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Normally at the end of semester, there are always a couple of students begging for better grades. Let me just list a few sample cases:

Case 1: I worked really hard during the semester. I attended all lectures and recitations and did all homework assignments and practice exam problems. I just failed to do well in the exam because of my anxiety.

Case 2: I had some health/family issues in this semester, feeling depressed for a while.

Case 3: I need XXX GPA in order to maintain my financial support. If my grade falls below XXX then I will lose my financial support and have to drop out of school.

Because letter grades are used in United States and there is a little bit grey area of upgrading one's letter grade if their percentage grade are really close to that. But certainly there are students whose grade is 87% but want to get A (with percentage grade cutoff being 90%) or whose grade is 57% but still want to pass this class (60%).

When they describe their situation in a very miserable way like in the case 2 and 3 above, it is very difficult for me to simply say "No" although this is a common practice for most professors. Moreover, some students will keep emailing you or telling you in face about their situation, with an intention to give professor some sort of ``pressure". If one says NO before the teaching evaluation due, then it seems that they are really going to write a bad comment.

So, as experience teachers, what are your appropriate/smart ways (without being too hurtful to them) to decline students' requests of "begging for better grades" at the end of the semester?

I am an instructor in mathematics where there is little grey area in grading, but please feel free to talk about your teaching areas.


As an uncommon practice, one of my colleagues wrote in their syllabus for the course they taught explicitly something like "Please DO NOT ask me questions on how the grades will be curved or ask for better grades at the end of the semester. Your grades are determined by your demonstrated performance not your self-claimed effort". However, he cares less about teaching and is not a popular professor.

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    If one says NO before the teaching evaluation due - Are you saying student evaluations are not due till after they see their final exam grades?
    – Kimball
    Dec 10, 2023 at 12:58
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    Do you have university/department/course policies you can fall back on? Grading should be explained clearly in the syllabus, and for many courses this is set at a department level.
    – Kimball
    Dec 10, 2023 at 13:08
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    "You can't get extra points just because you're a good negotiator. That's not fair to the bad negotiators in the class who also worked really hard."
    – B. Goddard
    Dec 11, 2023 at 17:16
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    @Kimball university/department/course policies will not write anything clearly in such a grey area (nothing like "an instructor is allowed to upgrade 89.12 to A but 88.71 has to be a B+"). A lot of professors would curve the grade. No one tells them and no one (senior faculty) wants to be told how they should curve the grades.
    – No One
    Dec 11, 2023 at 20:55
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    @NoOne Well it's important to have a clear grading policy, and explain it in advance. This is not to say it can't have flexibility, but, could be something like: for students on the borderline, I will bump up students who performed well on the final exam, or had good attendance, or whatever you think is important. Personally, what I (may) do now is lower the letter grade cutoffs after final exams based on the distribution of final percentage scores to try to match up with natural gaps in grades.
    – Kimball
    Dec 12, 2023 at 13:44

13 Answers 13

71

I'm also an instructor of mathematics (at a community college with constantly high failure rates). I call this period of the semester, about a week or two after final exams, "purgradtory". It must be considered a standard part of the job -- and like everything in academia, you need to manage your time wisely. Here's my rough protocol:

  1. On the first contact, I take the opportunity to warmly-professionally engage with the student, try to think about what didn't work out, and what their steps going forward will be. In some cases this is the only time the student has been open to engaging with me, so I want to make use of this learning opportunity. I try to keep this to maybe a paragraph or two at most.

  2. On the second contact, if it's still phrased as a dispute (which it usually is), then I get very curt. Many of my students have language and/or reading comprehension problems, and I can't afford to have any confusion at this point (e.g., I had issues with that as a new instructor). My response here is likely to be, "The listed grade is final. Feel free to double check with the formula shown in the syllabus".

  3. On the third or further contact, I don't respond.

It's this last item that I've clarified in my repertoire fairly recently. In some cases, students will be willing to cycle with you endlessly, hoping that at some point you'll capitulate from fatigue (and surely they've had success with that approach in the past). The key observation of late is that I don't need to persuade the student that my judgement is correct. All I can do is give the fairest and most transparent assessment I can, and if a certain student is dissatisfied with that, then I can't engage in an open-ended debate about it.

As a side point, I'll observe that the level of interaction I do provide here is discouraged, and considered administratively risky, by my department -- their official advice is to not respond at any point on grade disputes. I think I'm fairly careful in my responses and haven't had a problem with it to date. I keep in mind that anything I write could potentially be submitted to an advisor or dean as part of a complaint -- so when writing any responses, I imagine that I'm writing for both these audiences, and give appropriate context to make the situation clear to a third party.

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    their official advice is to not respond at any point on grade disputes — that's interesting, because people who grade are fallible. I've had exams returned where a grading error worked in my disadvantage (tutor overlooked that my answer continued on the next page), and my grade increased on revision. It seems unfair that no such "second opinion" is offered under any circumstances.
    – gerrit
    Dec 11, 2023 at 7:36
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    @gerrit - The best rules tend to have the best exceptions. Please notice the following excellent point in this answer: "Feel free to double check with the formula shown in the syllabus" I'm 100% sure that a clerical error would end up corrected even if pointed out clearly enough only in the fourth message from the student. There's a difference between reading what the student wrote, and re-explaining why the grade will stand (if it will). Dec 11, 2023 at 9:16
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    As an additional point in the second letter, I'd explicitly state that "I won't be able to discuss your grade further unless there has been a mistake in the grading". This informs the student that they should not expect any further "egging" to work and saves them an additional email.
    – Neinstein
    Dec 11, 2023 at 9:37
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    @gerrit I agree, morevover, I would expect at least a generic "sorry, the grade is final unless grading errors were made" response to be issued. No reason leaving the student in doubt for weeks, hoping for a reply that will never come.
    – Neinstein
    Dec 11, 2023 at 10:50
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    @gerrit what's also unfair is that students waste instructors' valuable time by trying to get their grades boosted for no good reason. So blame those leeches, not the instructors.
    – Ian Kemp
    Dec 11, 2023 at 12:33
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It is important to recognize - and I tell this to students in the situation you describe - that you are judging the academic value of the work they submitted, not the student as a person, or the personal circumstances of this student. It is also important to avoid making this “personal”, i.e. about the specific student.

You can sympathize with difficulties due to personal situations, but it still does not change the final outcome - however hard they worked - which is that the student underperformed compared with their expectations, or that the student has not mastered the material sufficiently well compared to your expectations to merit an increase in letter grade. After all, if you were to bump the grades of all students disappointed with their performance, everyone would give themselves an A.

Moreover, by bumping this student, you are penalizing those students who made the strategic decision to invest more time to study this material rather than the material in other courses. Finally, if this is just a one-off instance of an underperformance, this will be nullified by a one-off instance of an over performance: on average a disappointing result will be offset by a surprisingly good performance.

Dealing with students with very legitimate difficulties is not pleasant, but your job is to assess how well they know the material.

Finally, remember that students take more than one course so blaming “your course” for not maintaining a GPA is not much of an argument. If you present your decision as professional, and avoid discussing or commenting on personal issues, you will not only hold the line in this instance, but you will earn a reputation as a fair marker: this will likely decrease the number of students pleading for grades in the future.

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    "Moreover, by bumping this student, you are penalizing those students who made the strategic decision to invest more time to study this material rather than the material in other courses." That sounds unfair. One's achievements and grades should depend solely on one's own effort and not the actions of others.
    – Vilx-
    Dec 10, 2023 at 16:02
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    @Vilx- I disagree. The final grade is very rarely only about the achievements of students, but almost always about the achievements of students given some reasonable common constraints. Assessments have deadlines or time limits, and you cannot choose to selectively ignore those constraints for some students but enforce these constraints for other without being unfair. Dec 10, 2023 at 16:41
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    @user76284 Allright, competence too. I mean... the goal is to verify that the student has learned what the teacher has taught. Tests and assessments are only means to this end. Some effort will be needed to learn, but this will vary by person, of course. What I mean to say is - if your grading scheme somehow lowers the score of some people, if others perform exceptionally well, then it's not fair.
    – Vilx-
    Dec 10, 2023 at 18:33
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    Although, to be honest, the more I think about it, the more I cannot see any truly "fair" way of testing. Do what you will, there's flaws in everything.
    – Vilx-
    Dec 10, 2023 at 18:42
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    @ZeroTheHero Also, the students who accepted their marks and don't beg may have had the very same circumstances the begging student had. It would indeed be really unjust to bump someone who complained, and leave those who didn't. IMO this is the strongest argument againist "circumstancial grading". Everyone has issues, especially in university.
    – Neinstein
    Dec 11, 2023 at 10:54
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I don't know if universities in the US have similar principles, but where I studied (in the UK) health issues would come under a "mitigating circumstances" protocol, which is administered not by individual lecturers but by the department. So for your (1) and (2) examples (anxiety and health/family issues) I think an appropriate position to take would be to say that they should make use of the typical processes for these situations, which normally have specified thresholds and levels of support. This ensures that the support they get will be proportionate and available to everyone who has the same situation, and doesn't put you in the tough spot of having to evaluate their situation.

NB: this might result in an outcome different to what you asked (you asked how to decline them, but in some instances support will be warranted).

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    In the US, instructors are usually expected to make "reasonable accommodations" health issues etc, but without clear guidance and they should handle it themselves. (Disability/severe anxiety is a bit different, but depends on school.) However, students should also not wait until the end of the course to bring up these issues if they have been ongoing.
    – Kimball
    Dec 10, 2023 at 13:06
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    @Kimball I'll be honest: I don't make accommodations for health, deaths in the family, etc. I do not want to be responsible for arbitrating "acceptable" reasons for missing work and "unacceptable" reasons. So my syllabus is set up in such a way that students can miss a few assignments, and it isn't the end of the world. If they have a more severe problem, it is likely that they are going to need accommodations in all of their classes, hence it is the responsibility of the dean or the director of the office if accessibility and inclusion to tell me what to do. Dec 10, 2023 at 17:27
  • @XanderHenderson Maybe this is a difference in our universities. I agree about accessibility issues, but if they are sick/injured/etc and have to miss an exam, I believe our dean wants us to handle it ourselves. If we do nothing, and the student complains to the department chair or dean, then usually our chair/dean is unhappy with us.
    – Kimball
    Dec 10, 2023 at 18:14
  • @Kimball As I said, I try to structure my courses so that a student missing a couple of assignments isn't going to be a problem, so that I don't have to adjudicate "excused" vs "unexcused" absences. The only "must do" assignment is the final, and in a desperate situation, a student could take an "Incomplete" and finish the class in the following semester. And the more severe kind of circumstance I am thinking of (which would involve a dean) is a student needing to make accommodations for all of their classes---my dean would very much like to know about such a circumstance. Dec 10, 2023 at 18:21
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    One advantage of deferring to the department is the student probably has to make the same application for multiple courses happening in parallel, so this allows for a consistent and more in depth approach (eg ask for a doctor's letter), as well as being less work for the student, and the committee (who the student may not know personally) can decide on the basis of the facts. Dec 11, 2023 at 18:27
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TL;DR: I have checked the marking of your work, and can confirm the mark you received is correct.


In the first two of your cases, the student has some condition or circumstance which might need to be taken into account during an assessment, but these can't be used to adjust a mark that has already been given. In these cases the student should be told that they need to inform the department about such things before they take the assessment. In rare cases a student might not be able to do this due to e.g. not receiving a diagnosis soon enough; then the university might have a policy for invalidating the mark and allowing the student to retake the assessment (and have this treated as their first attempt).

The key here is that these cases should be handled by somebody else who is responsible for implementing the relevant policy; so your response should direct the student towards the appropriate somebody-else.


The only reason a student's mark should be changed after the assessment has already been marked, is if a mistake was made in the marking. However, this is a possibility. We are all human, and if you mark a few thousand pieces of student work over several years then you're bound to make a handful of mistakes that don't get caught at some point between the initial marking and the release of marks to students.

It would be very surprising if a mistake in the marking scheme itself went unnoticed during marking, and typically the grader will not make subject-matter mistakes; but procedural mistakes can happen, like leaving a page on an exam script unmarked (especially if the student left some blank pages before it), arithmetic mistakes when adding up the raw marks or converting to a percentage, or mis-entering a mark into the computer. The most likely mistakes are the trivial ones, and it's fairly quick to check for them.

So, whenever a student has contacted me to question their grade, I've taken a look at the work and how it was marked, to see if a mistake was made. In almost all cases, there is no mistake; but then I could honestly respond to the student to say: I have checked the marking of your work, and can confirm the mark you received is correct.

This response tells the student that you've taken their concern seriously, rather than outright dismissing the possibility that their mark could be incorrect. It also gets across that a mark can't be changed for any reason other than a marking error, without having to imply that the student was asking for special treatment.


A final note: if you receive many requests like this, it's possible that some other member of staff has agreed to change marks (e.g. out of pity), and that word of this practice has spread to other students, who then figure it's worth trying for themselves. Ask your colleagues if they receive similar requests, and how they handle them.

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None of those are valid reasons to change a grade. Especially at the end of the semester when it is unlikely that you can have them do something additional to earn a few marks. (see below for a direct answer)

Longer term, however, you can make the grading scheme both transparent and "correctable" with some changes. And this can lessen the possibility of bad comments. It is called cumulative grading.

My scheme was to make a course worth 1000 points with a number of activities, including exams, each worth a known number of points. The points required for each grade was advertised, say 900 for an A. I had exams as about 30% of the total, but that can be as you like. A student could simply add up the points they had earned to know exactly where they are.

On graded work other than exams, they were allowed to resubmit work after grading to get back a few of the lost points, but not all of them. I was pretty generous in this since I consider rework to be a valid learning experience - reinforcement.

With this scheme you are unlikely to get complaints, especially at the end of the course. They had plenty of chances along the way to improve their totals if they chose.

A potential downside, however, is that if someone earns, say 700 points, and is satisfied with a C, they don't need to do anything more in the course. For non-majors this might be acceptable (or not).

One additional feature of this was that at the end of the course I looked over the grades and asked myself whether I thought they represented fairly what students had learned. If the grades seemed low, I might boost everyone a bit. Also, the boundaries were always a bit "fuzzy" at the end, with nobody missing the next grade by just a few out of 1000 points. The rationale for fuzziness is that I couldn't be sure that my grading was perfectly (perfectly) accurate in every case. So, the benefit went to the student in marginal cases. They didn't need to ask and might, on occasion, been pleasantly surprised. That isn't a bad thing.

I used this for several years. I was considered "tough but fair".


But for a more direct answer to your question, ask them how your grading has been unfair along the way. If they don't have a good answer for that, they have little to complain about. They need to learn that they need to be responsible for their own behavior. Gifting them isn't going to help.

And, to emphasize, if a student has medical conditions, like anxiety or depression, accommodations can be made, but not after just claiming them at the end of the course. There are procedures for that and they need to be implemented throughout the course. A last minute claim is likely just an excuse. If you think otherwise, refer them to the office for such things and take the advice you get from there.

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    I'm confused what grading system your suggestion stands in opposite to. This is how every course I've ever heard of is graded in the US and Canada. Dec 9, 2023 at 20:25
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    @AzorAhai-him- I think it's more about the strategy of having students "accumulate" points toward some goal; more often, it's framed as "averaging" with some weights on different assignments. The end result is exactly the same.
    – Bryan Krause
    Dec 9, 2023 at 23:05
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    Gian-Carlo Rota graded a class in probability I took from him at MIT in the late 60’s by strictly summing points. It was unique in that the available points during the semester added up to much more than required for an A. He stated that he might include a question on a problem set that was previously unsolved. All it to took to get a A was solve just one. Getting enough for a C and not continuing was a feature not a bug. A very inspiring teacher. Dec 10, 2023 at 17:42
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    @GeorgeWhite, I generally advertised to my students that there would be one very difficult problem on the final, though not an unsolved one.
    – Buffy
    Dec 10, 2023 at 18:41
  • @BryanKrause Hm I suppose. Never thought of it that way Dec 11, 2023 at 5:20
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I have encountered similar cases, to varying degrees, in my own teaching. I am actually very open to requests to review assessment items and grades and I make it a habit to allocate time for this after each assessment item is graded. I like to establish a dynamic where students feel free to come to me with grading queries and concerns, and I want them to be able to confirm that the grades they are awarded are objective, consistent, and fair. While I am certainly open to any query about my grading, I do not countenance requests for unearned increases in grades based on extraneous factors. In such cases, I recommend you try to gently but firmly explain the following:

  1. The purpose of university grading is to make an estimate of the present level of mastery of the subject by the student. This is for both diagnostic and accreditation purposes. The grade is not an estimate or reflection of their level of effort or any other virtues they may have as a person, and it is not a method to secure them some extraneous benefit. Nor does their grade reflect any permanent assessment of their competence; a student might get a poor or mediocre grade in a subject but go on to master that subject later in life.

  2. While there can be adverse life consequences from bad grades, being a university lecturer requires us to be fair to all the students in our courses, not just the ones who may suffer advere effects from a bad grade. Giving a student a higher grade than is reflective of their present mastery of the subject, on the basis of some extraneous consideration, is unfair to other students in the course and it dilutes the value of the grades that they have legitimately earned. Bumping up a grade on an extraneous basis is a betrayal of other students in the course and it is immoral.

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This doesn't specifically answer your question as stated and might be more of a comment but I'd like to write out a bit more than a comment can fit.

I'm not an instructor but I've spent plenty of time being a student. Undergrad, graduate, full-time, part-time. When I have an assignment or an exam, I stay up late or take time off work as necessary to do the work. If it's not enough and I get a bad grade, I get what I get and I move on. There are students that cheat, complain that exams aren't fair, ask for more time after the original assignment period. I find this natural and shrug it off. What does make me angry is when instructors do cute stuff like give more time for a take-home exam at the 11th hour, forgive cheating, weigh down assignments that were initially promised to be a larger portion of the final grade. An instructor that does this may think they're being nice but they are screwing over students that put in effort and planning into the course work.

Fudging people's grades because they asked for it is in the same vein.

Set a syllabus, clearly let the students know what's expected, follow the plan. Grade on a curve (or not so long as it's known ahead of time). Grade true and fair, not higher for people that come to you with a sob-story.

If a student truly has circumstances outside their control, that should certainly be addressed but not by the instructor. As for what to tell the students that try to have their grade raised, it sounds like you have plenty of examples around you, you just don't like them because you feel they are harsh. I might only suggest saying something to the effect of "it would not be fair to the other students" and directing them to whatever authority can help them if they have a legitimate problem.

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I do get Case I and Case II sometimes, different variations of both. I usually ask students to approach me and discuss their grade, so I actually encourage it.

However, I did find that when I wanted to say "NO" without saying it directly, the argument of "fairness" to other students usually worked.

I am arguing that I cannot do this because it will be unfair to other students who also made the effort!

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The assumption that students would hate you is not necessarily true. I know of students who laugh about examiners who give in to such requests. Such students may lose all respect if you do it. With those you'll have a better standing if you don't. Most students understand that grades are about the quality of the delivered work; the probability is not too low that this even holds for those who complain but "one can always try".

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You can symphathize with the student without allowing room for bending the marks. You are a person with feelings, but you are also a teacher with obligations. So that's what I would say:

As a person, I understand your issues, and I symphatize with you. However, as a teacher, I also have obligations to adhere to. Being consistent with the grading is an important one of these. As such, the mark can only be influenced by the presented knowledge of the course material at the time of the exam, and nothing else, as written in the syllabus; and I am unable to consider any personal circumstances in the grading. If you believe there has been a mistake, and the grade does not correspond to what's in the syllabus of the course, please let me know; but if the grade is correct, unfortunately I am unable to discuss it any further.

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At my institution, the matter is dealt with easily. Begging does no good. An assessor is not permitted to change the grade. If the student thinks that they haven't been dealt with fairly, they can appeal ... a fact of which I'd ensure they were aware. Few do.

Ad hoc approaches to dealing with begging strike me as inherently unfair to almost everyone involved including to those students who did not beg, or did not phrase their begging in a suitably emotive way.

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Grades are not a reward for doing the work. They're feedback on how well you learned the material. In particular, they let the students know whether they're ready to take courses for which this course is a prerequisite (and at the end, whether they're ready to do work in their field of study). If you inflate the grades, you're telling them that they're ready when they aren't, which isn't helpful. If their poor performance was due to external factors, that's reason to be sympathetic, but it doesn't change how well they understand the material that was covered.

Of the excuses you listed, (3) (loss of funding due to low GPA) is the only excuse that is somewhat valid, since it doesn't do much good to know they need to retake a course if they can't afford to do so ("You don't know enough, therefore we will prevent you from learning more!"). In such a case, you might advise them to talk to the financial aid office to see what alternative sources of funding might be available. The options will vary from country to country, but it may be possible to take out student loans so as to finish their degree even if they lose a scholarship.

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    As was pointed out in one of the responses above, the last one is probably the LEAST valid of them all. If one's GPA is too low, it's the result of many low grades that were averaged into this GPA. I mean, that the student indeed has a low GPA and is facing loss of financial aid may well be true (although I've had students lying about that too), but it's NEVER just because of this one math course.
    – zipirovich
    Dec 12, 2023 at 2:09
  • @zipirovich I consider it most valid entirely because of the consequences. The other excuses don't prevent them from retaking the course. Note that I don't suggest giving them a better grade in this or any class because of it, but rather that they should seek help from the financial aid office so they can retake the course. For the other excuses, there's nothing currently stopping them from retaking the course, so the solution is to just do that.
    – Ray
    Dec 12, 2023 at 15:55
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    @Ray If one faces financial loss due to their low GPA, and cannot retake the course, that's not on the teachers. It is the system working as intended, filtering out poorly performing students. All students have the same framework of rules, and this student would have had to study better and earn a higher mark and not lose the scholarship. As ziprovich said, GPA is an average. Their failure preventing them from retaking the course is on their hand, and not caused by a single teacher or a single course. So yeah, it's indeed the least valid excuse.
    – Neinstein
    Dec 13, 2023 at 11:10
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    @Ray I somewhat agree with the spirit, but if there are limited funds availlable, the distribution of those funds have to be optimized. (Whether the funds are actually limited is a different topic.) Furthermore, my point was not whether to allow the child to retake the course or not, but that failing the scholarship requirements has nothing to do whatsoever with the course in question, and therefore should not influence the grade at all. The rules may be cruel, but when the student accepted the scholarship, they agreed to play by them. Failure is not on the hand of the professor.
    – Neinstein
    Dec 14, 2023 at 8:18
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    @Ray To put it frankly - yes, a poor grade has consequences, they always had, and no, the consequences should not affect the grading, as they have nothing to do with the demonstrated knowledge at all.
    – Neinstein
    Dec 14, 2023 at 8:20
-2

As a professor for over 20 years, I want to point out an important issue. If students are given power over your professional evaluations, you need to make an informed decision about your circumstances. Is the stress worth the position that you have? Usually, end of course evaluations are given 1) to appease the students and 2) as a means of getting rid of unwanted faculty. There truly is no middle ground here. My advice is to let the evaluations be "like water on a duck's back" where it simply rolls off. It is much better to "schmooze" the decision makers as they are the end game in the first place!

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