The walnut game. This is probably how students feel when an unexpected grade game-changer happens.

A troubling question just came in and I am hoping that my colleagues in higher ed will respond with your thoughts. Here goes… First, the question:

“My professor changed the syllabus after the class was over. He said the lab was worth 300 out of 850 in the syllabus, then after the class was over he changed the lab to 170 out of 720 because the average lab score was a 96% and he wanted to lower grades. This dropped me from a C to a D+ and now I’m not passing and will have to re-take the course. Also, right after the exams he told the class that he was adding 5 points to test 1 and a few points to test 2 because scores were low and then after the class was over he said he decided not to curve the tests after all. I went to the department head and the dean and they both told me they were siding with the professor and if I filed a formal grade challenge, the same people that turned me away would be the ones deciding the final grade in the formal challenge process. What can I do?”******

Now my response:

Student,

I will give the disclaimer that I can only go by my own experiences and what I have been taught in my Post-Secondary Ed program and when I was in graduate school (and what I know from my 14 years of teaching). Without knowing the full situation, it’s difficult to give a concrete answer, but I’m going to do my best to give my opinion and I hope that others will comment and give theirs based on experience, too:

-So, to start, I am assuming that the term ended, you saw your grade, and then realized that something went very wrong. Have you talked to other students from that class? I would definitely have them report out individually if the change affected their grades, too. Individual voices can help in a situation like this.

-One thing I remember my grad adviser saying when I first started teaching is a professor cannot change a syllabus in a way that will do harm to students. I recall this from my Post-Secondary Ed program, as well. Now, that said, I have personally made curricular mistakes and my students did “too well” on something i.e., an exam, an assignment, etc. Either I didn’t write the questions properly or I gave too many points away on the assignment… whatever.

Well, let’s just say that I had to take that as a learning opportunity for myself as an educator. I couldn’t go back and say, “Sorry, everyone! You did too well and now I’m going to ding you in some other area.” It’s just part of the growth process when you teach. I had to learn the hard way. So if your prof did say that grades needed to be lowered, I am not exactly clear on why that would need to be the case unless he would get in trouble for grade inflation. But, again, many of us have made instructional mistakes in our careers, reflected on them, and have refined our teaching because of them. As a general rule, a prof should not change a syllabus in a harming way, points-wise–bottom line.

-You mentioned that the prof agreed to curve the test twice and then didn’t. Did you inquire as to why the prof decided not to follow through? My guess is that if the lab grades were so high and there was concern over that, the only way to “average” those out would be to not follow through on the agreement to curve the test. Again, I’m thinking if the prof was nervous about grade inflation, this would make sense. From a student perspective, I can see where it would be extremely upsetting to think you’re getting additional points on two tests and then having that not happen.

The choice to curve a test is absolutely a favor from the prof, and certainly I am one who believes that if you say you’re going to curve a test, you follow through. But the reality is that taking this to the department head or dean is unfortunately not as strong of an argument. I agree it would have been nice if the prof followed through on the promise, or at least had given clear rationale as to why the change occurred.

-When you went to the department head or the dean, what was their rationale for “siding with the professor,” as you put it? Even if that is the case, I would hope that is not the end of the conversation.

I would go back and say, “I hear that you’re saying you feel the professor was correct in his actions, but in my understanding, the professor changed the syllabus once class ended and this deeply affected my grade in a way that I was not expecting. (I would leave the fact out about the curved test at this point. You have a stronger argument about the syllabus change. If you have to build a case beyond this point, you could bring it up as part of the overall miscommunication about the grading structure). Can you please explain why I have no recourse in this situation?”

Once you hear the department head’s response, if you are still uncomfortable, I would say, “I respect what you are saying, but I respectfully disagree and would still like to file a grievance. Who is next in the chain of command?

Likely, your next stop is going to be another dean, a Vice President, or a Student Affairs officer. It is unlikely that the door is now closed with the department head and the dean, even though they are probably correct in that ultimately they would be involved in determining the final outcome. But they wouldn’t be the only ones if another “higher-up” gets involved.

Just be prepared for your next steps: You are going to need to bring all of your documentation with you and have everything very clearly written out–all of the information regarding the syllabus change, your grades, etc. Also, as upset as you feel, you will need to keep as calm as you can. This doesn’t mean that you can’t be assertive, though.

I am very sorry for the situation that you are going through. It is not an easy one, but I bet you will be able to get some concrete answers that hopefully involve a satisfactory resolution other than retaking the class.

Colleagues, once again, I invite you to weigh in!

Students, how would you handle a situation like this? Chapter 31 of Say This, NOT That to Your Professor gives you concrete words to say if you ever have to “go higher.” Have you taken a look inside?