Overcoming a bad grade

Bad grades are disappointing, but college students will benefit by taking an objective perspective. (Getty photo / March 6, 2012)

Receiving a bad grade in a college — whether "bad" is considered an F or a B — can be disheartening to students expecting better marks.

Dan Ariely, who used to teach at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management, remembers giving a C to a student whose employer was paying his tuition — at which point the company pulled its money. Ariely says the student "pulled every trick in the book" to overturn the grade, such as complaining to the dean of the school. Ariely spent many hours examining the student's academic files, only to find that the student did, in fact, earn a C.

Ariely says this student was "painful" to work with, but professors say there are ways for students to deal with a bad grade that don't exhaust the instructor. And it can help students be more successful next time. Here are some tips:

Get some perspective: When a student expects an A and is stunned by a C, Elaine Young, a marketing professor at Champlain College in Vermont, asks the student to see the situation through her eyes.

"C is average," she says. "C is like everybody. B is better than everybody, and A is exemplary. Are you telling me that the work you just did is the best work you ever did in your whole life?"

Young also tells students that academic expectations are higher. "In college, it's not about getting the A for the effort," she says. "It about judging the quality of the product you have produced."

Lose the drama: "Some students have this assumption that professors are out to get them," says Carrie Brown-Smith, a journalism professor at the University of Memphis. "The vast majority of us, though, want students to do well." That's why approaching the instructor about a bad grade in an accusing way is one of the worst things a student can do, she says.

The best way to deal with a bad grade, Young says, is to approach the professor and say, "I would like to understand why I received this grade." This statement is not challenging the grade, but rather telling the instructor that the student genuinely wants to do better. Students miss the point when they tell the teacher they "deserve" a certain grade.

Set up a meeting: Setting up a time to meet with the instructor can be the most effective way to learn from a bad grade. A meeting helps both student and teacher, Brown-Smith says, adding that getting a student's input on a test can often show her which questions should be clearer next time.

On the students' end, they learn how to communicate with their professor, Young says, which she knows can be "intimidating and scary." But even if approaching a professor can be nerve-wracking, Young says that students who do so will often stick out from their classmates and show that they care about learning.

"Getting a face and a name connection," Young says, "suddenly makes you a human and not a number."

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