I am a university marker TA, and after midterm exam I met with a student who would not accept that he was wrong. He thought his answers were correct but didn't explain to me why his answers were correct. He just didn't accept my explanation. He also blamed me marking his assignment wrong, but later I found out it has nothing to do with me. It is my first time being a TA. Should I just tell him to talk to the instructor, and that my job is just marking?

Actually, I didn't explain too much because I don't know how to help him understand he is wrong even though he read the sample answer. And he didn't tell me why he is right.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – eykanal
    Feb 15, 2017 at 5:27
  • "I am a university marker TA" Your terminology is a bit unclear. Are you just a grader, or are you a full-fledged TA? Jan 24, 2019 at 22:11

5 Answers 5


Should I just tell him to talk to the instructor, and that my job is just marking?

Yes. There's no point in getting into an extended argument with this student. The student thought his answers were correct and you explained why they were not correct. Since you've denied the student's appeal of the grade, the next appropriate step is generally for the student to appeal to the instructor.

It's a good idea for you to warn the instructor that the student is likely to appeal the grade and to provide whatever information you can (such as a photocopy of the marked up exam question and any grading key that you used).

  • 61
    Let me add that a reasonable professor will probably confirm your result even in more debatable cases, unless your grading is outrageously wrong. Reason 1: doing otherwise would undermine trust in the grading abilities of the TAs in front of the students. Reason 2: if one gives the impression that grade-lawyering is an effective strategy, students will do it massively. It's like referee decisions in professional sports; they rarely get adjusted after the match. Feb 13, 2017 at 6:51
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    I'd say it's quite field dependent. I've been in courses where 'grade-lawyering' was actually encouraged, but where faulty appeals (more than a misunderstanding) would result in further grade loss. It led to both parties examining questions more thoroughly and ultimately led to a better understanding of the principles.
    – Weckar E.
    Feb 13, 2017 at 10:26
  • 2
    @FedericoPoloni - A good way to earn respect is to show that one can make a mistake and then accept it with honesty. Feb 14, 2017 at 4:44
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    @aparente001 I am not speaking about mistakes, but about judgments. "The TA didn't see page 2" or "The TA added up partial points wrongly" is a mistake that should be fixed. "The TA saw all your partial work, and judged that it was worth 3 points" is a deliberate decision that I would prefer not to override. Feb 14, 2017 at 7:15
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    I've had both. One professor insisted we discuss grades as a class. Another literally yelled at me "I'm not going to argue points with you," even though I was only asking why it was wrong, not arguing that it wasn't wrong. You can imagine which I respected more.
    – user23776
    Feb 14, 2017 at 17:53

In cases where the student does not agree with your reasoning and grading and discussion does not help, I recommend the procedure, I have described here:

Say that this will be dealt with by the instructor of the course and to let instructor do this the student has to write down on paper why he thinks that the grading was not correct and in which way it should be corrected. Explain to the student, that the instructor will evaluate the complain and that the student will get a reply from the instructor in written form.

  • I think that is good way. I just don't think it is a good idea that my instructor just let students meet marker directly. Feb 16, 2017 at 7:38

As one of the commenters noted, you have all the power and he has almost none. You must consider the possibility, albeit remote, that he has a point, but might just not be able to get it across. That doesn't mean you have to argue with him forever. On the contrary: Move things into writing. Tell him to submit his appeal in writing (and say that by email rather than only face-to-face), and to make sure he:

  • Explicitly states what is wrong in his opinion with what you did (calculation, comment, wording of the question etc.)
  • Explains why his answer is correct
  • Explains why the official answer is incorrect (if that's relevant in your case of course)

and that you will not further consider the matter unless he does so. (Note that you haven't committed your instruction to this position, but you have hinted he should do so rather than talk to the instructor. It's his choice.)

Now, if he doesn't submit a written appeal - the problem has gone away; he might talk to the instructor but you've "covered your ass". If he does submit it, then you'll consult your instructor regarding which one of you should handle the appeal.

If you believe he has a problem in bringing across a message which might be psychological, or having to do with some learning disability, and if you sense he's very frustrated or angry - don't tell him any of that, but you might also suggest to him he could consult a student union rep or a the faculty member "student advisor" about how to handle these situations. I don't think that would change anything substantive but perhaps having a "shoulder to cry on / shout at" that's not the evil TA who gave him a low grade might be helpful for him. Again, make sure it doesn't sound like you're accusing him of acting inappropriately, since if you do that he'll probably just hate your and not let go of the matter...

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    My one pass through something like this the official answer was not incorrect but the question didn't exclude a novel solution.
    – Joshua
    Feb 13, 2017 at 22:46
  • @Joshua - Can you rephrase your comment? I'm having trouble piecing the comments together. Thanks. Feb 14, 2017 at 4:38
  • 1
    @aparente001: I had a scenario like this. The question had a novel solution even the professor had never seen before. The TA didn't have a chance.
    – Joshua
    Feb 14, 2017 at 4:39
  • @Joshua - I'm starting to get it. You found a novel solution? Feb 14, 2017 at 4:42
  • @aparente001: Yup. And I see einpoklum addressed the point already.
    – Joshua
    Feb 14, 2017 at 4:42

Don't explain to the student why he is incorrect; place the burden on him to demonstrate that he is correct.

Propose a deal with the student that would give him most of the power by conditionally accepting that you are wrong. Tell him that you're willing to hear his side, admit that you are wrong and reconsider your marking of his assignment on the conditions that he:

(1) explain to you, in a comprehensible way, with facts and plain English (not hypotheticals, slang or colloquialisms), why you are wrong; and

(2) show you some empirical, verifiable, credible evidence to support that his answer (that you marked wrong on his assignment) is correct.

This gives him almost all of the power, but also places on him a burden that he will likely fail to meet. If he actually does meet this burden, then his answer should be marked "correct." In all likelihood, though, he will have no choice but to accept that he cannot explain to you why you are wrong and cannot show you any evidence that his answer is correct beyond, "I'm correct merely because I say I'm correct." Unless he suffers from some mental incapacity, he will understand (even if he won't admit it) that the failure is on his part and not yours. If he thenceforth continues asserting that you are wrong, you can remind him that you gave him an opportunity that he chose not to take or failed to bring to fruition.

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    This is not a good approach. You fail to take into account the nature of the cognitive bias that causes some students to insist that their solution is correct when objectively speaking it isn't. I witnessed this myself once when I spent an hour and a half going over a graduate student's exam with him and trying to explain to him why he got no points for several questions. The student did not have any "mental incapacity", he simply had a fatally flawed concept of what a mathematical proof is, how one should be written, and what separates a correct proof from an incorrect proof. It was ...
    – Dan Romik
    Feb 14, 2017 at 4:01
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    ... literally beyond his ability to see why his solutions were incorrect, and moreover, ego issues prevented him from accepting the fact that it was beyond his ability. Based on this experience I am confident that with students suffering from this ego-driven blind spot, your proposed method will fail catastrophically.
    – Dan Romik
    Feb 14, 2017 at 4:03

You may want to move your interaction to paper - email or written comment. If the student thinks that their grade is unfair, have them document why, and respond in kind. That way it doesn't turn into a weird explosive situation and it will force them to really think about whether or not they deserve a better grade. This also removes you from the liability inherent in a verbal conversation that is hard to prove.

And yes, next step is the instructor.

  • You are right, but the conflict has already happened when I realized that. You know when the students meet with you they are eager to get an answer. I don't know why my professor encourage meeting with TA, I found most cases are unnecessary. Feb 16, 2017 at 2:39

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