Laura McMullen

College students can do better next time if they stay positive and get to know their professors

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

Dan Ariely, who used to teach at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management , knows a thing or two about giving bad grades. At MIT, he gave a C to a student whose employer was paying his tuition, and when Ariely gave the student a C, the company pulled its money. Ariely says this student "pulled every trick in the book" to overturn the grade, such as complaining to the dean of the school and the head of his program. Ariely felt pressured to change the grade and 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 to deal with a bad grade that don't exhaust the instructor and actually help students be more successful next time. Here are three tips for how to do that.

1. 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, will ask 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 they're not in high school anymore, and the academic expectations are now 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."

2. Be realistic:

"I think some students have this assumption that professors are out to get them," says Carrie Brown-Smith, assistant journalism professor at University of Memphis . "I think 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 the worst things a student can do, says Brown-Smith.

The best way to deal with a bad grade, says Young of Champlain, 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, Young says. Students miss the point when they tell the teacher they "deserve" a certain grade, she says. "It's not about what you deserve, it's what you earn."

Young points out that even if a student feels they deserve a grade because they worked hard preparing, assessments are ultimately judged on the quality of the work. She gives her student this example: "If you are doing a presentation in a business environment and the presentation is weak, you will lose the client and you will lose your job."

3. Set up a meeting:

Approaching the instructor and setting up a time to meet one on one is often the most effective way to learn from a bad grade, Young and Brown-Smith of Memphis say. A meeting helps both the student and the teacher, Brown-Smith says, who notes 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 suddenly makes you a human and not a number," says Young.


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Tips to Overcome a Bad Grade in College