What to do when you’re given a bad mark.

There are three scenarios:

  1. Your lecturer is unprofessional, didn’t read your assignment properly/at all, doesn’t know what they are doing, and is probably biased against you.
  2. You have been given the wrong mark and/or feedback
  3. Your assignment wasn’t as good as you thought it was

Now I know it is difficult for me to be believed as being objective in this because I do have some skin in the game having marked thousands of assignments and exams over a 20 year period. As a Head of Department for 5 years I dealt with scores of complaints about marks. And this means I can say with some certainty that honestly the first two are very very unlikely.

Take the first scenario. Yes I will admit that lecturers are human so probably some of them are unprofessional or could decided to give you a bad mark just because they don’t like you. Apart from anything else, these days almost all work is marked anonymously and this genuinely means the marker will not know who wrote the assignment they are marking so cannot be biased. They also are honest (no – they really are). And finally, even if you don’t go along with these arguments, you have to believe me when I tell you that taking this sort of penalising action is highly risky and will cause a great deal of pain if discovered. So the chances of your lecturer picking on you are so unlikely you should try to get this option out of your head.

Second scenario – yes this does happen from time to time. How often? In my 20 years experience with thousands of marks, perhaps twice. It is of course perfectly fine to make sure that you have been given the right mark and there should be clues in the feedback that should put your mind at rest.

So it comes down to most likely that your assignment was not as good as you thought it was.

The First Rule (and please remember The First Rule even if you ignore the rest of this blog)

Do not email your lecturer as soon as you see the mark. This is something that is as true at work as at university. Emailing when angry means this simple and sometimes catastrophic sequence of events:

anger = bad email

= saying things you might regret

= negative consequences

So if you are cross – especially if you are cross – leave it. Do nothing. Well, by all means go to the gym, for a walk, to the pub. But do not under any circumstances email your lecturer. Come back to it in the morning and think about it with a clear head. Show the feedback to a friend. If possible, find someone who did well and ask if you can see what they did. Look for the places where you did NOT meet the criteria (naturally we would be drawn to find the places where we did but this is not usually at all useful).

Remember – unless a genuine error has happened as in scenario 2 you won’t be able to change the mark. Standard practice is for your work to be looked at by at least two markers and sometimes also by an External Examiner. It will almost certainly be enshrined in your university regulations that academic decisions cannot be challenged. So save your energy. Your mark will not be changed.

So what should you do?

The only thing you can do is learn from what has happened. Take several days to interpret the mark. Look carefully at the criteria. Think hard about how you might have done it differently. Then, and only then, if you have anything left that you don’t understand, contact the lecturer for clarification. Even if you think Scenario 1 has happened, they will respond to polite, specific requests for clarification. Perhaps attend their Office Hours or book a short appointment. Don’t expect a lengthy explanation by email as this is seldom the best way to proceed. If you have a short specific question then that can be done by email but anything else, book an appointment and ask.

You are at university to learn. Some lessons are more pleasant than others. As long as you learn from your assignment, then you are getting good value from your studies.

There is more about this and everything else you need to know about university in my book which you can find here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *