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Why Students Try to “Negotiate” Grades

Are today's students more demanding than before?

I’ve been a college professor for about 35 years, and it seems as if there is an increase in students complaining about grades and trying to argue for a better one. I’m also seeing many of my colleagues on Facebook discussing student complaints and appeals. As I think back over the years, this has always been the case, but it seems to be on the rise. Here are some potential psychological factors that may be to blame.

1. The Belief That “Everything is Negotiable.” I looked up this quote, and it has been used in movies ranging from Prizzi’s Honor to Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. A related saying is “everyone has a price.” In our consumer-driven world, it makes sense to “shop around” to see if you can get a better deal elsewhere. And, this idea may be ingrained in students. [I may be partially to blame because some of what I teach focuses on negotiation tactics]. There is a related notion, and that is:

2. The “It Never Hurts to Ask” (or “Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained”) Effect. I remember the student who barely squeaked by with a passing grade (I gave him a generous C-), who stopped by right at the end of the semester and asked me to raise his grade to a B. When I explained to him that I had already given him a grade that was perhaps better than he deserved, he smiled, and left saying, “Well, I tried.” I then saw that he went down the hallway and knocked on a couple of my colleagues’ doors, no doubt asking them the same thing!

3. Creative Accounting. I’ve noticed over the years that when calculating their grades, students will use creative accounting that always creates a result in their favor. The argument goes like this, “Well, I only missed an A on the midterm by a few points, and the paper was only one point below an A, and I know I got a solid B on the final, but I think that should average to an A, right?”

4. Gaming the System. Our culture has glorified the notion of “beating” or “gaming” the system in order to get the desired outcome. We search for the loopholes, quick fixes, and even the “cheats” that will get us what we want, without having to do all of the work. Take online gaming, for example. You can purchase game “cheats” that will allow you to beat the game without going through all the learning and playing stages. I think this notion has infiltrated higher education in a big way. One outcome is a rise in cheating. Students are becoming more and more sophisticated at using technology, such as their cellphones to help them cheat on exams. Students can also purchase pre-written term papers easily online.

This mentality seems to bleed over in how students think about grades. All too often, I am asked by students if there is some way that they can compensate for their poor test performance by writing an additional term paper, or some other “extra credit” assignment. In other words, if you can’t beat the system in the regular way, perhaps there is a different (and easier) way to get the grade. My concern is that the culture of “gaming the system” is causing all sorts of misbehavior, well beyond my classroom.

So, that is my current list. I’m sure there are other factors at play, so I would appreciate hearing your thoughts.

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