How to Talk to Your Professor about a Bad Grade

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Listen. It happens. Sometimes even when you try your best on an assignment, you still don’t manage to get the grade you were hoping for. You might be disappointed and angry, feeling as though you deserved a better grade, but going to your professor accusing him or her of giving you the wrong grade isn’t the best approach. Instead, we want to offer you a step-by-step guide to discussing your grades (especially when you get the grade you want) with your professor (or teaching assistant in some cases) in a productive way that helps you earn better grades in the future.

Step 1: Review your professor’s grading rubric

Before you even meet with your professor, you should re-examine your test, essay, or assignment, and any instructions, criteria, or rubric associated with it. Professors use rubrics (or other assignment criteria) to “define academic expectations,” “ensure consistency in the evaluation of academic work,” and “as scoring instruments to determine grades or the degree to which learning standards have been demonstrated or attained by students.” Sometimes your professor will set these standards in their syllabus in regards to all assignments, while other times your professor will provide individual criteria for what they’re looking for in each individual assignment. If you’re reviewing a test with multiple choice or similar questions, you may not have a rubric, but it’s possible the teacher may have provided insight into how he or she would be grading an open-ended question.

It’s always important to review your professor’s criteria before each assignment so you have a clear understanding of what he or she expects from you to earn an A (or the best overall grade). If your professor doesn’t provide this, it’s good to ask him or her before you begin your assignment. In this case, as you’re reviewing your work after receiving the grade, review any information your professor has given you regarding what constitutes “A”-quality work and compare that to the work your produced. Does your assignment meet the criteria your professor outlined to achieve the grade you wanted? Did you follow all instructions related to the assignment? If the answer to either of these questions is “No,” then you can begin to understand why your professor gave you that grade. If you’re still confused about your grade, then it warrants a conversation with your professor.

Step 2: Review your work and circle areas where you have questions

After reviewing your work in relation to the grading criteria, you should circle, underline, and/or highlight areas where you have questions. If your professor provided any feedback on your assignment that you disagree with or are confused about, you should mark those as well, and consider why you disagree. This is not to say that you should be preparing to argue against your professor’s feedback or comments. You should be coming from a place of understanding.

For example, if your professor said your thesis statement didn’t establish a strong argument and you think it did, consider why you think your thesis establishes a strong argument, but also consider what your definition of a good thesis statement is. You might want to make a note to ask your professor to help you understand what constitutes a strong thesis statement, and where you could have improved yours. It’s important to reflect both on your professor’s feedback and comments as well as why you are confused by it and/or disagree.

When you are ready to talk to your professor, this will help you focus the conversation and also give your professor some insight into your concerns. Remember: you do not want to be defensive. You are not going in to argue against your grade. You are going in to have a dialogue regarding your professor’s standards, how your assignment compares, and what’s needed to be done to earn the best possible grade on this assignment and in future ones.

Step 3: Schedule time to talk with your professor

You might feel compelled to confront your professor immediately after receiving your assignment back and viewing the grade, but it’s better to take some time to process, review your work (as per Step 1 and 2), and then schedule a time to talk with your professor when ready. If your professor offers office hours, you can always drop by during those designated times, but you can also approach your professor after a class or send him or her an email to request a discussion. It’s best to phrase your request as exactly that: a discussion of your grade, rather than phrase the question more defensively regarding why you got a bad grade.

For example, you can say something like: “Hi Professor. After receiving my assignment back recently, I was hoping I could schedule a time to speak with you regarding my grade. I’d like to get a better understanding of your feedback and my mistakes, and get insight into how I can improve in the future. Thank you for your help!” Be sure to include your name, email address, as well as the class you’re taking from that professor, and perhaps even be specific about what assignment you’d like to discuss.

Once you and your professor schedule a time, make sure you have the assignment in question, as well as any notes or references (like your rubric or syllabus) that will help in your discussion. This ensures a more successful discussion because you can refer to your assignment and point out particular areas where you have any questions. Your professor will also appreciate your preparedness.

Step 4: Approach your conversation with an open-mind vs. being defensive

When it comes to the actual discussion of your grades, do not enter your conversation looking to change your professor’s mind or being defensive about your work. It’s important to be realistic: you will likely not walk away from this conversation with a new grade. However, you will walk away from the discussion having a better understanding of what you needed to do to earn a better grade, and how you can accomplish that on your next assignment. When you meet with your professor, you can simply start the conversation by thanking him or her for agreeing to review the assignment and answer your question.

Then, you can move on to saying that you had some questions about the assignment and your grade, and were hoping you could walk through them together. As you review together, take notes (either on the assignment directly or in your own notebook) and ask questions. If you want some more clarity into something your professor is saying, now is the perfect opportunity to ask him or her to go into a deeper explanation. If you disagree with something your professor says, fight the inclination to be defensive and instead explain your perspective and ask if they can help you better understand where there’s a disconnect.

For example, to resume the thesis statement example, if your professor says you didn’t establish a stance for an argument, and you think you did, ask your professor: “Can you explain how I could have better established a stance on this topic? How can I craft a better thesis statement for next time? Do you have tips for making sure my stance is clear and easily understood by the reader?” These questions still help you get to a place of understanding but are far less defensive than, “Why isn’t my thesis good enough? Why is my thesis wrong?”

Step 5: Ask what you can do better next time

As you review the assignment with your professor, or after you have gone over all of your questions and your professor’s feedback on this assignment, you then want to shift the conversation to what you can to ensure a better grade on future assignments. If you have your syllabus available or already have an upcoming assignment due, you might ask your professor to review the rubric or discuss what he or she is looking for in a successful assignment. If you have questions about the criteria, now is the time to ask.

For example, if your upcoming assignment includes a presentation in front of your class (whether on Zoom or in-person) you might discuss what makes for a successful presentation. You might ask what parts of the presentation are most important to the professor – speaking out loud in front of the class, or the prepared component that you turn into your professor (like a paper or presentation slides).

Ask as many questions as needed to help you feel confident in understanding what’s required for a good grade. Remember that your professor can’t give you the answers or help you prepare your assignment, but your professor can certainly steer you in the right direction.

Step 6: Accept your professor’s advice and move forward

At the end of your conversation, your professor may have decided to adjust your grade or it may remain the same. However, it’s important to thank your professor and accept their decision either way. As you encounter future assignments, or even as you’re tackling current ones, you can always schedule more time with your professor for help as needed. Not only will this show your professor that you are invested in doing well in his or her class, it will likely help you earn a better grade.