There is a student who attended a seminar where they were supposed to study an assigned research paper and deliver a presentation to the class. Their presentation was very low quality. Four (!) seminar tutors, from post-doc to associate professor level, all agreed to assign a low grade. I am confident that all reasonable measures to ensure fairness were taken. The student received a careful explanation of the grade based on a clear (and beforehand known) list of partially evaluated rubrics.

The evaluation turned out to be a big blow to the student's ego and even after several weeks, the person can't digest the failure, despite very careful explanation on the spot, as well as several interactions and (failed) attempts to "better the grade by performing some extra work". The student keeps coming back with requests for additional explanation of particularities of the failure.

What is/are the right pedagogical technique(s) to handle such a situation?

  • clearly, the student has a high self-esteem and opinion about him/herself
  • probably did not face a situation of a miserable failure before in the past
  • the student does not seem to see/accept the relative difference in his/her performance and the rest of the peer group

My question is only about the student's unwillingness to accept the grade, not about the student's performance or the grade's fairness.

  • 7
    My answer would be similar to others, so I just add an anecdote. In one of graduate courses, I gave a perfect class presentation, but my professor gave me 9.5 out of 10. His reason was that my presentation took 47 min., while the assigned time for each presentation was 45 min. Although it seemed a little funny, but I was convinced.
    – user4511
    Commented Apr 8, 2013 at 8:54
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    Send them here
    – wim
    Commented Apr 8, 2013 at 12:46
  • 27
    You're going to hate me for saying this, but please also consider the possibility of your own evaluation of the student's work. Your term "delusional" is not, in my opinion, a good way to describe a student to an online community. Too frequently I hear professors complain about this kind of thing, when occasionally (yes, it happens), the professors themselves are suffering from a Dunning-Kruger effect and believe in their own infallibility.
    – James
    Commented Apr 9, 2013 at 0:31
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    @James: fair point. But here we speak about a committee of 4(!) teachers of different levels unanimously coming to the same evaluation, itself based on a clear list of partially evaluated rubrics. Everything in the powers of the teachers was done to ensure fairness of evaluation.
    – walkmanyi
    Commented Apr 9, 2013 at 7:17
  • 4
    I work with people fresh from school sometimes and the whole concept of rubric just doesn't make me feel really good. One of the things fresh kids seem to have trouble with is subjective evaluation - schools need to prepare students for that. Not everything can be fairly measured, and sometimes you are measured wrongly, and you need to be able to deal with that. Sounds like this student needs a hard lesson in "you can't change the past" and taught how to move on and improve. Maybe more detail about their failings would help, but in my experience, it doesn't. They just need to forget about it.
    – Jasmine
    Commented Apr 9, 2013 at 15:19

8 Answers 8


My first question to you would be

Did you lay out the assignment expectations and how the grade would be determined when you gave the assignment?

If the answer is "yes" (and I expect that it is), I would use that as a starting point for explaining to the student why he/she did poorly.

That aside, it seems that either (1) the student didn't understand what was expected (regardless of the question above), and/or (2) the student isn't prepared for the type of work required, and/or (3) the student had a bad day.

It sounds to me like the answer is firmly #2, as repeated attempts to improve the grade hasn't worked. Given that you've already spent a good deal of time with the student, it might be time to have a heart-to-heart discussion and say that it is time to stop thinking about that grade and to move on. Obviously, you need to do this diplomatically, but (as they say), to make an omelet you need to break some eggs, and sometimes a firm and diplomatic "get over it" is appropriate. I would pose the following questions to the student:

  1. Do you have a clear set of goals that you are working on for the class?
  2. Do you know what other grades are going to be part of the final grade for the class, and do you have a plan for making sure you are ready for each assignment / talk?
  3. Do you conduct practice talks with other students in order to get constructive feedback? (if not, you should!)
  4. (If the problem is English language skills) Have you sought out on-campus help with your writing or speaking skills? (this is available at many larger universities in the States)

Depending on how much time you are willing to devote to helping the student improve, you could also offer to sit in on any future practice talks to give pointers and feedback. Likewise for written work -- you could offer to pre-read assignments. This is a slippery slope, so tread carefully. You want to avoid having the student see you as an always-available tutor, but there are times when providing such support is just part of the job.

Finally, I would stress to the student that one bad grade does not make or break a student, and it is better to make mistakes while in school than later when they might mean more in the bigger picture. School is about learning, and you learn from mistakes.

  • 4
    P.S.: my first ever college grade was a 47% on a chemistry exam (the average was 80%). I was devastated, but got over it, and ended up with a "B" in the class. Commented Apr 8, 2013 at 8:35
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    +1 for it is time to stop thinking about that grade and to move on. I see students who will dwell far too long over a grade without understanding that while it can be good to do a full post-mortem, at some point you should just accept it and look to the future.
    – earthling
    Commented Apr 8, 2013 at 11:34
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    I am not a teacher, but I think sometimes students can think a grade unfair because of how hard they worked on it. This student is probably looking at how much work they did, and not (just) at the outcome of their work. "How could I put in so much effort and do so poorly?" is probably their real question. Telling them what is wrong with the presentation tells them why they did poorly, but they still don't get what they should do differently in their process in order to arrive at the same level as everyone else. (agree #2 in answer) Commented Oct 27, 2014 at 22:40
  • 1
    A generic 'it was lower quality' is very unhelpful if the student doesn't understand what they did wrong in order to improve and not make the same mistakes next time. If you make clear the grade won't change but here are the particular points that could have been better only then can you say it is time to move on. Refusing to even discuss a seemingly arbitrary low grade without adequate explanation is one of the most demoralising things you can possibly do.
    – JamesRyan
    Commented Dec 8, 2015 at 12:19

This can be tricky.

To answer properly, it is important to know if the student is asking about explanations for his grade or just demanding/requesting a better grade.

The second case seems "easier" to me because then one can just ask for a specific reason why the student thinks, that a higher grade would be appropriate (or just reply that there is no negotiation about grades).

In the first case, when the student asks for explanations, one has to distinguish again: Is the student interested in explanations, to learn from failure and to improve, or to prove that the grading was not appropriate.

Here the first case is easy as soon as you can make sure that the student understands your points. In the second case one could, in principle fall back to the case above: Ask for specific points and don't negotiate about grades. I think that most difficult part is to ensure that you do not have to repeat yourself too often. You could work with written notes for you and/or the student on which you can build for a next discussion. If you see (from the notes) that the discussion is not evolving you can communicate this to the student. If you have the notes of the last session available, and the student raises a point which you have discussed, you can point to the notes and ask what is still remaining about this point. If he repeats the same issue from the last session, answer that there is no negotiation about grades.

Regarding self-esteem and experience of failure, it is important to communicate that science and also learning science if a lot about failure. There is this famous quote from Samuel Beckett:

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

Also, failure in a learning task shall not be related to self-esteem in any way (sometimes hard to accept for students). You can help the student by talking exclusively about his performance in relation to the task he had to do.

  • (+1) for the Beckett quote, and for the exact separation of possible situations. Commented Oct 28, 2014 at 19:59

I was marking computer programs by hand, which dates this story. I awarded the single worst program 1 point out of 10, which I believe was promised for getting one's name in the correct place. Over half of the lines had elementary syntax errors, which was remarkable because he composed it at a Mac (512!); only the grading was from paper. He thought with only half of the lines clearly, totally wrong he deserved 5/10.

Finally I told him that if I cut off half his body he would be totally dead. This wasn't very nice, but it did stop the complaints.

  • 3
    This is a great answer to my old question :-).
    – walkmanyi
    Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 19:52

An all too familiar situation. I will focus not so much on what to do about this particular student but what can be done for the future.

In my university system we use grading criteria, which I think can also be referred to as "rubrics". The main point here is that you set up careful critiera for what should be met for each grade. You can then tick off what is fulfilled as a basis for grading. You also need some weighing system to add the different criteria into a single grade. This is also important and can be done in different ways. In some systems aritthmetically, in others by stating rules for what is a specific grade (such as to get a B you need nothing lower than a B on all criteria). Room for experimentation and discussion!

The students should know (be carefully informaed about) the grading criteria and how they are weighted to the final grade by the time they start the course. When the grade is set it becomes very easy to explain why the grade became what it became and it will be up to the student to argue why they have met a higher criteria than what they have been given.

Now, the caveat, this will not work better than how carefully you have done the ground work with putting together the criteria. So while rubriics involves quite a lot of pre-course thinking to begin with, rewards for all concerned are large at the end.

A final remark: I find that the grades I provide are more or less exactly what I would have given by just reading it and setting the grade based on my impression. The criteria provides an explicit basis for that judgement. I have interpreted this as "we know what we are doing but we may not have expressed it explicitly to ourselves."

A quick search on some combination of "rubrics", "grading criteria", "essay writing" etc. should give plenty of ideas. I do not have a good starting resource to provide at this stage.

  • 1
    +1 I have studied (and occasionally taught) in three universities in two different countries, the first two used an evaluation system very similar to the one you are proposing, the latest used the "classic-north-american" system based almost solely in "comparison with peers". I find the first one to be a lot more fair and difficult to argue against, but it is more difficult to implement.
    – yms
    Commented Apr 8, 2013 at 15:17
  • 3
    @Peter, what breaks my heart is that we are using these on the elementary level. In elite private grammar schools on the East Coast of the US, students are taught to expect a rubric Q&A as a part of the assignment. Opened-ended questions asking simply to justify an answer have become too "open to interpretation." What can be done for the future? I can say only that future shock seems to hit every generation equally.
    – livresque
    Commented Apr 9, 2013 at 1:20

Say something like

I cannot go over this assignment again with you. There are several other students who need my attention, and we have already discussed this issue multiple times. The grade you made is final, but you can improve your overall grade on the next assignment.

It is your job to give out the grade you feel is appropriate. You did that. I would also instruct the TAs not to go over this assignment with him either. Right now all you can do is explain that the grade is final, and their is nothing he can do about it.

When students enter college they are immature, part of your job as a prof is to treat them like adults, and help turn them into mature, professional people.


Although this rubric from Rubistar is certainly not tailored to the university level, it is an good example and a useful tool in regards to the rising need for teachers to "prove" a grade (in any sense, not simply "good" vs."bad").

This is on the rampage, and rubrics seem to be the safest way to show students (and parents...and administrators...) what is going on in our heads as educators evaluating based our own (formerly self-evident) assignment criteria.

Giving students, their classmates, and TA's similar rubrics, rewording with "I showed" or "SWBAT" can prove, if you will, how delusional any party may be.


Fixing the problem after the fact is hard. I am aware the advice comes late now, but the rules of engagement are easy to set at the beginning, not the end.

Therefore, I often map out such problems ahead of time. If it's a one-on-one (e.g. in a project or individual coursework), and I notice students that I believe have much higher expectations of themselves than I estimate is warranted, then I set my expectations very explicit and clear and even higher than normal to leave a quality buffer to what you think would be a good solution.

Good students will usually accept the challenge without argument (one way to distinguish them, BTW!), but weaker, but ambitious students then realise that there is a lot more to do than they thought was needed and may sometimes complain or become argumentative. These are used to getting away well with comparatively little in the past. Stick to your guns, and you may be surprised as to what you can get out of them in the end. It also gives them a good learning experience in that, in the end of the process, they understand the nature of excellence and develop a newfound level of pride in their own achievement.

If you suspect you have such people in class, the idea is similar, but, of course, undirected. Make clear it is a hard class upfront. Don't give them the impression they can "wing it". It is much easier to start out tough and to decide to go for milder approach later on if you think that is appropriate than the other way round. Some care needs to be taken, though, to not increase the anxiety of already insecure students - so, tough requirements can be balanced by offers of support.


It depends very much on what kind of class this is, and what kind of evaluation tools are used. It is possible that the 'experts' are simply looking at things differently. It is not unusual for brilliant students to see things quite differently, and be right.

  • 2
    It is not clear to me how this answers the question. I can see how you might want to separate out the brilliant from the delusional, but your answer doesn't say anything about how to deal with delusional students.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Oct 28, 2014 at 14:09
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    I am making the point that maybe he isn't. Academia isn't always right, and many academics are delusional themselves. Without knowing what kind of class it is, and what methods of evaluation are being used, I am not going to assume that the author of this question is correct in believing that the student is delusional. Is this geology? Math? Psychology? Anthropology? English? Physics? Philosophy? Without knowing, it is impossible to answer. Academics can be wrong too, you know. It happens all the time.
    – Myra
    Commented Oct 28, 2014 at 14:26
  • 1
    If you need more information to answer the question, leave a comment on the question asking for clarification. The "Answer" box is for answers only.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Oct 28, 2014 at 14:38
  • 2
    This answer is delusional for thinking that "brilliance" is an acceptable substitute for clear communication. Brilliant work badly presented is still a bad presentation, and it seems that this assignment graded the presentation (and was presenting the work of another, so no possible points for brilliance of the work).
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Dec 6, 2015 at 18:53
  • It is not unusual for brilliant students to see things quite differently, and be right. — [citation needed]
    – JeffE
    Commented Dec 17, 2015 at 18:58

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