7 Using Grade Appeals as a Learning Tool

Emily T. Ott


Evaluation is a critical component of teaching as it allows both instructors and students to determine progress, proficiencies, and areas that need improvement[1]. Grades are an important form of instructor feedback that can spark discussion between student and instructor. Instructors use grades in different ways and for different purposes (e.g., solely to mark student performance, or to encourage student reflection). Student attitudes on grades range from a consumeristic/transactional view (put in a certain amount of effort to receive a grade) to a self-improvement view (learn from errors). The first part of this chapter will address using grades as a form of feedback on student performance. The second part will focus on providing good feedback while grading, including clear expectations, explanations, offering help, accessibility, and fairness.

Sometimes a student may appeal to their teacher to receive a higher/better grade. A survey sent out in the fall of 2017 at Virginia Tech demonstrates that many students who ask for a higher grade want to improve their knowledge and understanding. Students surveyed also preferred to discuss their performance with an instructor rather than receive a grade change with no discussion. For this reason, instructors may utilize informal grade appeals as a learning opportunity in a curriculum that allows flexibility and growth. Student misunderstandings of expectation may cause some grade appeals, and the frequency of these appeals may be minimized by clearly communicating objectives and offering comprehensive assessment tools such as rubrics.

This chapter will discuss…

  • The historical and legal background for formal grade appeals.
  • Using and encouraging informal grade appeals as learning tool for students to reevaluate their work.
  • Preventing grade appeals caused by confusion and unclear instructions.
  • Providing useful feedback through use of clear expectations, explanations of point deduction/accumulation, offers of help, and consistent feedback among all students.

Grade Appeal Background

Sometimes students perceive an evaluation as unfair, not representative of their effort, assigned with prejudice, or calculated incorrectly, and wish to pursue a change in the grade by appealing it to the instructor. A grade appeal is generally any instance where a student asks a teacher for a higher score on an assignment, exam, or final course grade. These appeals can be informal, where the student discusses the grade with the teaching assistant or instructor, or formal, where the requests are made at an administrative level.

The formal grade appeal process varies by university. At Virginia Tech for example, if an undergraduate student’s discussion with the instructor does not resolve a grade dispute, the student can then appeal to the department or division head (Office of the University Registrar, Virginia Tech, 2020). If the dispute is not resolved at the department/division level it can be appealed to the college dean. Students seeking a formal grade appeal are encouraged to make their request as soon as possible, but no later than the end of the following term after the grade was assigned. University policy at Virginia Tech states that a professor has sole prerogative over grades assigned in his or her course, and that professors must assign grades based on established criteria rather than on students’ personal conduct. There is also an appeal procedure for graduate students to follow. This process is similar, except if the dispute is not resolved at the department level, then the graduate student can appeal to the Dean of the Graduate school with a formal statement explaining his or her reasoning (Graduate School, Virginia Tech, 2020). The dispute is then reviewed by a Graduate Appeals Committee which consists of three faculty members, one graduate student, and an additional faculty member who is knowledgeable in the subject area of the appeal. The Grade Appeals Committee may hold a formal hearing, and ultimately gives a recommendation to the Dean of the Graduate School to act on with consultation from the provost.

In 1984, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) identified teachers’ “academic freedom” as: “the freedom to research and publish the results; freedom in discussing the teachers’ subject matters in the classroom; freedom from institutional censorship when teachers speak as citizens.” In 1998, the AAUP stated that assessing student performance is a faculty responsibility (as opposed to administrative responsibility) and that it is part of a professor’s classroom freedom. However, the AAUP’s statements do not have any legal standing, so there have been court cases regarding whether college or university administrators may change a student’s grade without instructor approval. There have been several court cases that acknowledge a professor’s right to assign grades to students, including Regents of the University of Michigan v. Ewing, 474 U.S. 214 (1985), which ruled that dismissing a student from a medical program for failing an exam did not infringe on a student’s property rights; and Parate v. Isibor, 868 F.2d 821 (6th Cir. 1989) which ruled that university professors have a First Amendment right to assign grades based on their professional judgment. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled in 2001 that a grade change by an administrator does not violate a professor’s First Amendment right to free speech (Brown v. Armenti, 247 F.3d 69, 3rd Cir. 2001)). The 6th Circuit Appeals Court stated a year later that it is a First Amendment violation if the administration pressures or coerces a professor to change a student’s grade (Yohn v. Board of Regents of the University of Michigan et al., 2002).

Formal grade appeals are a preventable drain on resources. Instead of filing appeal paperwork and hearing cases on panels, professors could be spending time on items in their job description (e.g. writing research grants, publishing research papers, developing class lesson plans, grading student assignments, extension work, etc.). Oslo University in Norway spent an estimated $300 per appeals case between 2003 and 2006, which totaled $1.2 million (Gynnild, 2011). Therefore, it is in the best interest of both professors and administrators to avoid formal grade disputes when possible.

There are resources available that help instructors avoid grading disputes. These resources are often tools that help students understand their grades, so they do not feel they received a different mark than they deserved. The AAUP has on its website a list of “practical suggestions” regarding student grades, including developing clear policies on grading standards and appeal procedures; applying appeal policies uniformly across students; making appeal policies available to students, faculty, and administrators; and including faculty in the same department or closely related fields on an appeals committee when a grade is disputed (Euben, 2001). There is a lack of higher education literature on grade appeals, and therefore we do not know how many professors consciously use tools to help prevent students from appealing grades.

Not all professors view grade appeals as negative (i.e., as “disputes”). Some professors welcome students who evaluate their grades and present arguments for a higher score. Corrada (2013) explains why grade appeals should be encouraged in graduate-level (law school) courses and defends against some concerns that faculty may have about supporting student appeals. The author describes the method that he uses in his law school classes, involving a midterm exam that encourages appeals of the exam (instead of only offering a final exam). A midterm exam was added to the courses to promote student review (where a student may learn more about a subject from mistakes made on an exam) and ensure the grade for a student or class wouldn’t rely on a single grade (final exam). The author also notes that anecdotally, his students’ final exam grades were higher after he started administering a midterm exam than they were before. Corrada believes that students sometimes have good arguments to receive credit, and students sometimes deserve a better grade than they initially received. They should also be held accountable for any of his grading mistakes/lack of clarity.

As noted above, Corrada (2013) addresses concerns often voiced over encouraging grade appeals, including (1) making extra work (teaching is less rewarded than publishing); (2) Flexibility of grades/challenged authority as a teacher; (3) a high percentage of grade changes might reflect that the grades are not credible. Corrada explains that grade appeals do not need to take up a significant amount of time. He promotes the efficiency of a grade appeal/formative assessment procedure by only allowing students to submit requests that are maximum of one page long, and are turned in within one week of receiving the midterm exam grades and exam key. Furthermore, Corrada believes that students’ benefit is more valuable than the marginal extra work of an appeals process. Regarding the flexibility of grades, Corrada explains that some grading is objective and that a professor may assign letter grades (A vs. D). Still, finer distinctions (A vs. A-) may sometimes be subjective and imprecise. Corrada does not believe that a high rate of appeals for his midterm exam (historically around 70%) lowers his grades’ credibility or challenges his authority. Many students already believe that grades are subjective and not perfect. Hence, an appeals process allows students to think critically about their answers, what they got wrong, better defend their answers, and question their previous assumptions (Corrada, 2013). For these reasons, grade appeals may translate well to undergraduate college courses and especially advanced courses that build upon the basic knowledge of subjects.

Dealing with formal grade appeals takes time and effort away from other tasks on both the professor/departmental and administrative scales. It is in instructors’ best interests to reduce the number of formal grade appeals. Instructors can use informal grade appeals (the type discussed in this chapter) to deliver student feedback and allow for growth. Using grading as an intentional form of instructor feedback while maintaining transparency expectations and consistency among students may help in student learning (Corrada, 2013).

Fall 2017 Survey

The purpose of this study, carried out in the fall of 2017, was to understand student attitudes on grade appeals and identify ways to minimize the occurrence of grade appeals (where desired by the instructor). The anonymous student survey was composed of 20 questions, including both multiple choice and short answer. The author (Emily Ott) sent the survey to the undergraduate listserv for the Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences Department (CSES), which has since been renamed the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences. There were 26 respondents out of approximately 60 undergraduate students in the CSES department at the time. There was a potential for a response bias for “overachievers” taking the survey; however the responses were ambivalent that this was the case. Also, since the survey was anonymous and was sent out by a graduate student with both name recognition and good rapport with students as the instructor of a required course (Soils Lab), it is reasonable to assume that some students filled out the survey to be helpful. Overall, the survey responses—from undergraduates who were majoring or minoring in the department—depict student perceptions of grade appeals in a Crop and Soil Sciences department. Results are both displayed in tables and discussed below.

Table 7.1 Student self-reported frequency (N) of appeals by assignment type.
Response Assignment/In-class work Quiz/Exam Essay Course Grade
Never 13 15 17 20
Rarely (~once per semester) 10 9 8 5
Somewhat often (>once per semester) 2 2 1 1
Very often (≥once per semester) 1 0 0 0

Half of the students surveyed have never requested a higher grade on an assignment, quiz, essay, or the overall course grade. The requests that were made were made more often on homework and in-class work. A higher frequency of requests on homework and in-class work makes intuitive sense since courses often have more graded work in the form of assignments than as exams or essays (i.e., there may be only a few exams and one course grade, versus weekly assignments). On the other hand, one might expect that students would be more likely to appeal more significant grades such as exams and the overall course grade because these grades hold more weight, with the assumption being that students are more concerned about their grades and not their understanding of the material. The results shown in Table 7.2 indicate that this assumption may not be accurate: Of the respondents, most (20/26) felt that their grades are rarely unfair, and 0 students felt that their grades were very often unfair.

Table 7.2 Student responses to the question “How often do you feel/believe that your grade on an assignment, quiz, exam, or essay is unfair?”
Response Frequency
Never 1
Rarely (~once per semester) 20
Somewhat often (>once per semester) 5
Very often (≥once per semester) 0

Tables 7.3-7.5 below display the responses for three questions related to instructor feedback. The majority of students felt that their instructors only provided them with detailed feedback somewhat often (17/26), and responded that detailed feedback causes them to appeal grades less often (15/26). The timing of feedback (whether students receive grades or feedback quickly after turning in an assignment) did not influence respondents’ decision to appeal a grade (15/26). These results suggest that if an instructor takes the time to provide detailed feedback, students may be more accepting of their grades.

Table 7.3 Student responses to the question “How often do your instructors provide you with detailed feedback on assignments?”
Response Frequency
Never 0
Rarely (~once per semester) 7
Somewhat often (detailed feedback for some classes/assignments) 17
Very often (every class or nearly every assignment) 2
Table 7.4 Student responses to the question “Does the feedback you receive influence your decision to ask for a higher grade?”
Response Frequency
Yes – I (want to) ask for a change in grade less when receiving detailed feedback 15
Yes – I (want to) ask for a change in grade more when receiving detailed feedback 1
No – The feedback I receive does not influence whether I want to appeal a grade 6
Not sure 4
Table 7.5 Student responses to the question “Does the timing of grading/feedback have an influence on your decision to ask for a higher grade?”
Response Frequency
Yes – I (want to) ask for a change in grade less when grades are posted quickly 5
Yes – I (want to) ask for a change in grade more when grades are posted quickly 3
No – Timing does not influence my decision to ask for a higher grade 15
Not sure 3

Table 7.6 shows the results of questions about the instructor’s response to grade appeals. When a student asks for a higher grade or clarification on an assignment or exam, the instructor may respond with either an automatic decision or a discussion. For most students surveyed, their experience with appealing a grade “usually” resulted in a discussion rather than an automatic decision (15/26). The response to this question shows that professors already have discussions with students about their grades, as opposed to automatically deciding whether to change a grade, which is the first step towards incorporating grade appeals as a learning tool.

Table 7.6 Student responses to the question “When you ask your professor for a higher grade on an assignment or exam, how often does it result in an automatic decision (change or no change) vs. a conversation?”
Response Frequency
Very often/always an automatic decision 1
Usually an automatic decision 0
Results are 50% automatic decision, 50% discussion 6
Usually a discussion 15
Very often/always a discussion 1
(no response) 3

When asked about which outcome they preferred (discussion or automatic decision), most students said they liked to discuss the grade with the instructor to better understand why they were wrong. Only one student responded saying that they preferred a discussion because the instructor would not view it as a ‘handout’ or free grade change (i.e., receiving a better grade automatically without the student having to redo their work). Some example responses to the question “Do you prefer one of the results from the previous question—the instructor making a decision directly following your appeal, or a discussion about the assignment/exam and grade? Why?” are:

  • I prefer a discussion to occur. When I ask for a higher grade, it is because I believe I followed a rubric or answered a question correctly despite losing points Sometimes, it is a simple error (such as counting up points incorrectly). Other times, I learn that I did not understand the question properly and then I accept that I do not deserve those points OR I explain my thought process and the teacher realizes the question was a poor question. On the rare occasion, a teacher does not care and refuses to even discuss the test/paper.
  • I don’t have a preference. It depends on the circumstance. If it’s an obvious, difficult to refute mistake, I don’t want to discuss it (I just want the points). If it’s subjective, I prefer to discuss it.
  • I would prefer to have a conversation than an automatic decision. I’m at the point in my academic career where I want to understand exactly why something I did was incorrect and how to not make that mistake again rather than be awarded points just for asking for them.
  • Discussion because it’s normally not just me with the issue.
  • Discussion. Even a quick talk can help clear up a lot. If no feedback is provided, I often don’t understand what I did wrong. If feedback is provided, it still may be unclear to me. A quick follow-up with the TA/professor usually clears this up immediately or with a little more work on my part (i.e., hear their opinions and then look at my notes).
  • I like to discuss so that I don’t seem as if I’m looking for a handout.
  • I prefer a discussion over any sort of direct results because if a grade gets changed that quickly, it just reiterates grade inflation and encourages students to learn simply for the grade rather than the knowledge.
  • I would prefer a discussion because then I know how the teacher feels and what I can work on specifically.
  • Discussion. Better clarify what I and my professor can do better in the future.
  • A discussion makes it easier to understand the perspective of the professor on how/why they graded the way they did and it gives you the chance to better support your case as to why asking for appeal. Especially if a rubric is vague or if neither a rubric or comments are provided.

Tables 7.7-7.9 present the results of three questions related to rubrics and other assessment tools. Half of the students responded that they are less likely to appeal a grade when they receive tools such as rubrics. However, rubrics and other assessment tools were only provided “very often” for 23% of students (6/26), and these tools were “always” or “very often” helpful for only 8% (2/26). Overall, students felt that detailed rubrics and assessment tools resulted in them requesting a grade change less often. Based on these results, there seems to be room for improvement in the frequency with which rubrics are used in these students’ classes, and the helpfulness of the rubrics, in order to decrease the amount of grade appeals due to confusion.

Table 7.7 Student responses to the question “How often does your professor provide you with an assignment tool (e.g., rubric) to help clarify/justify points on an assignment/essay?”
Response Frequency
Very often- rubrics (or other tools) for every class 6
Somewhat often- rubrics (or other tools) for some classes 17
Rarely 3
Never 0
Table 7.8 Student responses to the question “Are the rubrics (or other assessment tools) you have been given helpful? (In other words, do they contain sufficient information about expectations, or just vague qualifications like ‘poor, good, great, and excellent’?)”
Response Frequency
Always/very often helpful – clear and detailed rubrics 2
Helpful somewhat often – rubrics with some detail 18
Rarely – vague rubrics 6
Never – Rubrics are not at all helpful 0
(Never given a rubric) 0
Table 7.9 Student responses to the question “Do the tools your professors provide from the previous question influence your decision to ask for a higher grade?”
Response Frequency
Yes – I (want to) ask for a change in grade less when receiving tools such as rubrics 13
Yes – I (want to) ask for a change in grade more when receiving tools such as rubrics 2
No – Assessment tools do not influence whether I want to appeal a grade 8
Not sure 3

The survey also asked students to give descriptions of their own grade appeal experiences. Several students responded that they felt that the instructor did not clearly write the assignment or that there was a mistake with the grade. However, many students responded that they requested a grade change because they wanted to understand the correct answer and that the instructor was very often receptive to the discussion. Selected responses to the question “If you’ve asked an instructor to change a grade(s) while at Virginia Tech, please explain your perspective of the process. (Thoughts upon receiving the initial grade, how the instructor responded when asked, thoughts about instructor response)” are:

  • Most professors are open to the process. However, the professors response varies. Some professors are open to acknowledging a mistake and change the grade (or explaining the correct answer if I legitimately got it wrong). Some teachers are open to discussing the situation, but refuse to change the grade no matter what. Rarely, professors refuse to look at it at all (this only happened once to me).
  • I only ask a professor to change a grade when I honestly believe what I’ve done is correct and that it will clearly affect my overall grade. Usually, I’m confused at first with why I was wrong. Sometimes written feedback clears this up, othertimes it does not. If I can’t understand why I was wrong, I feel fine approaching the professor, explaining what I did, and then listening to the correction. I will often push until I can fully understand their reasoning, though I won’t really argue for points. I care significantly more about understanding the problem than I do about the grade.
  • I’ve never asked a professor for a higher grade.
  • I felt that a couple questions on an assignment weren’t worded fairly and thought he should not count those ones.
  • There is a mistake when grading The adding number of each section is not correct. I asked the professor after class with my exam paper, and he checked it’s just a calculation mistake while grading.
  • They have always been respectful to my views.
  • no for grade but for an exam one of my teacher encourage us to go to him and explain our rational for answering problems to get more points back which I really liked.
  • I want to understand why my viewpoint or understanding isn’t the correct response.
  • I got a 89.67 I believe as a final grade and asked if he could round up so I’d get the A. He rounded up to a 89.7.

These responses show that students are receptive to using evaluations (i.e., grades) and feedback to enhance their understanding of their mistakes.

Implications of the Survey for Teaching

When appealing a grade, the results of the 2017 survey show that students prefer discussions over automatic grade changes. Because the students also expressed interest in learning from their errors, grade appeals can increase student learning. Professors may use appeals to increase student learning as it gives a chance for students to reevaluate their work and their thought processes. Grade appeals sometimes involve grading an assignment twice and almost always include a discussion with the student, so instructors should factor this into their schedule to anticipate appeals and “extra” grading. Providing accessible office hours to students, especially after returning graded work, is especially important in giving students the chance to appeal or discuss a grade.

Using a Grade Appeal Procedure

When using grade appeals as a learning tool, the instructor should have clear guidelines or procedures detailing the process. Policies may outline how students should make the request (e.g., in-person during office hours, through email), page length of appeal reasoning if applicable, and a deadline. Allowing students to write down their rationale for their original answer or work is a good practice in cases where they may need to defend their reasoning but is not always applicable. Grading is often subjective, and students may have good arguments or insights that the instructor did not consider. Implementing a clear process for requesting a grade change encourages the student to think critically about their work. If an instructor does not set a deadline, some students may attempt to appeal grades at the end of the semester to achieve a higher overall grade. The instructor should also apply the grade appeal guidelines equally and fairly among all students. Below is a list of items that a grade appeals policy may include.

Syllabus Development

  • Procedure for a student to appeal grade (in-person discussion during office hours, written explanation/defense of answers by a student, etc.).
  • Date(s) on syllabus for class discussion about graded assignment(s) where students may ask (individually or as a class) for help understanding their errors. Dedicating class time to an informal appeal, rather than requiring the process to take place entirely outside of class, keeps it equitable for all students.
  • Format of the appeal. For example, will you require a new submission to completely replace the previously graded submission, or merely a written explanation/justification of answers marked incorrect?
  • Method of re-grading. There are several options. For example, the number of points that a student may receive with a submission (e.g., half of all of the points deducted initially), and how the process may impact the overall course grade; the grade of the second submission of work (e.g., second essay draft) may replace the grade of the first submission; and an incorrect exam short-answer question may receive half of the missed points back, etc.
  • Deadline for student appeal submissions (time after student receives feedback/grade)

Minimizing Appeals

Reviewing grade appeals and having discussions with students may take extra time, but it is likely well worth the benefit to student learning. If a professor wishes to minimize grade appeals, likely because too many requests arise from confusion, then practices such as using rubrics and clear feedback may help. It is important for professors to be clear about both their grading process and their expectations for student work before assigning grades. Providing detailed rubrics, answer keys, and examples of excellent work (such as a past student’s essay or report) can help communicate expectations. Multiple examples of past student work can give students a better understanding of the professor’s expectations.

Students may sometimes appeal a grade because they feel that the grade does not reflect the effort they put into the work; some students might assume that putting a significant amount of time or effort into an assignment or project will result in a high grade. Instructors can eliminate this misunderstanding by making clear whether they are grading for effort or for understanding. (e.g., if the instructor expects a polished report that is detailed and formatted well, or if they are primarily looking for student understanding of concepts). Give students formatting guidelines or report templates to save them effort on the time-consuming aspects of an assignment if they are being graded on content only rather than on content and presentation quality.

Grade appeals can be an interesting form of feedback from students on instructor performance. If an instructor receives more requests than expected, then the instructor’s expectations of students may not be apparent. These appeals reflect a lack of assignment clarity rather than a student interested in learning more. If an instructor receives fewer requests than expected, there may be an issue such as students not feeling comfortable approaching the instructor for help; office hours may conflict with a common course time; the appeal policy’s procedure or purpose may not be clear. Setting aside class time to allow students to discuss graded work would help students who may not have time outside of class to attend office hours. An alternative reason for fewer appeals/resubmissions than expected is that the work was not challenging enough for students, so students are not motivated to improve their understanding of the material. During the semester, the instructor may seek anonymous feedback from students related to the course structure and appeal procedure. The instructor may ask students whether the written feedback on graded work is helpful and what could make it more useful. Students may be confused by their instructor’s feedback, may not be able to read the instructor’s handwriting, or may not know the instructor’s feedback exists if it is deep within an online learning management system. An instructor may also seek peer feedback on rubric clarity and usefulness.

A professor can convey expectations of student work before students complete an assignment, such as by providing a list of objectives at the beginning of the assignment. A rubric is one way to convey expectations for individual assignments, and is sometimes given with the assignment instructions or when returning graded student work. A rubric may contain detailed explanations of the instructor’s expectations, including examples of correct and incorrect answers if the instructor alternatively provides a rubric when returning graded assignments. Vague or generalized rubrics that do not provide detail and only list options on a scale (e.g., “poor” to “excellent”) without explanation are not useful. Detailed rubrics such as answer keys may be a good option for large courses where it would be time consuming to handwrite individual feedback for each student submission.

Instructor Feedback

At the very minimum, a grade marks student performance at a specific time on a problem or concept. An informal appeal process can instead show an improvement in student performance over time. During an appeal process, or during general grading, instructors can incorporate useful feedback into evaluations to improve student learning. Grading that contains feedback rather than just point deductions is more useful in helping students to understand their errors. Writing feedback can also reinforce and remind instructors of topics or concepts that need to be clarified for the entire class that they can later address in class. Useful feedback contains clear expectations, explanation of point deduction, explanation of point accumulation, offers of help, and consistent feedback among all students.

When writing feedback on student assignments while grading, instructors need to explain their rationale for deducting points or giving points (depending on the grading style). When removing points, instructors should explain why the student’s answer is wrong, inaccurate, or lacking information. It is necessary to give feedback on how a student did not meet expectations. This kind of feedback can have a negative tone or be perceived as negative by the student, whether intentionally or not, especially if there is little acknowledgment of good/correct answers. To balance this, acknowledge areas where the student performed well, such as well-reasoned answers or correct answers to difficult questions. Include some positive feedback on performance to encourage growth.

If a student appears to be struggling based on his or her performance, offer help and follow-through. If a student completely misses the point on an aspect of an assignment and seems to lack comprehension, the instructor should suggest the student attend office hours or send an email with further questions. The student may have misunderstood the assignment directions or may need help understanding what went wrong.

Feedback should be easily accessible to students. If an instructor writes feedback by hand, he or she should make sure the handwriting is legible! If an instructor’s writing is difficult for students to read, consider typing feedback instead. Typing feedback to give to students is also good personal record-keeping; it allows the instructor to easily access and refer to previous feedback when discussing performance with a particular student. If a teacher or grader types feedback and puts it on an online learning management system (e.g., Canvas or Blackboard), the evaluation and comments should be easily accessible to students. Students may be tech-savvy, but instructors should still let students know how to find feedback and graded assignments within the learning management system; consider providing this information on the syllabus.

Good feedback also requires equity. Lack of equity, or grading with prejudice, is a valid reason for a formal grade appeal. In order to grade equally, the instructor should not assume that one student values feedback more than others and write more comments on the former student’s work. The instructor also should not assume that a student does not care and write fewer or less-detailed comments. Instructors should try to give every graded assignment the same amount of time/consideration. If a teacher is worried about favoring students or discriminating against individual students, they can consider having the students turn in work anonymously or semi-anonymously. (An example of students turning in work semi-anonymously would be writing their name on the last page of an exam or essay rather than the first page.) This way, the grader can evaluate the assignment without first looking at names, which would lower the chance of accidental bias or prejudice while grading. Learning management systems may also offer a way for instructors to grade electronically submitted assignments without viewing student names.


Instructors may use informal grade appeals as one of many tools to help students learn in college classrooms. Especially in courses with often subjective content and assignments that include open-ended questions, essays, and exam responses, allowing and even encouraging students to appeal their grades can lead to a better understanding of the material. A survey conducted in the fall of 2017 illustrated that students overwhelmingly preferred their professor to have a discussion with them about a grade appeal rather than automatically adjusting (or deciding not to adjust) the grade. These students are eager to learn from their mistakes and develop a better understanding of the course material. On the other hand, to avoid grade appeals that arise from misunderstandings, instructors should use rubrics, answer keys, and detailed feedback to help students understand expectations and objectives to minimize the occurrence of this type of appeal. Grade appeals can be a positive element of a course and help students understand their mistakes, however it may require more planning and time by the instructor.

Reflection Questions

  • What is a formal grade appeal, and why should instructors aim to prevent their students from submitting one?
  • How can an informal grade appeal procedure be used to encourage student growth?
  • Were any of the results from the Fall 2017 survey surprising? Why or why not?
  • What are some strategies you are going to use in your classroom to minimize unwanted grade appeals?


Brown v. Armenti, (2001), 247 F.3d 69 (3d Cir. 2001).

Corrada, R. L. (2013). Formative assessment in doctrinal classes: rethinking grade appeals. Journal of Legal Education. 63(2):317-329. Found at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/42894344.

Euben, D. R. (2001). Who grades students? Some legal cases, some best practices. American Association of University Professors. (Accessed January 2018)

Graduate School, Virginia Tech. (2020). Graduate Catalog 2020-2021. Available at: https://secure.graduateschool.vt.edu/graduate_catalog/policies.htm?policy=002d14432c654287012c6542e3720049.

Gynnild, V. (2011). Student appeals of grades: A comparative study of university policies and practices. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice. 18(1):41-57. Doi:10.01080/0969594X.2011.535301.

Office of the University Registrar, Virginia Tech. (2020). 2020-2021 Undergraduate Course Catalog and Academic Policies. Available at: https://www.undergradcatalog.registrar.vt.edu/2021/grades.html.

Parate v. Isibor, 868 F.2d 821 (6th Cir. 1989).

Regents of the University of Michigan v. Ewing, 474 U.S. 214. (1985).

Yohn v. University of Michigan, et al. (2002). 39 Fed. Appx. 225 (6th Cir. 2002).

  1. How to cite this book chapter: Ott, E.T. 2022. Using Grade Appeals as a Learning Tool. In: Westfall-Rudd, D., Vengrin, C., and Elliott-Engel, J. (eds.) Teaching in the University: Learning from Graduate Students and Early-Career Faculty. Blacksburg: Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. https://doi.org/10.21061/universityteaching License: CC BY-NC 4.0.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Teaching in the University Copyright © 2022 by Emily T. Ott is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book