At some point, universities and colleges convert your numerical grades (e.g., 75%) to letter grades (e.g., B+). This practice goes back almost a hundred years and was founded on the idea that there are just a few meaningful categories when it comes to academic grades. An ‘A’ student is qualitatively different from a ‘B’ student, but the difference between an 83% and an 85% isn’t that meaningful. or so the logic goes. In some sense, this distinction is true, A-students are generally better than B-students. This practice of converting to letter grades can benefit you greatly, but it can also cost you greatly as well. For example, if you make it over the threshold and manage to get an 81% in your course, then you get an A (it might be different at your university). You get an A and are included with every other student who has anything from an 81% to an 89%. That’s a real benefit. The student who got an 89% did much better than you did, but you are both treated the same.
But this can also cost you. If you come up short and get a 79%, then despite being really, really close to the threshold for an A, you don’t get the A. You are only 1% short, but you still don’t get the A. Sometimes, the professor will upgrade you because, after all, you are really close, but sometimes they won’t.
Every grade matters
This example tries to illustrate how important a single grade is and why it is important to go after every single mark all the time. As the example illustrates, going after a single mark can make a huge difference. We did an analysis of grades from a required 3rd-year course in psychology and discovered that 10% of students in the class were within 1 or 2 points of getting a higher grade but didn’t. Ten percent is a lot of students.
What’s the big deal?
You might say that one course is no big deal. That may be true. But not necessarily. If you are trying to get into a special program, get a bursary, or get into graduate school, then every grade might matter. But you won’t know until you don’t actually get in, and at that point, it is too late.
Five ways to get more marks
Here is a short checklist of what you can do to get those last few marks.
#1. Have you finished all of your assignments, even the small ones. As hard as this may be to believe, students leave homework assignments unfinished all of the time. For example, a course may have a homework component, in which you have a number of small assignments that need to get done, each worth 1 or 2 percent. Leaving one undone, may not seem like a big deal. But it can add up. Make sure that you get every assignment done. If you have missed one, go back and do it. If it was due weeks ago and the deadline has passed, ask the professor if you could still do it for part marks.
Tip: Asking a professor is always hard, and the prof might say ‘no,’ but you don’t know that yet. If you decide not to ask the professor, then you are the one leaving marks on the table, not the prof. If the prof says no, then at least you did everything you could. Keep in mind most (but not all) profs want to help out and may cut you a deal. In fact, a recent poll of students indicated that they are successful in convincing the professor that their answers are worth more points than they were given.
#2. Review your tests, exams and papers. If you did badly on a test, exam or paper, ask the teaching assistant or prof to review the test to see where you lost marks. If you think that your answer was worth more, then ask for more, but you will need to go about making your ‘ask’ for more marks very carefully.
Tip: You could say something like this. “In seeing now what I wrote, I understand what I could have done differently, but I am also thinking that there are a few more points in my answer than what I was given, could write an argument as to why I think I should get more and ask you to review my answer.”
Sound corny? It is corny. But it is also extremely polite, respectful and based on reasoning. You didn’t complain, you did moan, and you didn’t just ask for more marks without a reason.
Keep in mind: Grading papers, tests and exams are usually marked by the professor and one or more teaching assistants. It is easy for a person, even the professor, to not fully understand what you did, miss one element of your answer, and not give you all of the points you may deserve. It is also easy to make a mistake adding up your marks from a number of questions or mess up the scoring key on tests that are administered online or scored an optical scanner. There are so many ways that mistakes can creep in — which is why you need to ask when you have concerns about your grade.
#3. Doing the optional assignment.
Many courses at colleges and universities will have optional courses. These are either for bonus marks, or they are optional in the sense that you, the professor, will only count four out of five assignments. A surprising number of students don’t do the assignments for bonus marks and end up leaving a number of marks on the table. Similarly, a good number of students, when they discover that only four out of five assignments will be counted, only do four. This is a risky strategy since it assumes that you will do well on the four assignments you do decide to complete. The whole point of having that fifth one is to allow yourself the chance to do badly on one assignment without it affecting your grade. Doing all of the assignments also allows you to rehearse and consolidate all of the content in the course that will be on the final exam.
#4. Ask for additional work or consideration.
Asking for additional work (e.g., an additional assignment) is always a long shot. But in terms of what it costs you to make the ask, the amount of effort is really minimal — you just have to ask. The science of asking for help suggests that we routinely underestimate the chance that someone will grant you a request. That’s why we rarely ask. But it might just be worth the small additional effort to see if there is anything you might be able to do to boost your grade.
Tip: This may leave you feeling like you are begging for marks. It is not. You are just asking if there is anything you could do to improve your grade. It is a request, and as a request, it is fair to ask.
#5. Consider an appeal of your grade.
Most universities and colleges have a procedure to appeal your grade on any given text, exam, project or assignment. This is a slow process and takes a lot of effort but can result in a better grade. You will need to inform yourself how this works at your college or university, as the procedures can differ from one institution to the next.
Mare than just about grades.
Finishing off all of the assignments, making appointments to meet with the teacher and professor, asking for more marks may seem like a waste of time and will take (precious) time out of your day. In some instances, it is not going to work. The prof just won’t budge. These are the biggest reason for why student don’t do it and won’t even try.
As important as those grades are, this is about much, much more. Advocating for yourself, standing up for yourself, and asking for more (even when it may not feel like you deserve it and others don’t think you do either), is a lifelong skill that will serve you well. Honing your skills on the teaching assistant and professor is a great opportunity to get better at asking for more.
Others will tell you it is foolish, impolite, even brazen. You will come up with a half dozen reasons not to. But, if you do it right, the professor will respect it (even if you don’t get more marks). One of the reasons that this works as often as it does is that professors in college respect a polite, well-reasoned ask. And for that reason, you stand a good chance of getting just a little bit more.
Go give it a try.
How to ask the professor for more marks
The email that you send:
[say]: Dear [prof]. I was wondering if you have some time for me to look over my [exam] results. I am really enjoying this class and am determined to do well. I didn’t do as well as I would like to do, and would like to figure out how I can do better.
The rationale here is to remind the prof that you are serious about the course and that you are a polite ad serious student who likes to learn and wants to do well.
The in-person ask (to get some clarification):
[say]: On this [question/section] here, I am not clear on where I went wrong or what I could have done differently.
[after the prof explains, say]: Thank you, I understand.
The rationale is, once again, to remind the prof that you are polite and respectful.
The in-person request (to ask for more marks):
[say]: I was wondering if you would be open to reconsidering my grade on this question. I would like to argue that my answer does address the question. I was thinking that … (say what you think).
In this part of your request, you are telling the prof that a mistake was made, so you need to be polite and respectful. By providing an argument, you are telling the prof that you are not just asking for more marks (although you are) but that you are prepared to work (i.e., argue) for it. If you need time to develop an argument, ask if you can put your thoughts into an email.
Keep in mind: Very few students take this approach, which is one of the reasons that it is so effective.
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