Questioning the Grade: Understanding the Complexity of Student Grade Enquiries in Higher Education

Authors: Allen, S.

Editors: Tomlinson, M., Macfarlane, B. and Enders, J.

This thesis investigates the perceptions and attitudes of undergraduates and academics towards grading within one UK university. It explores requests for grade uplift by investigating actual, perceived and anticipated student demands in an increasingly market-driven higher education sector.

The phenomenon of ‘grade grubbing’, whereby students demand an uplift of their grades, has been identified as a symbol of marketisation and the student-as-customer. There has been little formal research on this topic, however, particularly in a UK context although there is more discussion about grade grubbing in the US.

A mixed methods approach involving the use of questionnaires, focus groups, interviews and concept mapping was used, together with an extensive literature review of marketisation as a key concept, in order to gather empirical evidence about attitudes to grade appeals. The perspectives of undergraduate students and academic staff were sought and compared.

The key finding is that forms of student behaviour labelled as grade grubbing have been over-simplified and misunderstood. Whilst the student voice indicates a consumerist attitude towards the student experience, grade grubbing itself, when defined as seeking an uplift in the initial grade awarded, is rare. Students are much more likely to accept the grades they receive at face value and not question them (grade neutral) or seek more feedback to understand the grade awarded (grade enquiry). They also, less commonly, challenge academic judgment (grade challenge) or demand a higher grade (grade grubbing).

Whilst there are no short cuts to minimising grade enquiries, a review of the landscape affords a more fine-grained understanding of this phenomenon which should be known, less pejoratively, as grade enquiry. The study concludes with future research recommendations to inform university policy.

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