Blog Post

Why Students Today Complain About Grades—and How We Can Fix It

You are the best teacher in the world and you’ve just turned in your grades for the best class you’ve ever taught.   If you are a college professor you know what comes next:   the barrage of complaints about the low grade, the litany of excuses for why this or that missed assignment was due to health reasons, the pleading that the B+ be raised to an A- or medical school plans will be foiled and a life ruined, the thinly veiled threat that changing a grade is easier than dealing with a student judiciary complaint (or an irate parent).   It’s the most demoralizing part of being an educator today.  

And here’s the paradox:  if our students weren’t all tireless grade-grinders, we educators would have failed them.  Yes, you read that right.  They were well taught and learned well the lesson implicit in our society that what matters is not the process or the learning but the end result, the grade.   A typical college freshman today has been through ten years of No Child Left Behind educational philosophy where “success” has been reduced to a score on a test given at the end of the course.  For a decade, they have had the message that a good teacher is someone whose students succeed on those end-of-grade standardized tests.  Teacher salaries can be docked in some states, whole schools can be closed or privatized in others, if students’ score too poorly.  The message we're giving our students today is all that really counts is the final score.  No wonder they fight for a good one!

Conversely, for all that colleges say about not being solely concerned with test scores, almost all boast their average score and that score helps colleges with their own rankings in U.S. News and World Report and more serious collegiate ranking and accreditation systems.   And, to go one step higher, aggregated scores on those tests are what make the world educational rankings in the 34 Organization of Economic Development (OECD)--you know, the ones where our students humiliate us each year by coming in 14th in reading, 17th in sciences, and 25th in math.  

It’s not like an examiner is standing there really probing to see what each child in the world does or does not know, what they remember, or how well they apply their knowledge.  All those rankings reduce all the skills and content one learns in a subject to how well one does on a standardized test that research shows might actually cover about twenty percent of the actual content of a course, de-motivates actual learning, and can be “scammed” either through intensive cram sessions, pre-testing tutoring in the form of the test, or enormous amounts of class time dedicated to “teaching to the test.”   None of those are good educational philosophy but in a world where the final score is what counts, those methods get the end result you want—not of more learning but of a higher score that opens doorways.

So don’t blame the next eighteen-year-old who calls, knocks on your door, or emails to boost that B- to an A-.   He’s been taught his whole life how to get the good final score that equals educational success.   Why should he be able to forget that lesson just because it’s a seminar and the grades are based on essays requiring eloquence, persuasive rhetoric, critical thinking, and analytical skills?  If he has absorbed the educational philosophy of our nation that grade achievement constitutes educational success, then whining for an A- makes him . . . what?  Well, eloquent, rhetorically persuasive, and a final critical and analytic thinker.  Right?  Doesn’t he now have the grade on his transcript to prove it?

I wish I were being simply ironic and flippant here but I think this is very serious.  I know just how serious when I talk to corporate recruiters about the current crop of students and they tell me that, whereas it used to take six months for a great student to become a great coworker, it now takes a good year to two years.   This generation of student is still waiting for the final grade, for the test score that shows they’ve aced a subject, not for some demonstrable achievement of mastery or—the most crucial workplace skill—an ability to survey one’s skills and knowledge, understand where one might be lacking, and then find someone to fill in that gap through a collaborative effort or to find some way, typically online, to learn the skill one needs in order to make up for previous educational losses.  

It takes nearly two years because they’ve been educated in a system where the grade is all but have to live adult lives in a world where self-awareness, diagnosis of a problem, an ability to solve a problem by applying previous knowledge, and collaborative skills all count—along with eloquence, persuasive skills, critical thinking, and analytical skills.

Here’s the punch line for college profs out there:  We will not eliminate the grade-grubbing until we change our current educational system. Until then, we will need to be putting up with a lot of whining by students who have mastered the system that educators and policy makers have created for them.  

Here’s the punch line for college students out thereUntil you educate yourself beyond the assumptions of the system we’ve foisted off on you,  you’ll be depriving yourself of the real skills and knowledge that constitute the only educational test worth anything:  the test of how well your formal education prepares you for success in everything else.  Cherish the great seminar teacher, even if she gives you a B-.   It’s what went on inside that classroom—not the grade at the end of it—that truly constitutes achievement in the world beyond school.   


As an editorial postscript, I should mention that I almost never experience grade-grabbing and whining but, for over a decade, I've been using peer-grading, contract grading, and other forms of participatory learning (such as the class writing its own standards and constitution at the beginning).   I write about a lot of that in Now You See It  [link below].

And, if you never have a chance to take a class with a truly inspiring seminar teacher, you'd do worse than to master the "rules for schudents and teachers" offered by the great avant garde composer John Cage: You'll notice he never says anything about test scores, grades, teaching to the test, or OECD rankings.  The test he wants you to pass is the big one:  success in the rest of our life. 

And one final bit of wisdom for today, something of Gandhi's "rules for an ethical life" circulating on line today, great rules for teachng and learning too:



Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, a 9500+ network committed to new modes of collaboration, research, learning, and institutional change.  Along with a steering committee of scholars across many fields, Davidson has been directing HASTAC's operations since 2006, when moved to Duke University, where she also co-directs the Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge.   She is author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and  Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press). She is co-PI on the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions.  In October 2012, she and David Theo Goldberg, HASTAC's cofounders, were named Educator of the Year by the World Technology Network.   NOTE:  The views expressed in Cat in the Stack blogs and in NOW YOU SEE IT are solely those of the author and not of HASTAC, nor of any institution or organization. Davidson also writes on her own author blog, .  The paperback of Now You See It was published July 31, 2012 :




grazie dear.

redefine success.

redefine school.


The battle about testing is simply fighting windmills, and it didn't work for Don Quixote either. Don't fight them, give them some meaning by building portfolios - I know your course already moves in this direction, but it - and others - could move much more, much more easily, at much less cost than those tests (at either high school OR college).

And in suggesting "portfolios" I don't mean to suggest you - or Duke or anyone - buy one of the packages now being hustled by the ed techies, including, unfortunately, the Association for Authentic, Experiential and Evidence-Based Learning. Much better - more useful, interesting, and productive complements to tests and grades - can be created by students, compared, and used either collaboratively or individually. The best models I've seen are designed to incorporate "soft skills," like those in the old Department of Labor SCANS Report of the 1990's. They reflect what Arnold Packer called a "Verified Resume," describing the career and personal skills of students in their own words, using their own work, and targeted to what both employers and colleges are asking.

For that matter your own "badging" system spent a bundle of MacArthur money on essentially the same thing: show what you can do - to teachers, to colleges, to grad schools, and to employers - and you'll impress them...or not. As one of my students in the pilot program pointed out, "If I'd been doing this since Freshman Year those colleges would be chasing me, not me chasing them!" Those students, incidentally, were in high school, and their portfolios shocked their teachers in both depth and breadth - "They really used some of that stuff!" And they also generated much more attractive financial aid packages from colleges, and much better jobs and internships.

Too often big changes can be in small packages, and, now, online. Exploit what exists before wringing hands at the paucity in which such innovations occur. Sometimes that bleak house of Duncan testing may even inspire good stuff. But, keep in mind, it doesn't take a Pearson or an entrepreneur. Just watch what they do, and ask for more.


Thanks for the great reminders--and I'm especially happy to have my memory jogged about the SCANS Reports of the 1990s.   It's been a while since I quoted from that but there are rich quotes in the "What Work Requires of Schools" phraseology of those documents.  Needless to say, everything I do personally with peer grading, contract grading, ePortfolios that we have our students build for themselves, and badges for lifelong learning is addressing this issue.  I've blogged about all that before.  This essay was intended to be a provocation.   And to draw out the best advice from those who are most invested, including you.   Thanks so much for taking the time during the holidays. 


Thanks for the article. I'm constantly thinking about the varying expectations between myself and my students when it comes to grades.

One thought on "It’s what went on inside that classroom—not the grade at the end of it...":

This assumes that the students register for your class in the first place. I teach Classical Greek and I am convinced that I lose a number of curious prospective students before registration starts because the subject is considered "difficult." To quote V.D. Hanson, "Greek comes at a price," and I fear many don't consider the trade-off between intellectual curiosity and a hit on their GPA worth the risk. Sad (and I'm sorry I can't back this up with statistics), but based on some conversations I've had with say, non-Classics students in a Roman History class or even my Latin students, I think it's a real concern. I'd be interested to hear if anybody else who teaches a perceived "difficult" class feels the same way.—PJB


What is cool about this blog by Professor Davidson is the timing. Just having finished a semester, I can report that this was the talk among all the doctoral fellows teaching composition--our conversations over the top of our cubicles was mostly made up of venting about the student who wouldn't accept a B as a final grade for one or all of the reasons mentioned here. They have been conditioned. They don't know any other way to experience learning. I refuse to play the game, and sometimes I worry that it will come back to bite me in some way. I know professors gathering their tenure materials need to show "rational" kinds of grading policies, etc. I have been studying and sharing Cathy Davidson's description of contract grading that is here on HASTAC because I want to replace my ad hoc style of grading with something a little more accountable. What I have been doing is setting a general group of benchmarks for an A and then addressing the finer points of rhetoric and finesse with lots of written comments on individual writing--setting goals high for such things, but never penalizing anyone for not meeing those goals. Great writing does not happen in one semester of freshman English, and I'll be hornswoggled if I have to punish a student for not being there yet.  A better way of assessing is one of my burning issues.


You hit the nail on the head, Laura.   On Facebook, I watched so many of my colleagues who are superb and inspiring teachers praise their classes, their students, the quality of the term papers . . . and then be clobbered by grade grubbing and fall into tremendous disillusionment about their students.  This was intended to be inspiring so I'm so glad it worked.


Once Dan and I have worked out the terms of this year's contract grading, we'll add a new section on it to our Word Press site for "Surprise Endings:  Social Science and Literature," the course where students will be holding public online discussion groups before the class meeting, interviewing us on camera for forty-five minutes for a public website, and then spending the entire term in their project teams creating an interactive, creative, and exciting mode of turning the material into a next-generation MOOC (massive online open course), ideally with great new modes of assessment too.   There's a little on grading up already and more will follow soon:


Cathy, I'm very interested in your experience with peer grading, and the mechanics of how it works in class. It sound slike an interesting approach, but also potenitally challenging.


Chris, this year we're doing contract grading coupled with peer-badging and feedback.  I've posted the peer-badging system and, when it is finalized, I'll post the contract grading system we're using for this course too.  Here's the peer-evaluation/badging post:


Thanks Cathy, this is very interesting. It looks like a simple and practical approach. I'm also very interested in your guidelines on contract grading. Based on my experience with MOOCS, I think one of the hardest challenges for students is knowing HOW to evaluate and grade others' work. Please keep us posted on how it goes!


I'm embarrassed that I didn't prattle about Erik Larson for your course. Or, rather, in time for your course. Larson's a part of a much larger school of new historians who build from personal histories to larger consequences, and "In the Garden of the Beasts" is a personal story of the American Ambassador to Hitler, and his - and, particularly, his daughter's - discovery of the Nazi evil. Written as an historian, but with every quote in every dialog with an inconspicuous footnote, he rewrites history the way people actually lived, rather than from the top down....

I think it - and his other histories - ought to be grist for the course you're teaching.... And they all illustrate how a smart student might build remarkable histories from talking with people in their own family, community, and social network.




Cathy, I very much appreciate this column as well as the links you included. I've ordered Now You See It through my Kindle and hopefully will find some considerations that I haven't previously encountered.

I do have one comment on the grade scramble. I think you have omitted a fundamental aspect of this scenario by failing to discuss the role of teacher evaluations. With the advent of online sites like ratemyprofessor, many universities have felt the need to compete with such sites (much like the competition with for-profit schools that have generated the rush to create completely online curricula) in their own teacher evaluations. Many of these evaluations take the same form as the consumerist online sites with evaluations like ours which begin with "What did you like best? least?" I expect such surveys at a Baskin-Robbins. But such questions really provide instructors with little useful information about pedagogy even as they tell us loads about student expectations. Well trained strategic learners like courses that don't require much and reward highly, as you note above. That doesn't mean such courses are pedagogically responsible or particularly productive in terms of education, as your punch line for students well notes.

When  consumerist surveys replace actual evaluations of teaching and that data is then used for everything from hiring to advancement to raises, it becomes a concern for faculty. Add to that the increasing tendency of universities to consider popularity of instructors measured by credit hours and the pressure is increased to please the customers.

This has hardly escaped the attention of students who use the online sites to choose classes and thus impact credit hours criteria. And they have also long since realized that when students are seen as customers, student evaluations can be used as a tool for negotiations over grades.


What often results is a decline in demands on students concurrent with grade inflation. When students become accustomed to having to work less for expectably high grades, the result is the phenomenon of entitlement that so many faculty encounter today.  I think your essay missed this dimension entirely.


I think your comment about No Child Left Behind deserves to be highlighted -- my younger sister is a high school teacher, and she fights constantly against the expectations of her students that "a good grade" means "having learned something."  A lot of her students come away from her class with both a good grade and the understanding that learning something is the goal, but she's at an unusual school in NYC, and she puts a ton of effort into it.

I wonder if we could add something that focuses on rhetorical or critical reasoning skills rather than regurgitation of facts?  I've gone off on a bit of a tangent here, but that's the main problem I see with my students: they've learned not only that grade-grubbing is the Thing To Do, but that spitting information back without any thought will get them the grade they want.  I think we have to fight these two things in concert, if that makes any sense.