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How to Question Your Professor about a Disappointing Grade

How to Question Your Professor about a Disappointing Grade

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By T. Leigh Buehler-Rappold
Assistant Professor, Retail Management, American Public University

In online learning, direct communication between instructors and students can sometimes become muddled. Instructors want their students to be successful just as much as students want to succeed. So how do you go about handling an issue you have with the feedback and grade you received on an assignment?

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You researched, wrote, edited and rewrote. You spent days working on the assignment for class and you feel good about it. So you submit it, confident that you will earn an A. Several days later, you see that you only got an 89 for a grade of B.

How is that possible? You worked so hard! You put in a lot of effort and energy! Clearly, something is wrong.

You open the feedback and review the rubric, and your mind starts swirling with questions. Only 3.5/5? How is that possible? Did the professor even read my paper? I need to give him/her a piece of my mind!

STOP! It is okay to have questions about your grade. But before you start in on a tirade with your email, these steps will help you to understand your grade before you message your professor, professionally, to clear up your confusion.

1) Take a deep breath and walk away from your desk. Never write an email when you are angry or clouded by emotions. You do not want to say something you could regret later. Remember, it will be in writing and nothing is ever permanently erased on the internet.

2. Read the professor’s feedback (again) carefully. What areas did the professor point out that you needed to improve? What areas did you do well? If the professor wrote, “you needed more research to support your discussion,” go back and re-read your paper to find areas that might be lacking in research.

Also, highlight what the professor points out as areas in need of improvement. This will help you understand what your professor likes to see in papers – good grammar, solid transition statements, strong research and properly cited works among others. Use that feedback to help you improve when you write your next assigned paper.

3. Review the assignment rubric, if there is one. Often, the rubrics are a lot clearer in graded expectations than students realize. It is always advisable to read through the rubric before submitting your assignment to make sure you are maximizing your points.

There could be a graded section that clearly states how many outside academic sources your professor requires. If your paper only has three citations and the maximum points call for more than five, you will understand why your research grade is a bit lower than you expected.

Understand that rubrics are weighted grades, meaning certain areas of your paper have more value than others. Content might make up 40% of your grade, where a properly formatted introduction and conclusion equal 10%. Know where the bulk of your grade is coming from, but also make sure you fulfill the smaller weighted items as best as possible. Five to 10 points add up quickly.

4. List the questions you have for your professor. If the professor was not clear with his feedback of “expand each section,” there is nothing wrong with asking, “Which sections would be best to expand? Can you provide an example?” There is also nothing wrong with wanting to know how to improve on your assignments; in fact, many professors like knowing that students take their grades seriously.

Your instructors read a lot of papers, and sometimes they might not elaborate on their feedback as much as they think they did. As instructors, it is their job to help you understand how to do better, so asking questions is perfectly permissible.

5. Compose your email as professionally as possible. Again, do not write an email in anger! The worst thing you can do is to shoot an email full of insults to your instructor immediately after reviewing your grade. It’s best to write out your list of questions beforehand:

    1. What areas should I expand upon?
    2. Can you show me a properly formatted in-text citation for the source on page 7? I am not sure how to create that one and I could not find an example online when I researched it.
    3. I am not sure why my grade was so low in the content area; I wrote three pages of the three-page minimum. Could you explain that further for me?

Once your head is clear and your mood is no longer reactive, you will be able to clearly formulate why you are confused and how you could have done better.

If you feel like you are getting stressed out again while writing, step away. Anger is evident in emails and you want to remain professional. You would never insult your boss, so why insult your instructor? Sarcasm is easily lost in written communication, so keep it clear and precise.

For some help composing your email, see Fast Company’s “How to Write a Work Email When Really Pissed Off.” It is insightful and funny.

About the Author

Leigh Buehler-Rappold is a faculty member who teaches retail management courses at American Public University. She is also a course consultant, social media specialist and curriculum design team leader. Her academic credentials include a B.A. in history and sociology from Texas A&M University, an MBA in business administration from the University of Phoenix and a master’s degree in American history from American Public University. Leigh is currently working toward a doctoral degree in education from Northeastern University.

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