I recently was returned a midterm I wrote. One question I interpreted differently than what was intended. As a result I got 0.5/3 marks, which isn't a big deal but considering the test was only out of 15, it adds up. Due to timing conflicts I'm unable to meet the prof during office hours, but have scheduled to talk to him after next class.

I'm getting a bit stressed out, I'm uncertain what to say and what to ask for. If I had interpreted the question he intended it to, then I'm sure I could have gotten full marks. Any suggestions? This is the second time it happened but the first was only for 0.5 mark, so I let it slide.

The question had to do with output of a program and asked "what are all possible outputs of the program?" and I wrote down the correct answer, but what he was getting at was if the program was rerun the output may be in a different order so he wanted the answer to have all possible permutations.

Does anyone have recomendations on how many marks to ask for or have a policy on when to talk to the prof when you think you deserve more marks?

  • 8
    Explain the situation to him and listen carefully to what he says. – earthling Oct 26 '14 at 2:35
  • 2
    I'm not certain of the reason for the negative votes. – Oswald Veblen Oct 26 '14 at 2:54
  • Are you sure your interpretation of the question made any sense (especially taking into account what this course was about, and what kind of problems you had in the exercises)? – Jukka Suomela Oct 26 '14 at 9:26
  • @JukkaSuomela yes. The only thing I feel silly about is after seeing how much the marks were I should have known he expected more and asked to clarify the question. – Celeritas Oct 26 '14 at 9:37

Does anyone have recomendations on how many marks to ask

Yes, one: do not, absolutely, ask for a specific amount of marks. Explain your interpretation, but leave to the professor to decide whether you deserve more marks or not and, in case, how many.

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    Agreed. Psychologically, the more the students seems to see the grading as a "negotiation" of sorts, the more likely the prof is to just shut down entirely to the issue. – xLeitix Oct 26 '14 at 13:36
  • At my university, office politics are very strong, and instructors see it as a sign of weakness if they give a new grade because it shows they made a mistake and change their mind. – Celeritas Jul 26 '16 at 9:57
  • @Celeritas Unfortunately, mistakes happen and politics that deny this don't change the reality: even the best professors make mistakes. Recognizing this, and being able to cope with it, is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength, and actually increases the respect of the students for the professors. – Massimo Ortolano Jul 26 '16 at 10:17

In the situation you described, in principle it seems reasonable to ask for the professor to reconsider the grading, based on what you've written. If you do, here are a few tips:

  • Be polite. Take the professor's personality into account. You don't have to be sycophantic, just be professional.

  • Be clear about the situation without being verbose. Choose neutral wording - don't insult the exam or make it seem like you are trying to dodge responsibility.

  • Don't put the professor "on the spot" - don't pressure them to decide immediately, especially if you are talking to them just after class. If it is at all possible, try to meet at office hours instead. Perhaps give them your exam and ask if they will look at the question and get back to you.

  • Listen carefully to the response. You can stand up for yourself, but being aggressive is not likely to help anything, so avoid any appearance of that.

That is my opinion about asking. Whether you will receive extra points is a separate question. Certainly, a few professors may be completely unreasonable.

In my experience most professors want to be reasonable, but they may have other valid concerns about changing the grade, which you would not be aware of:

  • Whether changing your grade would require changing other students' grades in order to be fair. This might not be straightforward if the exams have been returned.

  • Whether, in the professor's opinion, you had enough examples of similar problems to know what was intended.

  • Whether the change is likely to actually affect your final class grade. It it seems unlikely to change your overall grade, and there are other concerns about making the change, this may lead the professor to say no.

  • Whether many other students are asking for grade changes - which may be less reasonable. There is sometimes a concern that one exception to a policy will lead to many more - so a seemingly inflexible policy may be an attempt to avoid a slippery slope.

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  • These are excellent suggestions. – xLeitix Oct 26 '14 at 13:35

From the perspective of the marker:

At any time, even the best students might misunderstand a question, and go off the rails in answering it. That's ok, no one exam question or coursework question is a big deal in the final Masters mark. The final assessment, references, and so on, will all be based on the overall course, not one question.

But when a student gets in touch to say they disagree with their mark, and want to negotiate a new one, and they're doing this outside of (or in the absence of) any existing appeal framework, then in my experience that's usually a sign that there are much deeper problems: that this isn't an unlucky incident, this is a problem student.

Bear that in mind.

Don't do any of the things you propose doing. Instead, appoach someone who taught that module and was involved in the marking; tell them that you know you screwed up on that question by misinterpreting what it was asking; and ask how you could have avoided it, and how you can avoid repeating that mistake in the future. Then, if the question genuinely was ambiguous, there's a good chance they'll understand the issue, and take compensatory / corrective action if appropriate. And if it wasn't ambiguous, their answer to your question will help you learn, which is - ultimately - the whole point of the exercise.

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