How often have you handed a freshly marked paper back to an expectant student only for their face to drop as they realise they have not been awarded the grade they expected? And how often has that student then pursued you to your office, teary-eyed, to plead with you to change the grade, or to add a few marks on the sly?
The process of “grade grubbing”, whereby students seek to appeal the marks they have been given using unofficial channels, happens across the world. However, there has been little research into how widespread the practice is in the UK, prompting Steph Allen, a researcher studying for a doctorate at the University of Southampton’s School of Education, to investigate.
“Some of my colleagues were talking informally around the water-cooler about how students occasionally approach them, and it got me to thinking: ‘I wonder how often that happens?’” Ms Allen said. “I want to find out how regularly it happens, how academics feel about it, and if they often acquiesce.”
She is conducting a UK-wide research project to answer these questions, although a pilot study at two universities in the South of England has produced initial results. These include a perception by academics that grade grubbing has increased, particularly in “soft” subjects such as media studies. They think the main reason for students seeking grade revisions is “a sense of consumerism and entitlement” - something that could grow more pronounced as the cost of higher education increases.
“Students were pointing out to lecturers that they pay an absolute fortune to study,” Ms Allen continued. “If they bought something in a shop and it was broken, they would take it back. It’s quite possible that attitude exists towards education - if the mark isn’t what they wanted, they simply return it.”
She is also hoping to uncover more about the techniques employed by students and whether academics of a certain age, sex or status are particularly susceptible to persuasion. “The grade-grubbing technique employed depends on the student,” she continued. “Some will make an appointment to see a tutor and will go in good-humouredly and just ask for an explanation of what happened and why they are not happy with the grade. Some might say that their parents will be very upset, and that they need to get a 2:1 or a first.”
Students might also be made more desperate by the recession, Ms Allen said, if they feel that a lower degree classification will make them less attractive to employers.
The research will initially survey academics and students at five universities, before being made available online to widen its scope.