I had a student in one of my courses that for every graded assignment would come to me and challenge the grade given, even though I provided a rubric to show exactly why the points where taken off.

For one of the last assignments, which was a class presentation, this student went off into another topic and for half of the presentation time essentially filled the time with an interesting topic, that unfortunately, although interesting, was not what the assignment for the presentation required. There were other problems with the presentation, which I outlined in the rubric, but twice the student came to me to challenge the grade, because they "worked so hard on the presentation," and that they "did cover what was required" and did not deserve a B (which in retrospect, should have been a C), I explained why again the student got the grade they deserved...and after a while the student saying that they did not agree, left.

But then on the following class, the student came to talk to me about their grade again and was even somewhat aggressive towards me, and very confrontational raising their tone of voice and won't give up on the point that s/he deserved an A. I said that I would be happy to grade the presentation again, but that I was often very lenient and that the grade could either improve/or decrease if I were to grade it again. The student then gave up, and said that s/he would focus then on the final paper and asked whether I give full points (100) in the final paper, to which I replied, "yes, if you exceed my expectations." (haven't graded this assignment yet).

Well, a week went by and then this student asks me for a letter of recommendation! Granted s/he currently have a A- in my course, but after the way the student spoke to me, with complete lack of respect, I was very surprised that s/he would ask for a letter.

...and at first the student did not want to waive their rights to the letter, claiming that we had to sign the page "together" whenever they would pick up the letter. I explained that the student could actually fill out the top part, if s/he wanted to waive the rights, and I would fill out the bottom part, include the form with the letter in a sealed envelope. But that if s/he did not want to waive the rights, that would be fine as well, and I would just sign the bottom part...then the student decided it would be best to waive their rights...

I am now in the process of writing the letter and was wondering if anyone was ever put in the same situation, and what did you do? This is a good student, however, clearly lacks respect for their professors. Any advice/guidance/help? How/Should I mentioned this in the letter?


11 Answers 11


It sounds like you've agreed to write a letter so I think you are committed unless the student releases you from your commitment. (Personally, I'd have said no in the first place and explained if asked that, based on their behavior, I could not honestly give a favorable recommendation. But that ship has sailed.)

But what you haven't agreed to yet, I hope, is a favorable letter. What I would do in your situation is contact the student to explain that on reflection, you've become concerned that the only honest letter you can write will not be helpful. You don't feel you can honestly ignore that the student is a difficult, argumentative, confrontational and disrespectful individual. To be an honest appraisal, that has to go in there. You cannot write an honest letter that only recites the good stuff.

At that point, you can ask, do they still want the letter? I'm sure they'll be difficult and disrespectful once again but that's nothing new and if you stand your ground, I think they'll decide to go elsewhere. Problem solved. (And maybe they'll learn something from the experience, though, from what you describe, probably not.)

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    Also take into consideration timing, if you give the 'bad news' 2 days from a deadline it would be impractical for the student to find a replacement letter writer.
    – Bluebird
    Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 23:05
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    @FrankFYC I agree, it would be helpful to know how much time has elapsed since the request and how much time remains before the deadline. The OP reports just starting the letter and, assuming they haven't been procrastinating, it seems likely not much time has passed and the deadline may still be months away. Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 1:11
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    You can be sure that the student will dispute over your letter as s/he disputed over any grade.
    – Pere
    Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 11:36
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    @Neinstein What they expect and what was promised are two different things. A letter was promised. There was no promise it would be strong. Implicit in all promises of LORs is that you will write an honest letter. I would not write a dishonest letter just because I thought a student expected it and neither should the OP. Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 14:07
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    @NicoleHamilton I agree on it shouldn't be dishonest; but speaking with the student face-to-face, instead giving him an unusable letter of "recommendation" still is a more honest way IMO. At the very least, you save both of your time with not having to write the letter. And if he won't get to see the letter - he at least deserves to know you didn't recoommend him that much. This letter may be important for his carrier.
    – Neinstein
    Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 14:34

Is there perhaps a cultural element to this situation?

I was once in the reverse situation: I was studying mathematics at an Australian university, but my professor was Russian. He marked all students very harshly, and we all lost a lot of marks for not spelling out things that any other lecturer would have accepted as obvious. But if we took our assignments back to him and argued about the marking, and showed that we did understand what we were doing, he'd give the marks back again. We're talking a lot of marks here; it's been a long time and I don't remember exact numbers, but I'd estimate about 30% of my final grade came from arguing with him after he'd scored assignments, and it would've been similar for other students.

Effectively it turned written assignments into an oral examination, which is very unusual in Australian academia but much more common in Russia. I found the process quite daunting - my professor was a big guy who would stand quite close and talk very loudly when we were arguing results, and it took quite a while to figure out that he wasn't actually angry.

If your student comes from the same sort of academic culture as my old lecturer, it's possible that she has been taught by previous experience that she needs to argue with her results and will be severely disadvantaged if she doesn't, and she may not realise that it's coming across as rudeness.

If something like that is going on, it may be a kindness to talk to her about behavioural norms and remind her that they differ from one place to another.

Edit: per undercat's comment on this post, perhaps my experience was more about an individual lecturer than Russian academic culture in general. Either way, I think it shows why a student might believe that regularly challenging results is normal behaviour.

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    I once had an (American) professor who said that his policy was to always deny the student the benefit of a doubt, grade the student down, and let the student come to him to fight for more credit. I think it's more likely that the student in the OP's question is just used to getting their way and has learned that being aggressive pays off, but who knows. Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 23:26
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    it might be the way she talks if she's excited that she knows the answer, she might unwillingly raise her voice, I do, if you feel like she's disrespecting you, ignore her.
    – Lynob
    Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 10:08
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    As a graduate of a Russian university I have to say that while oral examinations were an inherent part of the process, the only things that were argued about in there were theorem proofs and calculations. Any argument about the grade itself would generally get you nowhere, unless you had a very strong and valid case for it. I feel the latter point should hold across all countries, since under no circumstances should a bolder student get a better grade than a smarter or more diligent one.
    – undercat
    Commented Dec 19, 2017 at 7:07
  • @undercat Thanks, that's interesting to hear. Perhaps my lecturer was an outlier then. I certainly wasn't fond of his assessment methods (pity, because he was otherwise an excellent lecturer) but it wouldn't have been so bad if he'd been clear about them at the start of term instead of us having to figure them out for ourselves.
    – G_B
    Commented Dec 19, 2017 at 21:29

I'd happily write one!

Many "complicated" people are that complicated to us because they think so differently to how we do it. We tend to gather people around us who are alike. That's, by far, not always good.

I talk from my experiences in the corporate sector but these can surely also be applied to academia.

Those people causing us such trouble are a) very intelligent and b) very committed. We don't always understand their motives (like I said: different ways of thinking) but neither do they ours.

They will surely not be yea-sayers to every passing whim of ours. That makes them very valuable employees and co-workers. They will dare to stand up when all the others wouldn't. If you make a bad decision as a boss (be it in a business or in academia) 99% of the people won't even notice (they don't care enough) or won't dare to say anything. That's then when the "complicated" ones come into play. They might be wrong with their point of view as well - but sometimes the combination of the thoughts is better than what either of you thought on his own.

These peope are also very committed. The reason they do stand up way more often than really necessary is: they care! They don't want things to go wrong, they want the company to propser, they want the research project to succeed, etc.

They are surely no easy people to handle but once you learnt to get along with them (which will never be conflict-free, ever!), they are extremely valuable people to an institution.

By the way: The same also applies to reverse roles. If you have a boss of this type you just don't seem to get along, it might actually be a very fruitful collaboration, if both of you are willing to go that way.


I would like to address some points brought up in the comments.

First I changed the wording in my second sentence: It's many people being complicated due to their intelligence, definitely not all

Secondly I'd like to address some points brought up in the comments:

Talking about the case of this very student the OP mentioned, we can see the actual intelligence, interest (in the topic) and commitment of the student by the way the presentation was delivered: More than expected, though, unfortunately, on the wrong topic. Here we have clearly much potential to make a great researcher! There is still some "shaping" needed when it comes to the character.

Many of these troublemakers don't lack the intelligence to realise that they are wrong - they lack the humility to admit so. They do know when they are wrong but they simply "can't be wrong", so they desperately try to find loopholes to be, at least, partially right.

There are also many people who had their intelligence denied either by being told the opposite or being hindered in using it when they were a child. This is especially for girls still the case in many places. So they don't argue about the actual problem. They feel threatened by somebody challenging their view as in: The other one challenges my view so he challenges my intelligence.

Dealing with such people is surely not easy. It requires great empathy and understanding on one hand and clarity (as in: transparency in grading, clear and understandable orders, etc.) and strictness on the other.

Very many of these people have a spledid future if they learn proper modesty - and the humility to admit being wrong when they are.

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    Wow, you are so positive! Commented Dec 17, 2017 at 1:06
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    Who can imagine what this student's motives are? But they are obviously very intelligent and we should let them mark their own exams! They know better.
    – Thanassis
    Commented Dec 17, 2017 at 2:24
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    A person who is willing to speak out is valuable—except when they are consistently WRONG.
    – WGroleau
    Commented Dec 17, 2017 at 4:28
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    There's no evidence that this student ever stood up for anything other than having their grade increased. The question mentions two occasions on which the student understood that pushing the issue might be to their personal disadvantage; the first time they "gave up" and the second time they "decided it would be best to waive their rights". I agree that there is great value in a person who isn't afraid to take a firm and principled stand. However, I see no indication that this is such a person.
    – Pont
    Commented Dec 17, 2017 at 11:03
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    I would totally +2 you if I could. Also, the student described by OP essentially gave a "double presentation" on a subject he could have just not said anything about. Now, true, that might not be what he was asked to do, but obviously he didn't do that in bad faith, and it seems he managed it quite well. So, it's just like you said - a sort of an "impedance mismatch", but quite a bit of talent and commitment.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Dec 17, 2017 at 21:07

A letter of recommendation is usually a statement of how you feel about their work ethic and character. I feel they should only be done if you feel strongly positive about both that you would stake your own reputation if they get accepted. The fact that you're asking this question, let alone the stories and the tone of your post, gives the impression you are not enthusiastic to endorse this person.

Imagine you have a best friend who owns a company who hires this person based on your recommendation. Would you be excited to hear they got hired and are working for your best friend? Would you be like, "That's fantastic! My friend's in good company and hiring the right people. They'll do great things."

Or would you be worried about that person screwing up the work at your friend's company? Would you fear your friend might come back to you five months later with a story that they asked this person to add a new feature to their latest product and instead got a report about the effects of microwaving hamsters and when they were called out on it said that the instructions were unclear, but they worked really hard on that report and should get a raise and promotion.

If it's the latter, please don't write the letter of recommendation. Please don't reward belligerent and disrespectful people who think that a loud voice and talking over people makes them right. I don't want to work with people like that.

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    Actually no. A letter of recommendation is about how you feel about someone's academic skills and achievements, and accordingly potential academic success. It has not much to do with character.
    – Dilworth
    Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 15:12
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    @Dilworth: Per Wikipedia (covering both workplace references and letters of recommendation regarding "admission to institutions of higher education"): "The employment reference letter can cover topics such as... the employee's social attitude... the employee's power of rapport..." (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recommendation_letter) Commented Dec 17, 2017 at 0:07
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    I don't know what is written on wikipedia. I know what effective letters I write (to top schools), and what kind of letters my colleagues and I get and care for. It is all about academic merit. There is a small scope also for other aspects, but usually they are insignificant and ignored, except in extreme cases.
    – Dilworth
    Commented Dec 17, 2017 at 1:42

Would you write a reference letter for him/her? To answer this, ask yourself whether it's your job (probably yes), and, if so, whether you are up to the particular task (probably also yes). Proceed only if you are sure about two "yes" answers.

Assuming you proceed, do a separation of concerns. A student being disrespectful is one topic, but his/her performance is a different topic. He/she is fighting, while lots of others with the same grades are not. So, simply feel free to do this separation of concerns in your letter.


When students ask me to write for them I tell them that although they may waive their right to see the letter, I haven't waived the right to show it to them, and that I will. If it's not likely to be a strong letter I tell them that in advance - they usually thank me and go elsewhere. I always write an honest letter, describing strengths and shortcomings (if any).

In this case you can say the student has earned an A-, and why. The argumentative part needn't be the most prominent part of your letter, unless you feel it should be.

If you do show the student a draft, s/he may ask you not to send it (if you offer her that option).


This is similar to the comment about culture differences but focused on the concept of different learning styles.

Some of the behaviors you describe are related to ADD such as.

  1. Going off topic

  2. Argumentative / Oppositional behavior

  3. Fear of social rejection. Exhibited by their fear of you leaving a bad review.

Students with ADD are often have troubles with formal education due to these traits.

This student may hold great respect for you as a professor but showcase it by being extremely engaged and passionate about there impact in the class. This is in comparison to a student who may be very respectful but only due to a lack of interest or involvement.

From the information provided there is still a good chance your student is simply self interested and does not deserve a good review.

If you are still unsure I would meet with the student and conduct an interview with them. This can give you a deeper perspective into there motives for attending this class and asking for your recommendation.

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    I don’t agree that habitually challenging grades is characteristic of ADHD/ADD. Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 2:26
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    There's a reason psychiatry and psychology require professional registration, and that they're not performed online without discussion involving the patient...
    – Nij
    Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 8:46
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    Excellent comment in my opinion. I agree that the student has probably behavioural "problems", and it's not lack of respect that causes his or her behaviour.
    – Dilworth
    Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 15:15
  • @ElizabethHenning - That's not what Sophia said. Commented Dec 18, 2017 at 8:58

Thinking of a statement 'to whom it may concern', turn the letter of recommendation into a letter of evaluation in which you portray the situation as you see it, in suitable and neutral words. The student will evaluate on his/her own its fit with his/her own view of the whole going --- perhaps eventually deciding not to use such a letter with his/her prospects and adopt/review the strategies used with you. We are talking of people of age after all.

Minimally, you might offer the student your availability to pass your contact details to his/her prospect readers at the point of need. And write nothing.

If you want to stimulate/challenge the student's self-evaluation skills, you could also propose him/her to write down a draft. I was often told to do so after asking for testimonials for some professional assignments. In a spoken conversation my answer was in the guise of Thanks for helping me out; certainly I'll do it; would you please tell me on the fly what has been noteworthy in the time we worked together? I cannot decide this for you --- in a written exchange I listed aspects that I wished to be mentioned and left the choice of adjectives and adverbs to the writer. Beyond my anecdotes, you will sense how open the student is to self-reflection and feedback, or whether he/she is manipulating your sense of duty.

You are still free to accompany any of these and other strategies with a conversation on the weaknesses and strengths that you have noticed, which might be the home stretch in your mission as educator.

Show integrity and be informative; it's what I would expect from anything you write (once it falls under my eyeballs, which is up to the student, and not to you).

  • Interesting idea, asking the student to write a draft. Commented Dec 19, 2017 at 16:18

I support Ethan's approach (show letter to student); Xavier's idea sounds intriguing (ask student to draft letter).

Student has been argumentative about assignment grades.

I suggest you limit the amount of time you devote to listening to these efforts to change a grade.

Geoffrey's and Sophia's answers are interesting possible explanations of the arguing over grades. Here's another: I had a student from China on a scholarship who would argue and argue about his homework grade if he had gotten a 99 instead of a 100. He was anxious! It was anxiety! He was afraid those little -1's on some of his weekly homework assignments were going to stand in his way of remaining in the U.S. for his studies. Sure, it drove me nuts, and he wasn't my favorite person, and he would have been a slightly better student if he weren't wasting energy on nitpicking his homework scores.

Student was aggressive and confrontational, raising their tone of voice.

Please see https://academia.stackexchange.com/a/99635/32436.


People like that shouldn’t get their way because they will continue their behavior. We had a classmate in a two semester course, exactly like that, an annoying person. The first semester he did not earn an A so he nagged our professor to make him alone another final so he got an A. I also knew that he had a private tutor who did his assignments!! The next semester he did poorly on the final AGAIN with no excuse and wanted another final!

You shouldn’t write the letter.


Tell them you'll mail the letter directly and then "forget" to mail the letter. Don't even bother wasting your time.

Although, in this case, we see only what we're looking for. You see the student's stubbornness and we could discern that you're a negative thinker. A positive thinker would see the student's unwillingness to accept anything less than the best which is a good thing from an employer perspective.

Then again there are way too many variables involved. It depends on the context of the situation and how the student channels that energy. If they're constantly being confrontational with the team and their supervisors that isn't a good thing because this student would get in the way, slow the team down and likely prevent the team from achieving goals.

I'm sure this student would make a good negotiator though if placed in the right context.

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    I am not sure if I read your answer correctly, but do you suggest to outright lie to the student?
    – svavil
    Commented Dec 17, 2017 at 11:05

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