I always find myself in a difficult situation on the rage of students who are upset about their marks they just received. I feel it is kind of difficult to reply to students' emails that sound very angry. Especially when they first receive their marks.

  1. Why did I get this MARK!
  2. How could I get this mark, when my colleague got higher!
  3. I will provide my mark to the dean! (some already done so!)

I know that this is not uncommon, but I feel we have the duty to know how to deal psychologically with this behaviour.

How do you deal with this situation?

Some say, do not reply to this email before at least a week so that the student acknowledges and time for them to relax.

The issue is that I will have to deal with these same students in a module next term and I am worried about how they will portray me.

  • 6
    The issue is that I do deal with these students on term 2 module - I don't understand what you mean. Can you please explain this issue?
    – Kimball
    Jan 24, 2021 at 20:31
  • 9
    why don't we just not let students see how their papers were graded? academia.stackexchange.com/questions/144597/…
    – BCLC
    Jan 25, 2021 at 6:06
  • One tool you can use is a syllabus policy that students should wait 24 hours after receiving a grade before sending a grade-related email. That gives the student time to calm down on their end and (perhaps) write a more considered email. Jan 25, 2021 at 15:54
  • 2
    Very similar, if not duplicate question: What to do about "grade grubbers?"
    – henning
    Jan 26, 2021 at 14:29
  • 1
    @Kimball, I believe the OP means that the student will be in their class next term.
    – Damila
    Jan 26, 2021 at 19:10

5 Answers 5


When dealing with angry students, your number one priority should be to de-escalate the situation and bring it back to a more factual ground. That means you want to:

  • Stay calm. Even if you are getting agitated yourself, you should never let it show through in your answer (easier via email than personally, but the same principle applies independently of the medium). I tend to opt for a more formal tone than what I usually use, mostly because I have found more formal phrasing harder to be misunderstood as dismissive (your milage may vary).
  • Provide short, to the point, answers. Answer the student's query or complaint politely, but don't get pre-emptively defensive and don't overly detailedly explain your reasoning. The more you write or say, the more an unhappy student will find to be upset about. There is a time and place to give a student detailed feedback, but when they are currently raging isn't it.
  • Stay with the facts. Scrub all subjectivity from your own answer. You want to bring the conversation to a place where you are talking about specific assessment results (exam questions, assignment tasks, etc.) rather than "I felt I did better", and the more you are using subjective statements in your own answer the more the student will feel validated that his own subjective understanding of the situation is as valid as yours.
  • Require the student to provide concrete, factual arguments. Once you bring the discussion to a more factual level, you should ask the student why, specifically, they disagree with their grade. Are there specific assessment results they feel were wrongly graded? Are they unhappy with how you aggregated the assessments? Once you are discussing on this level, it becomes easier to both, convince a student that their grade is correct according to the framework, and see cases where your framework is indeed unfair (or can at least be perceived as such).
  • Answer, but don't answer too quickly. Especially when receiving complaints via email: avoid the temptation to immediately answer questions by upset students. Give it a day, this will allow both you and the student a chance to calm down. A little delay in your interaction will also motivate the student to think more carefully about what they are actually writing, since a non-question like "How could I get this mark, when my colleague got higher" just means longer delay for them.
  • Remember that student's don't have to agree with their grade. At the end of the day, not all students will be happy with their grade, and even after you have explained your reasoning not all students will be convinced. That's ok. You and the student don't have to agree on the final grade. There is a process in place what, if anything, students can do to further escalate a grade dispute (I don't know if that includes sending a mail to the dean at your department, in mine emailing the dean about a grade dispute would mostly result in a confused dean).
  • 37
    In some cases I have replied like this: "If, at the end of the semester, you believe one additional point on this exam will change your semester grade, please let me know and I'll look at it again." No student has ever taken me up on that.
    – Bob Brown
    Jan 24, 2021 at 17:47
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    @BobBrown Sure, but recognize it might just be a nice way of saying "I'm still marking this wrong." There's no way for me to know if it could have made a difference. I had a professor tell me this after agreeing my answer was right, just so he didn't have to go correct the grade! Could it have made a difference? I don't know. The only info I got at the semester end was "B".
    – Edward
    Jan 24, 2021 at 22:42
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    @Edward That seems to be an issue with your university, not a general one. Our students receive precise percentage and raw marks, so can tell precisely how many extra marks would make a difference to their grade. Jan 24, 2021 at 23:11
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    @BCLC at least in Sweden there would be no legal basis for this. Also, it would arguably make these discussions even worse, since then a subjective "I felt like I did better than a 3" would be all that students could go by.
    – xLeitix
    Jan 25, 2021 at 7:00
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    @OwenReynolds I used to do this as well, but after getting sucked multiple times into heated nonsense debates that didn't actually move the discussion forward in any way I decided that it's better to force a more deliberate pace on these debates. And, frankly, having to mull for a few hours over whether their explanation mark riddled email was indeed a great idea can be a healthy educational experience for some students.
    – xLeitix
    Jan 25, 2021 at 7:15

Your first step should be to make sure the mark is accurate before you reply.

I once had a student complain about getting an "F". I looked in my gradebook and saw that the student had a "B"! My first thought was that I had written the wrong grade on the report sent to the registrar's office. I went, with the student, to the registrar's. There was a "B" on the report I had sent. The error had been made at the registrar's office. Of course, the student's grade was changed to "B".

  • 22
    Interesting situation, but I'm not sure that's relevant here. If the instructor assigned a lower grade by mistake, fixing the mistake will usually defuse any student anger.
    – Elodin
    Jan 25, 2021 at 0:09
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    This isn't really an answer. It's a relevant anecdote, but doesn't tell the OP how to deal with the kinds of emails they mention.
    – terdon
    Jan 26, 2021 at 13:32
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    Welcome to Academia.SE. You had gotten a number of flags for not providing a "real answer" to the question. So, I suggested adding a sentence to explain what your actual advice is -- feel free to edit this paragraph if I distorted your meaning.
    – cag51
    Jan 26, 2021 at 14:21
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    BTW - I once had a similar situation. Two pieces of software disagreed about how to alphabetize names beginning with O', and so three grades in the O section were transposed. As luck would have it, this section of the gradebook included one of the best students and one of the weakest. That's the only time I've ever had a student tell me "I think there was a grading mistake that will turn my F into an A" and be completely correct. The student whose A turned into an F was presumably less pleased, but they never said anything to me.
    – cag51
    Jan 26, 2021 at 16:07

While @xLeitix's answer pretty much sums it up, I would like to add that

"A clever person solves a problem. A wise person avoids it."

Students complain about marks if either

a. Your rubrics/grading criteria are unclear or inconsistently applied

b. The students perceive you as pliant.

Of course, there are those students who will just complain for complaining's sake or with the hopes of you just not wanting the hassle of dealing with them. Those are, in my experience, a very small (albeit vocal) minority. Moreover, since their complaints are rarely justified, you can easily handle them.

If you handle (a) well, then students are much less likely to complain about you, and would greatly appreciate the transparency. I make my rubrics clear-cut and public, and ask students to refer to specific rubric items in their regrade requests. I tell them in advance that I do not grade feelings or intentions, just what actually made it to the assessment paper. Make sure that this grading policy is public on week 1; perhaps even get students to acknowledge reading it (say via an online form).

Students won't perceive you as pliant if you fix (a) and stick to it. I actively encourage students who threaten me with going to a higher authority to follow through on their threat (politely), something along the lines of

"You are well within your rights to take this matter up with the dean, and if you feel like you have been mistreated in any way, then by all means do so".

No one has gone on to complain yet. They know they have no standing.

Given that we are teaching in unusual times, you can (and should!) be lenient when the situation warrants it, as long as you are consistent about this as well. If one student complains about an inconsistency or possible interpretation and you find their argument valid, go back and fix it for everyone. If a student asks for an extension for no particular reason, grant it for everyone.

  • 5
    As another aside, perhaps it's my own personality, but I find anger much easier to handle than genuine sadness/panic. I reciprocate hostility with (icy, legalistic) hostility. A student who cries in my office about failing a class and not knowing how to break it to their parents is much likelier to get my support (perhaps not a good thing, but nobody's perfect...)
    – Spark
    Jan 25, 2021 at 16:25
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    Why would you want to discourage your students from exercising their rights? I don’t have the power to stop them, and indicating that it concerns me sends the wrong message
    – Spark
    Jan 25, 2021 at 19:57
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    "They know they have no standing." Unless their parents are politicians, friends with the dean or have a lot of money, unfortunately...(in many countries, luckily not everywhere)
    – user111388
    Jan 25, 2021 at 22:20
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    I'm not suggesting that. There's some middle ground between "discouraging" and "actively encouraging" that can be used to dial down the hostility - which should be the goal regardless of the student following through or not -, while still demonstrating your indifference.
    – Ramon Melo
    Jan 25, 2021 at 22:22
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    @user111388 luckily I teach at a public university, where everyone is treated equally badly!
    – Spark
    Jan 26, 2021 at 18:11

As a high-school student currently, (and I've gotten my fair share of Cs and Fs), I have always been more accepting of my grade (and less upset about it) when my teacher would explain why he/she gave me that grade, and then give feedback about what I could change next time I had to take an assessment in the same course. By doing this, you do two things. 1.) You tell them what they can do differently so that they have something to work towards in the next semester. (And often based on this feedback, they will do better the next time.) And 2.) They see that you care about your students and their work, by taking out time from your day to give them feedback/explanations. This may also inadvertently make them pay more attention in class/try to do better on their work. (I have found that I have learned and retained more from teachers that care than from those who don't.) This shouldn't ruin your reputation with your students, as they may still be mad at you, but they would at least understand why their grade happened the way it did.

This is probably not the opinion which you are seeking, but I think that it covers a unique perspective of the question, not covered in the other answers.

  • This sounds more like advice to OP's students than to OP themselves. OP wanted to know how to deal with students who haven't taken this advice, and have e-mailed them with hostility instead of genuine curiosity and a desire to learn.
    – Lou
    Jan 27, 2021 at 10:54

I understand that at the moment this is the grade that reflects the student's efforts and this is the grade they deserve. In this case, I would explain to them using facts why they received this grade.

However, in the future, you may consider emailing students when they start to fall behind in your class. It personally gives me no pleasure to see a student not succeed in my class. When I have had such students, I have reached out to them via email. Some did not respond. One responded that they were suffering from depression due to the pandemic and asked to redo the assignment and was then able to catch up with the rest of the material.

It then helps to use this as evidence. You have a paper trail showing that you tried to help the student and they did not accept the help so they definitely deserve the low grade.

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