Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Step 3: Explore Strategies

Explore potential strategies.

Students complain about grades.

Students believe the blame for their poor performance lies with the instructor rather than themselves.

When students are performing more poorly than they expected, for a variety of reasons they may see the fault as lying with the instructor rather than with themselves. When this happens, students will sometimes argue that they deserve more points because  “the test wasn't fair” or “you tested things you didn't talk about in class.”


See “My students performed poorly on my first assignment or test”.

To determine if your students’ poor performance can be attributed to weak or missing pre-requisite knowledge, it is first necessary to identify what pre-requisite skills were necessary for completing the exam. That is, try to approach the exam as a student would and analyze what pieces of knowledge or particular skills are necessary to solve the problems. Then, you can create and administer a prior knowledge assessment that tests this pre-requisite knowledge. (Because this step is often difficult for faculty who are experts in their area, we encourage you to consult with an Eberly Center colleague for assistance.) The results of the assessment may lead to different courses of action: you may identify common gaps in students’ knowledge that you choose to review with the whole class, or the results may help students identify their own gaps for self-remediation. In the latter case, an instructor’s role might include articulating the strategies students could take to address those gaps, including seeking help from Academic Development, attending supplemental instruction (SI) sessions when available, taking or re-taking a pre-requisite course, or even dropping your course until they are better prepared.

Review your assessments.

If you receive several complaints, carefully review your assessment to ensure that there were no ambiguities, poorly phrased questions, or items that were inadvertently included that weren't addressed in the course.  An unbiased way of doing this is to compare the performance of the top 10% of the class to the bottom 10% on the items in question. If they best students performed as poorly or worse than the lowest performing students, it suggests that there were problems with the items. If you find “bad” items, discard them and recalculate the grades but be sure to explain why you did so.

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