 percent earning an A or
Another possibility, notes the study "Self-Entitled College
Students," is that academic self-entitlement is a coping
mechanism for students whose grade-point average dips once they
"Some of the brightest high school students have learned to game
the system -- they've learned the rules of getting good grades
and what's expected of them," says Brower. "And sometimes those
students are actually the ones who have the hardest time when
they come to college, because switching up
from 'just tell me what's expected and I'll do it mode' to
'learning is up to you and you've got to dig and find your own
thoughts,' can be a shock for some."
Other educators believe too many students and their parents view
higher education as a consumer product. And, well, the customer
is always right.
"Some view it as, 'You pay your money, you get the degree and
you land that high-paying job,'" says Singer of the Center for
the First-Year Experience. Adds political science professor
Donald Downs: "Students want to get the credential. That's
understandable. We live in reality. They want to get a job and I
would never knock that. But by the same token,
if it goes too far and all they want is
that stamp of the grade and the degree to move on, that's a
And then there is the potential impact of "helicopter parents,"
who tend to hover a bit too closely to their children and
intervene in tough times. According to the Cal-Irvine study,
students who reported more academically entitled attitudes
perceived their parents as exerting achievement pressure.
"I haven't had this, but I've been told by several colleagues
that they've gotten calls by parents pressuring them on a
grade," says Downs. "I think parents can place a lot of
expectations and demands that weren't there some years ago."
Add it up, and some educators are
concerned that the higher education system in the United States
is failing to produce students who are equipped to thrive in
today's quickly evolving world.
"Too many students don't know why they are in college,"
engineering physics professor Moses wrote in his e-mail. "Too
many don't know how to study. Too many have completely incorrect
expectations. It is a system that is badly broken and not for a
single reason. It is a system problem. The bottom line is that
the U.S. future in the so-called knowledge
economy is doomed with the students we are now producing as
graduates. Companies locate factories in China and call
centers in India not only because the workers work for less.
The workers are also better qualified.
If that is an exaggeration today, it will certainly become
reality in a decade."
Getting incoming students at UW-Madison up to
speed on what is expected of them in college starts at SOAR, the
university's orientation program for new students. "We don't say
'Don't challenge your grades' or anything like that," says
Singer. "But we do talk about the
difference between a high school education and learning in
college, and we're hoping that conversation begins to set
the tone for what we hope is a different kind of a learning
experience. We hope the learning here would include more of an
understanding of material and real
integration of thought, instead of memorizing and regurgitating
Not all students, of course, need a heads-up that college is
different. In fact, a group of incoming freshmen attending a
recent SOAR seminar seemed keenly aware of that fact.
"I'm expecting a lot more reading and not as much busy work,"
says Jenna Parfitt, a recent Madison West High School graduate
and incoming UW-Madison freshman. "I'm expecting more learning
and comprehending information instead of doing the same problems
over and over to memorize an answer."
And, no, Parfitt doesn't expect to get Bs simply for attending
class or doing the required reading. "You can read things and
not really get anything from them or you could go to classes and
not get anything out of it. You should be able to apply your
Even if such sentiments might seem obvious to most, more and
more professors are spelling out course expectations and how
grades are handled in an effort to avoid potential disputes.
"I don't get too many grade complaints, and the reason why is my
syllabus is structured like a very explicit contract," says
adjunct professor Katele. "I tell the students in my syllabus
there are no opportunities to modify a grade based on a
student's degree of effort. And there are no opportunities to
change a grade based on a student's perception of disparity
between what the student really learned and the student's
test-taking skills. And then I spend time early in the year
going over all this."
But, it remains a work in progress. Katele recently was asked to
change a grade so a student would remain eligible to retain a
merit-based scholarship. "So next semester I'm going to add some
language about scholarships, that I won't change a grade based
on a student's eligibility for a scholarship -- because that
undermines the integrity of the scholarship process."
Ideally, UW-Madison leaders are also hoping to convince more
students to embrace a love of lifelong learning instead of
obsessing over every single grade.
"We use the phrase 'lifelong learning'
a lot," says lecturer Theis. "We need to instill that passion --
that's one of the most important things to do. We need to show
our students how to keep learning in a world that keeps changing
drastically and constantly."