Appealing a questionable grade

By Laura Grandt

In a few weeks, grades will be announced, and invariably, some students will not be happy.

There is recourse for some of these students, however – grade appeals.

According to university policy on grade appeals, students can undergo procedures for grade appeals only for “capricious grading,” not for an instructor’s judgment of work quality.

The policy describes “capricious grading” as one or more of these occurrences: “(a) The assignment of a grade to a particular (undergraduate) student on some basis other than performance in the course. (b) The assignment of a grade to a particular (undergraduate) student by more exacting or demanding standards than were applied to other students in that section. (c) The assignment of a grade by a substantial departure from the instructor’s criteria distributed in writing during the first fourth of a course.”

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In other words, “you have to convince the committee, the instructor, the chair, that a grade other than the one you were assigned was more fair,” NIU Ombudsman Tim Griffin said.

There are four possible steps that could be taken in order to appeal a grade. If the conflict is resolved at any step, then the student does not proceed to the next one.

Students always should speak with the instructor of the course as the first step.

“Students don’t realize this, but half the time they thought they got a wrong grade, they did,” Griffin said, attributing the problem to human error like an instructor adding along the wrong line in a grade book.

He also said that there are no statistics on student appeals, but based on his experience with students who seek his advice, a considerable number of these conflicts are resolved in this first step.

If speaking with the instructor does not amend the situation, students should “confer with the chair of the department in which the course was offered,” the policy states.

If the conflict still is unresolved, a student then would submit to the chair of the department a petition to the Grade Review Board. The deadline for this step is “the end of the fourth week of the semester following the semester or summer term in which the grade was assigned,” the policy states.

This means that if a student wishes to appeal a grade earned in the spring or summer, then they would turn in the petition by the fourth Friday of the fall semester.

“We’ll be glad to talk with [students] about [grade appeals] at any point in the review stage,” Griffin said, adding that his office offers a template and tips for appeal petitions.

Each department is required to have a panel of potential appeal board members available. At least one student is required to sit on the board, Griffin said. A committee will be chosen for each case, and it will receive evidence from the student and instructor regarding their respective positions. The student will be provided with the instructor’s response to the board.

Ferald Bryan, an associate communication professor and appeals panel member for the department, said that judging an appeal consists of following the guidelines outlined in the university policy as well as weighing arguments from both sides and asking questions if necessary.

“It’s a very orderly and methodical process,” Bryan said of the appeals process as a whole.

The board will decide whether the grade was fair or unfair. Griffin said usually the decision will be sent within a few days, but this is not always the case.

In the unusual circumstance students still feel the decision of the board was unjust, they may proceed on to the final step, appealing to the dean of the college in which the course was offered. The dean can then demand the case be reheard by the board. All decisions in this step are final.

Griffin said students progressing on to this step usually do so for procedural breaches; for example, the absence of a student on the board.

The regulations guiding a graduate student appeal process contain a few subtle differences, such as appealing to the dean of the graduate school in the fourth step.

“All students are entitled to their due process,” Bryan said.

He recommended that students be aware of the process before considering a grade appeal, pointing out that the procedures for appealing a grade are available on the NIU Web site.

Griffin provided advice along those same lines.

“I would like to encourage students to inquire of their instructors,” he said. “If students receive a grade they feel is incorrect, they should definitely contact the instructor [first].”