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I was recently accused of unfair grading by a student. The accusation is meritless, and it didn't take long to prove that I didn't do anything wrong. No damage, but a lot of time wasted.

Later, I learned through the grapevine that I was among a long list of victims. Indeed, in just one year, the very same student filed formal complaints against at least nine professors. The nature of the complaints vary from case to case, but they follow the exact same script:

  • In every case, the student will take some small thing, e.g. a missed quiz or a late homework, and make a big argument with the instructor out of it. The student will then escalate the issue to higher level and get the dean of college or even the president of the university involved. Of course the dean or the president have better things to do, so the student is usually ignored and the whole thing blows over quickly … or so we thought. This part turns out to be only the lead jab in a one-two combination. It's more of a setup.

  • The real strike comes at the end of the semester. When the grade is not good (which is 100% of the cases), a formal complaint will be filed stating that the student was punished for the earlier argument. This is a very serious accusation and lead to complicated investigations in several cases. It caused so much additional work that several professors just gave in and changed the grade to something the student liked.

This trick had a surprisingly high success rate, especially considering several victims are tenured professors. The student is emboldened, and I have no doubt that the cycle will repeat. If not stopped, I wouldn't be surprised if this student can earn a degree just by reusing this trick again and again.

My question is: Should we professors (as a group) react to such a behaviour and if yes, how? What could be the consequence, if any?

So far I have read the students' code of conduct carefully. There appear to be nothing that can be directly applied here. The closest appears to be the rule about dishonesty, but it wouldn't work by itself.

Updates:

  • After sharing parts of this story, I received several similar stories from friends and colleagues in other universities. So the situation I described here is perhaps not as unique as it first appears. It turns out, in my previous university, the department chair handled two similar cases while I was there. But because such cases are supposed to be confidential, I was not aware of them. I suspect this happens more often than we think.

  • The student does not have to prove his/her claim for this trick to work. He/she simply has to file a complaint and a grade change appeal at the same time. Students' have the right to do those. That will trigger a lot of work for the instructors, the department chair, and the dean's office. In my case, it took me 20~30 hours to respond to the complaints, provide assignment for review, and do other works. Not everyone has this kind of time on the last day of the final week. Given the options of doing these extra work vs. changing a letter and let it go, not everyone will make the right choice.

More update:

  • This student scored one more win: The grade appeal committee's new ruling is that I should/have to change my grade (one letter grade higher) even though it was determined that I did not do anything wrong.
  • I now realized the student's trick work on multiple levels: It just keep on throw in serious accusations. At some point, someone, will feel it would less trouble to just give him/her what he/she was asking for. The instructor does not have give in. It could the departmental committee, or the chair, or the associate dean, or the college committee,... The only way this trick fails is that every single person along this long chain stand their ground.
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    Does the university have a legal department? That's the people being paid to check the options in such cases. – Captain Emacs May 8 at 2:34
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    Please edit the post to specify what country this is happening in, whether students must defend a thesis to graduate, and whether the student can expect any ramifications of not getting any faculty references -- several answers made different assumptions. – arp May 9 at 2:20
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    Why not have the president or dean have resolve this, they know the Frequency of complaints. – eckes May 9 at 9:53
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    What procedures are in place for dealing with students who abuse the process? I think that a formal complaint from every affected instructor would not be something the administration would choose to ignore. – EvilSnack May 9 at 12:48
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Comments should primarily seek clarification from the asker; please read this FAQ before posting another comment. @ssquidd - Please consider editing your post with the requested information. – cag51 May 10 at 6:40

10 Answers 10

64

When it comes to "he-said, she-said" situations, as seems to be the case here, most institutions will tend to take the side of professors by default. For obvious reasons—the 18–22 year old college student is much more likely to lie to obtain a favourable mark, than the professor is to act maliciously to sabotage a student. The only scenario where the professor might be in trouble is if there are accusations from multiple students.

The most significant red flag here is that the student is making essentially the same accusation against nine different professors. It is preposterous that nine professors would collectively decide to sabotage a single student.

So far I have read the students' code of conduct carefully. There appear to be nothing that can be directly applied here. The closest appears to be the rule about dishonesty, but it wouldn't work by itself.

Making dishonest accusations to obtain more favourable grades is an unequivocal form of academic dishonesty. Any respectable institution would discipline a student engaging in such behaviour. If this behaviour cannot be disciplined at your university, I would suggest seeking employment elsewhere.

You should lodge a formal complaint, possibly in collaboration with the other professors who are being accused. You have a rock-solid case.

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    @ssquidd thinking something is one thing, actually accusing someone is an entirely different matter. If I loose my purse and think the neighbours have it, that is all fine and well, but if I accuse them - each after another - I will likely get some angry pushback and potentially a libel suit and I might have to pay administration fees for any court proceedings my actions triggered. The student needs to learn that making such accusations is serious business and can backfire if there is no proof. And your university needs to make sure it has policies in place that allow such backfiring. – Frank Hopkins May 8 at 17:43
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    @FrankHopkins, Actually, it's worse than that. My interpretation of the university policy is that even if the students have made 10 meritless complaints, on the 11th time, we still have treat his/her complaint seriously. According to our legal department, this is a fairly fundamental principle that is unlikely to change. – ssquidd May 8 at 18:11
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    -1 Why is the StackExchange default answer to workplace issues "just find a new job"? As if there's a surplus of jobs in academia or there's a rush to start hiring new people? It's literally illegal to relocate in some places right now (due to COVID-19 related shelter-in-place orders). Maybe OP has a family they don't want to uproot, a mortgage to pay, etc. – Alex Reinking May 9 at 17:52
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    @FrankHopkins "[...]every complaint needs to be treated fairly and fully, [...]" really? I don't think so. This is not much different than what courts term "vexatious litigation" wherein a plaintiff uses the judicial process as a weapon of harassment. In many places, once the pattern becomes clear, that person is declared a vexatious litigant. their ability to pursue any new cause of action is sharply curtailed, requiring pre-approval from a senior judge.In OP's situation, I have to wonder why the university can't simply say "sorry, we don't believe you and we're done dealing with you." – Z4-tier May 10 at 5:30
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    @AlexReinking There's certainly a lot more in this answer than "just quit" – Azor Ahai -- he him May 10 at 21:18
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As for addressing what already happened, this obviously depends a lot on what rules you have, but it may still be worth looking whether you have some of those very broad rules demanding mutual respect, not being a nuisance, not damaging the university, etc. These need not be in the students’ code of conduct, but might as well be in the enrolment contract or whatever you have. When in doubt, your university’s legal department may help, at least because this is a case they will very likely have to handle sooner or later anyway and to avoid such cases in the future. However, at the end of the day, this strongly depends on how academic education is organised in your country.

However, most of the damage done by the student was because your faculty and university made the mistakes listed below. By addressing these, you should be able to avoid such issues in the future:

  • You cannot be “bullied” if the power is clearly balanced towards you, unless you forget that. The student wants you to do something, not vice versa. In the extreme case, they have to take legal action to get what they want, whereas you can simply deny their requests. (And taking a legal action would be a pretty bad idea for the student in this case.) As long as their complaints are obviously unfounded, you have nothing to fear – and this more than a lofty legal platitude here: We often hear stories where faculty members abused the power imbalance and had nothing to fear even in the light of legitimate accusations. (A possible exception to this is if your university is run by short-sighted business people who consider students as customer kings, but you should be able to convince even them that siding with such a student is a bad idea.)

  • You got into “big arguments”. I may misunderstand the situation here, but this is waste of immediate time as well as a complication for the second round as they have some fuel for their accusations. As you have the high ground (see previous point), there is no need to get into big arguments here. The burden of proof is onto them: For example, they have to convince you that you should accept their late homework submission; you do not have to convince them that you need not accept it. Deny their request, state a brief reason, and if they keep pestering you, tell them their only option is to escalate (which they will do anyway).

  • Some of you gave in. This is a classical example of a short-sighted unethical action that many will defend as mercy. Those who gave in avoided work for themselves and thus caused work for others. Clearly establish the position among the faculty that those who gave in caused damage to their colleagues by encouraging the student’s behaviour and damage to the university/degree by watering it down. Use this hindsight to establish some guideline against giving in to unreasonable demands to avoid this happening again.

  • The investigations are missing their goal. You say that this students managed to cause “complicated investigations in several cases”. I assume that these are internal investigations. While the first one or two requests of any student deserve serious consideration, subsequent inquiries by the same student should be streamlined and put the burden of proof onto the student. Moreover, such investigations should only be triggered by claims more specific than “he/she thinks he/she has been punished for earlier arguments”. I assume that internal investigations exist to avoid messy legal or public affairs and to be able to act early against actually abusive faculty members. However, here I see no reason to be afraid of any of these (see Point 1). This may be the most difficult part to address and strongly depends on how your university is organised, but this case should give you good arguments to change things. Also, if this is a common process, you might consider establishing some resource for the accused faculty such as an advisor for such proceedings.

Finally, it may be worth making the student and potential copycats aware of the following potential consequences of their behaviour (taking care not to deliver this as a threat):

  • Nobody in their right mind will voluntarily supervise this student’s thesis. There will probably be some fallback mechanism to assign an involuntary supervisor, but this is clearly undesirable (for the student).

  • If they aspire an academic career, they will have a hard time securing letters of recommendation from your faculty.

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    Great answer! Re your second-to-last bullet point: surely the student will file a complaint that someone must supervise him, as he paid his university taxes and must be given an opportunity to write a thesis. – Federico Poloni May 8 at 14:37
  • @FedericoPoloni: Indeed, but that’s clearly nothing to be aspired (from the student). Also see my edit. – Wrzlprmft May 8 at 15:05
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    The last two points would be good general deterrence. However, they have no effect in this (and perhaps) similar cases. The student in question plans to transfer and has no intention to find a thesis advisor. There is also no evidence that an academic career is on the radar. – ssquidd May 8 at 18:03
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    @Izzy, but some students cannot see that far. – ssquidd May 9 at 0:47
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    Those who gave in avoided work for themselves and thus caused work for others highlights a very relevant point that applies to many a workplace and is often played down in analyses. Because of both self- and collegial lenience, before and after the fact respectively. Lack of courage brings about a long tail of difficulties. – XavierStuvw May 10 at 12:26
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Independent re-evaluation and re-grading

In my institution a situation like that "The real strike comes at the end of the semester" complaint and dispute with some potential risk of unfair grading or not following due process because of some personal animosity would result in the student's submitted work being regraded and any oral exams/presentations/defenses reevaluated by an independent committee that does not include the original instructor, does not look at (or even see) the original grading, and make an independent from-scratch evaluation of how good that work/knowledge is and what is the appropriate grade.

That re-evaluation overrides the previous grade and is final. And it may be worse than the previous grade.

To illustrate this, there's an example where I was part of a bachelor thesis defense committee where one student's work was very weak and we decided to not award a passing grade, which meant that the student can't graduate this semester. Afterwards it turned out that unbeknownst to me this was a re-take after the student had been assigned the lowest-but-still-passing grade by a previous committee, but had lodged a protest somewhat similar to what's described in the original post, which resulted, among other things, in the work getting a separate re-evaluation, assigned to a committee with no member overlap from the previous committee, and I did not even know that this was a second evaluation of a disputed work, we processed it as any other bachelor thesis which were defended that day.

So this re-evaluation demonstrated that the previous committee was not in fact biased against him, and might in fact have artificially boosted the evaluation for similar reasons as the original post, perhaps to avoid the hassle of a potentially litigious student challenging everything. In this case the dispute backfired, but if there was a genuine unfair grade suppression, then the independent evaluation would have fixed that.

Because of this experience, I consider that such a procedure is reasonable, and would work well both in cases of honest "good-faith" protests about unfair grading and "bad-faith" protests fishing for unjustified grade boosts. It does take some extra effort to find uninvolved faculty to reevaluate the work, but it's manageable.

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  • "we processed it as any other bachelor thesis which were defended that day". Isn't it abnormal that the advisor/supervisor for the thesis was not part of the comittee? Do you literally give students a topic and tell them come back in a few months we will have a random comittee grade your result? – Felix B. May 10 at 9:39
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    To me it sounds abnormal that the advisor were in the thesis committee, as where I'm from it never happens (there's an obvious conflict of interest) – finitud May 10 at 12:55
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    @FelixB. The advisor would be expected to review, evaluate, and suggest improvements to the thesis throughout its development before the submission, but after it's been submitted they don't get a vote in the final grading, which must be done by an impartial committee. The advisor and a reviewer both submit reviews of the thesis that also include an evaluation, which the committee will consider and take into account, but not necessarily accept - e.g. some b.sc. thesis are industry-developed with a qualified senior colleague acting as the advisor, their evaluations sometimes are not adequate. – Peteris May 10 at 22:12
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While I'll start by saying that I do not support the student's behavior and find it a form of harassment, I'd like to make the case that this should be approached by trying to improve the system, not by punishing the particular student.

When the grade is not good (which is 100% of case), a formal complaint will be filed stating that the student was punished for the earlier argument. This is a very serious accusation and lead to complicated investigations in several cases. It caused so much additional work that several professors just gave in and changed the grade to something the student liked.

Now, I do not know what field we're talking about, but in my experience changing a grade that I gave to someone is a big decision - unless it is obvious that I just overlooked something for that particular student, I would need to change the marking scheme and review every assignment. Otherwise, if the students who submitted similar answers and didn't a raise get to know about this, they will (accurately) accuse me of grading unfairly. In my experience, graders are fairly adamant to change marks even when wrong, to avoid all this effort.

If the grades get changed easily, the student(s) receive two messages:

  1. Filing a complaint is a safe strategy to get your grade raised;
  2. The original grades were based on a whim to begin with.

Harassment of staff frankly is the least dangerous outcome here: depending on the broader political/social/legal circumstances in the institution, if an affected student would happen to belong to an underrepresented group, (2) may lead to claims of discrimination and much more serious action.

My only advice is to attempt to make the grading system more objective. I believe these two issues (complaints about grading and potential for discrimination) are major reasons why much of the university and secondary-level assessment has been moving towards more standardized tests. For a specific example, one university where I worked has instituted the rule that during any verbal examinations (which used to be very subjective), students must make notes while preparing their answers for the examiner; the notes are stored and will be used to assess any complaints about grading.

Specifically to avoid harassment, in my current position we emphasize that any complaints about grade will result in the entire assignment being reviewed - and therefore may even lead to a decrease in the overall grade as well. Combined with having an objective marking scheme, available to everyone, I think this works quite well to deter most of the time wasters, while still letting us review actual mistakes on our end.

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    In my experience, standardized tests are motivated by people who think using measurements to establish accountability is good, even if it's based on wrong measurements. Objective grading is not necessarily correct grading. It just makes the errors consistent. – Anonymous Physicist May 8 at 9:57
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    E.g. in mathematics (written) standardized tests can not really tell whether a student understood the subject, since understanding the subject means understanding the proofs (and not just doing calculations based on the results). And asking for big proofs in written exams is difficult, since if you are stuck in some place you can not finish the question at all. In an oral exam you can give hints, change the topic, etc. The first years can not avoid written tests (number of students) so they often resort to calculations/small exercise proofs and even then grade distributions often look bimodal. – Felix B. May 10 at 9:48
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I think you found the flaw when describing

He/she simply has to file a complaint and a grade change appeal at the same time. Students' have the right to do those.

First of all, you are not describing how this extortion exactly works. Apparently, handling the complaint is tedious, but somehow changing the grade the complaint is not followed on? Is the student retracting the complain for those that conceded?

At this level I would consider that he is extorting the professors with that “give me an higher mark or else…” message he is conveying.

However, I see no point why the student should be able to file a complaint about a grade change and appeal it at the same time. Either the complaint is not admissible until the resolution of the appeal, or the appeal cannot be processed until the complaint is resolved.

Being the target of a "legal procedure" (even if a weak, internal one), while at the same time having to interact with the other party puts the professor in a really weak spot. Note that it is generally advised that the parties to a law case to refrain from communicating directly with the other party, only doing that through lawyers if needed.

It should be noted that the professors that relent could then expose themselves to of a complaint of unfairly giving an higher grade due to the open complaint. Perhaps unlikely, but more problematic to defend (unless the grade change is trivial to explain, in which case there shouldn't have been a complaint to begin with).

An interesting possibility would be to always process the complaints in full, even if the grade changed and the student was now pleased with the new grade. After all, a formal complaint is an important matter that should be investigated in depth. And the university won't want to give the impression that you unfairly boosted the grade of anyone.

Initially, this will ensure that the instructors, the department chair, and the dean's office will always have that lot of extra work for (by the way, couldn't its handling be made less demanding?). However, it also means that there is no longer an incentive to the professors to relent, since they will need to devote exactly the same resources to the investigation anyway. Which will lead to more fairly not boosting grades when not warranted. And ultimately to less complaints since the trick becomes useless.

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    While making the length of the proceedings independent of the outcome to reduce incentive to comply with silly requests is a good idea (and probably should be done), one should be aware that it can inevitably be circumvented by threatening a lazy faculty member with a proceeding. This is still a better situation since it opens up the possibility to accuse the student of blackmail and the professor of not following formal proceedings, but it’s something to keep in mind. – Wrzlprmft May 9 at 6:06
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The other answers address ways to try to change student behavior or ways your university could change its processes. That might work. In this answer I will suggest ways to reduce time spent responding to complaints. This might reduce the bullying power of student complaints.

  • Have a clear and specific grading policy in your syllabus.
  • For every assignment, provide a grading rubric. Include this in your syllabus.
  • Respond to complaints with a short form letter, instead of detailed responses to every point.

To whom it may concern,

I have received the complaint of student NAME dated DATE. I disagree with all aspects of the complaint except:

Put truthful quotes here

To demonstrate that the student's work was graded appropriately, I have attached the syllabus for the course, which includes the rubric for the disputed assignment(s). Copies of the assignments with the rubric ratings are attached. The rubric ratings agree with the grade assigned. All students were provided with the rubric when they started the course. Grading was consistent with the syllabus and university policy.

Sincerely,

As a side effect, giving students the rubric will help them learn.

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Rule #1: remember that Mark Twain said it best: “Never argue with an idiot. You'll never convince the idiot that you're correct, and bystanders won't be able to tell who's who.”

Rule #2: Once you’ve made your point, refuse to enter into further debate.

Rule #3: Keep all correspondence and start and keep a log of the timelines: when you meet with the student etc. In particular, keep duplicates of the student work so he or she cannot cherry-pick evidence. I also keep unclaimed assignments to provide a basis for comparison for at least some work.

Rule #4: if in your estimation the student is escalating, advise your Dean and start cc’ing your Dean on all email correspondence.

The strategy is not to ignore the student, but to give him or her the tools to dig a hole: most of the times the student will self-sabotage a claim by appealing to false or otherwise incorrect statement attributed to you, so the less you say the better your odds of “winning”.

Thus, statements like “Dear Sir, I acknowledge your email but I see no valid reason to change my position” are polite and to the point, and are in accordance with rules #1 and #2.

Rule #3 is useful because Dean or Vice-Provost or whomever deals with such complaints is always looking for timelines. In particular, it is easy to determine if and when a student really did ask (or not) to discuss the situation with you.

Rule #4 means the Dean will not be surprised when the situation escalates, and can genuinely gauge your efforts in defusing the situation.

In some cases the strategy takes its toll: the path of least resistance is to acquiesce but a well-organized factual and non-confrontation position will earn you brownie points with Admin and will also discourage others from such frivolous challenges.

In my own worse case no blame was assigned even if the Provost Office had to rule in favour of the student because of a clerical error on their part.

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Compartmentalise

The bipartite strategy employed by the student is possible because there is insufficient compatmentalisation in the assessment process. Two easy remedies would be:

  • separate the assignment from the student, require all assignments to be submitted anonymously (that way, the OP has no idea which student's work he/she is grading);
  • separate the marking from the teaching, and have all assignments marked by someone other than the person teaching the course (or, failing that, have a 2nd marker who gives marks independently of the OP).

At my institution, each undergraduate has a "candidate number" and uses that instead of writing his/her name on the assignment. Moreover, every assignment is seen by at least two people. Admittedly, the usual procedure at my institution is not quite as robustly independent as what I propose -- normally, the 1st marker marks it, and the 2nd marker checks the 1st marker's mark (in my experience as a 1st marker, the 2nd marker almost always agrees with my marks and feedback without further comment, which suggests that either I am excellent at marking assignments or they are lazy). That way, it is much harder to make a credible allegation of victimisation, because the lecturer does not know whose work he/she is marking, and is subject to oversight from a 3rd party. I realise these procedures are extra work, but they may turn out to be less work than handling the tactical complaints?

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juod's first paragraph sums it up: it's about improving the system, not about that student.

Many instructors don't know the policies for academic dishonesty, complaints, reviewing grades ... they never need to. Especially non-tenure-track lecturers don't know if the department head or the university will back them. Just a little outreach can be reassuring and help them stand their ground.

Hearing about how a typical complaint is resolved: "you'll get students who claim X, here's how it's typically handled" -- knowing the process and the offices involved. If Stan has the semi-common policy of "no retakes, but the lowest quiz score is dropped" will that stand-up to a challenge? Has it? Is there another instructor they can ask "does this class typically get lots of complaints?" (many times the answer is: "wow, how did you get so few?"). If a student complains to you about another instructor, what can you tell them to do? Some general bits:

  • when something is sprung on you during finals week, sometimes it has to wait until the next semester. Grades can be changed after the class ends. There's a form for it. Sometimes administrators will yell at you and require a written reason why, but that's easy.

  • Incompletes aren't extensions. Students always ask for an incomplete at the last minute. But they generally require a whole process and an agreement prior to missing the work.

  • use email to create a record. Use only one account, so it's easy to search. This is "as we discussed in class, I looked over your assignment...".

  • if a school has some crazy assignment software that takes forever to search and can lock you out, keep an organized copy of everything on your home PC (I learned this the hard way).

As for that particular student, they only need to meet one old-school hard-ass who teaches most sections of a required class. Stops them cold. As for the sense of injustice about scammy students -- it helps to remember that you get paid the same either way, your name isn't on the school, and to read Black Lives Matter posts to put the injustice in perspective. Sure, use that indignation to keep it from happening again, but there's no point in making a negative incident personal with a student.

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How much did they actually boost their grade by? If it's a large jump, such as their GPA going from 2.3 to 3.8, you should recommend the student for an award because they have identified a serious structural problem with how your institution is organized. It is clearly incentivizing students to learn how to game the system instead of learning the subject matter.

If the jump is small, ignore it. Other than your own chagrin at this student getting away with it, it matters very little in the grand scheme of things. The student did a bunch of work and managed to slightly boost their grade, big deal. Most students will recognize that they could just put the same effort into studying instead and get an even bigger boost; this one is an outlier. And even if you tried to punish them, you would waste a bunch of your own time splitting hairs over exactly how unfair the professors were in each case and how many complaints is too much. It wouldn't serve you, it wouldn't serve the institution, it wouldn't serve the student. It would waste everyone's time and accomplish nothing.

Also at the end of the day, the education system is funded by the state and has the additional mission of molding individuals into the society that the state prefers. Most likely you, like most of us, live in a highly bureaucratic country. There's a sort of logic in the institution teaching its students to navigate the state's own bureaucracy, a skill they will lean on again and again for the rest of their life.

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