Dot Physics

A note about the end of the semester (I really should have posted this a few weeks ago): sometimes I get students that come in and say they are not happy with their grade. It is not unusual for them to come in right before the test, but it seems more common to come after all the grades are finished. Here is a typical student:

“I really need a C (or D) in this class, but I have a 67%. Is there anything I can do to bring my grade up? Maybe I could do an extra project, or file some papers or wash your car?”

That is not one real student, but I have had students ask if they could file my papers or wash my car for the grade they needed. Oh, I know they should have come to me around midterm to discuss their grade, but that is a different issue. The problem here is that they are thinking of the grade as a reward for them doing something. In their grade-model, if they come to class and do the homework and take the tests, they should get the grade.

But really, the grade is my evaluation of their understanding of the material. Will doing an extra research project show that the student understands the material at a higher level? Obviously, washing my car won’t do that.

I have changed grades before

Yes, I have. If you are a student and you want a higher grade, you need to come in and show me that you understand the material at a level that was different than you showed on the exam. Most students don’t come in with this attitude.

So, here is the course of events. Student does poorly on exam. The student then comes to my office. I ask the student to work some physics problem on the board. After the problem is finished (or as far as the student can go), I ask “what grade do you think this problem deserves?” Some students will just say “A” – but I will say “really?”. Usually, we can come to an agreement on the grade they deserve.

Occasionally, I will get a student that doesn’t want to talk about physics. The student will admit that they have no clue how to do any of the physics problems, but still claim he/she deserves to get a higher grade. Really, for these cases, the student is stuck in this model of grade as a reward.


  1. #1 raidergirl3
    May 25, 2010

    I like the idea of having them show that they do understand more than they have shown. I may consider that. I’m a high school physics teacher.
    But honestly, it feels like they think it is a restaurant, and they can order the grade they ‘need’. Universities with their guaranteed entrance scholarships based on a certain average can cause students to put pressure on their HS teachers – “If I have a 90 average I get a $2000 scholarship. And I need a 90 in physics.”

  2. #2 Elf Eye
    May 25, 2010

    Often I have students who come in to argue that they missed the desired grade by ‘only’ one or two points. I always demonstrate to them that, since the grade is an average, they were in fact cumulatively short of dozens of points on assignments spread out over the course of a semester. Therefore, when they are asking me to give them ‘just’ one or two points, they are actually asking me to give them the dozens of points that would be necessary to bring the average up to the grade they ‘need’. When I demonstrate this fact to the student, that is almost invariably the end of any wheedling on the part of the student.

  3. #3 Sili
    May 25, 2010

    I’ve had one grade changed by going through the proper channels and essentially getting a regrading with a new external examiner.

    I only recall inquiring about one other grade, and in that case I didn’t pursue anything, once I knew what it was I had missed.

  4. #4 Dale Basler
    May 25, 2010

    Parents of my high school students do the same thing – I think even more than the students. Countless times I’ve been asked by parents if their child can do some extra credit to get a better grade.

    My usual response is this, “I don’t think ‘extra’ work is what your child needs right now. Your child needs to work on understanding the current material in class before taking on any new challenges.”

    This usually snaps the parent out of the reward model of grading so we can work together to improve their child’s understand of science.

  5. #5 MRW
    May 25, 2010

    “I always demonstrate to them that, since the grade is an average, they were in fact cumulatively short of dozens of points on assignments spread out over the course of a semester.”

    In some classes I took, the grades on different assignments were added together, and the grading scale was based on the sum, rather than the average. Of course, there’s no real difference, but being only a point away is much rarer on a few thousand point scale than on a hundred point one.

  6. #6 Paul
    May 25, 2010

    Back in my teaching days, I decided that I would always allow a student to retake an exam. As noted above, the student earns the grade based on their understanding of the material. Thus, if the student can show an understanding of the material, they deserve a better grade.

    Besides, my job isn’t to hand out punishments for poor performance.

    Curiously, very few students ever took me up on the retest offer.

  7. #7 Andrew Foland
    May 25, 2010

    Understanding is unobservable and subjective. Performance, on the otherhand, is at least observable. And most of the judgment calls inherent in grading papers or exams are codifiable and therefore significantly more fair.

  8. #8 MRW
    May 26, 2010

    “I would always allow a student to retake an exam… the student earns the grade based on their understanding of the material.”

    I wonder, though, whether 2nd try is a fair judge of the student’s understanding of the course material. Hopefully, the second time around would show improved understanding of the material actually on the test, but that’s not what we’re usually really after. Usually, we use the material on the test as a sampling of all the material we want them to know. We assume that a 90% on the questions we asked them correlates to some level of understanding of the material we didn’t ask them about as well. I’d be surprised if their understanding of the rest of the material increased by the same amount as their understanding of the material they were actually being tested on did.

  9. #9 Rhett Allain
    May 26, 2010


    Good point. I guess if you just regave the same test, that wouldn’t be fair. For me, I just like to meet with the student and have a little one-on-one discussion. Usually we can agree on the student’s level of understanding that way.

  10. #10 MRW
    May 26, 2010


    While I’m not sure I’m comfortable with your technique, I meant that as a reply to Paul’s post. My understanding is that he did give the same exam.

    Now that I’ve said I’m not sure I’m comfortable, I should explain. If you tell the whole class about your policy, I think it’s fine. If you only tell it to students who come begging for extra points, I don’t like it.

  11. #11 Rhett Allain
    May 26, 2010


    You are probably right. I will make sure that all students know this is my policy – I don’t think it will make that big of a difference, but we will see.

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