What Did I Do Wrong? Why that A Paper Is a B-

10/18/2010 01:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ever worked really, really hard on a paper for one of your college classes? You read the material, participated in class discussion, took good notes, wrote several drafts, took them to your college writing center for proofreading and suggestions, brought several drafts to your professor, who made a couple different criticisms each time, you took these to heart, thought about the content deeply, and then you rewrote and proofed and polished again, you looked at some secondary material and cited these with perfect MLA, Chicago Manual of Style or APA style. Then you submitted the paper. You were anxious but hopeful, because you had done everything you could to make it an excellent piece of college work.

Then you waited, and waited and waited. It took a long time to get this paper returned with a grade.

If you were lucky, you got the paper back two weeks later, if not three or four and it had a bunch of comments, maybe handwritten, maybe typed, maybe there was some colorful highlighting code or numbering system and a standard sheet or rubric attached decoding this system of comments, maybe there were also a couple of sentences written personally to you, about why this was a good effort, but didn't quite make the mark. Your grade is a B- .

What did I do wrong you wonder inside, fighting back the tears, as your chest tightens, your heart sinks, and you worry if you'll ever get into law school or medical school or grad school, or whatever your personal aspiration is.

I'll bet this happened to you. It may have happened many times if you were prone to writing not-so-great stuff at the last minute. With sub-par work that receives disappointing grades, you may feel indignant, complain to the teacher and your friends, write a grumpy review on but secretly know you got the grade you deserved.

You know you threw together a bunch of ideas, barely read the text, neglected to proofread, hoped your spell and grammar check would do all that for you, when it in fact introduced all sorts of howlers and wrong words and you hadn't even noticed because you were rushing to turn it in. On those occasions you knew you were lucky to get a B- and if you got that or any better grade it was because the teacher failed to read it very well.

But what about that B- on a great paper you'd written, one where you'd read the assignment and learning outcomes and all the other written material the teacher had given you and you had really tried your best. What went wrong? Was it you?

Maybe. There might still be some ideas that you needed to work through. To find these you have to look for substantive comments on the paper explaining exactly what you missed. Or maybe your B- was in fact a professorial effort to motivate you to work harder. Maybe this was such a great paper you wrote you are being asked to work even harder -- this is the old tough love practice that often works for athletes and soldiers.

But if there are no such comments or efforts to motivate you, and the B- remains still a mystery, there are several other things to consider, which have unfortunately very little to do with you and the merits of your own efforts.

1) Grade inflation. Many college administrators and professors worry that too many easy As are given out for poor work. Not only does the easy A undermine the value of your work, it makes it hard for you to know how to improve. Increasingly colleges are concerned about grade inflation because they are under accreditation reviews and need to provide hard data to show that their learning outcomes are being met. Grade inflation however may be due to the teacher's status, see # 3.

2) Assessment trouble. Now that colleges acknowledge they have a problem -- at least in the Humanities -- with grade inflation and other sorts of unstable unscientific grading practices, they are trying to figure out systematic approaches. Ever wonder why your syllabi, assignments and grading rubric for Humanities classes starting to look like lengthy legal documents? This is the result of efforts to make grading more rational and to make grading accountable to objective criteria of good communication and good scholarship. All this should make your parents happy because maybe they can now gain some insight into the grading process and know whether their money is being well-spent.

3) Professorial status and stress. Have you ever asked yourself whether this professor is new or old or tenured or part-time? In fact, your grade is often very dependent on your professor's status at the institution where you study. It may be some professors are eager to do a good and thorough job whereas others less energetic in their grading practices. Young, mid-career, old, full or part-time professors are often under pressure to publish or teach a huge load and are also doing a poor job grading. Or some professors might have worked out an impressive-looking grading procedure with color-codes or numbers or highlighters explaining the variety of things you might have gotten wrong, this may add up to substantive commentary or not, it may just be a system to help a professor get through papers more quickly because in fact he or she might have 40 students in each class and be overworked.

4) Professorial peculiarities and research attitudes. You can't know the material as well as your professor, and you can't know all the academic debates the professor has participated in or the secondary literature he/she has read. Maybe there is a special approach this professor has to the material. If so, then that professor needs to help undergraduates understand the material both at their introductory level and also at the more scholarly level at which he or she has addressed the material. Do you feel really dumb when you say to a professor: "Machiavelli is about maintaining power and stability" and your professor responds "Oh that's a very simplistic reading of Machiavelli." Surely you feel utterly stupid, in such moments but the fault is not yours. Rather, the professor needs to explain his/her more nuanced or perhaps less simplistic view of Machiavelli and show you textual proof of it: Where exactly in the The Prince does Machiavelli prefer something other than maintaining power and stability and why should you consider him differently? The professor should not simply refer to debates in secondary literature about Machiavelli.

5) Narrowness of canon. Ever try to explain to your parents why you got a B- on a paper on Aristotle when you'd read the EXACT same text in another class and had gotten an A? First of all your parents are annoyed that for all the money they are spending you keep reading a very small range of texts. "Aristotle is a classic," you might say. Or you might try to explain why Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will or the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King jr.'s "Letter from the Birmingham Jail" are taught in two or three different classes. "Where else am I going to see or read this?" you might try to persuade them. But why the same text twice or three times and not a better grade the next time? Narrowness of the textual choices may rest upon the truth that there are great books, films, texts out there and one should experience them in college. Professors in one discipline usually don't ask their colleagues in others if they are teaching the same texts, or when they do, they remain confident their approach is unique. Surely each discipline also has its own perspective on these classical texts, and it could indeed be a good reason to revisit a text to learn more. But then again the professor's ability to do a good job grading your paper may indeed depend on the factors mentioned above.

What can you do if you have considered all these options and the B- is still a mystery to you? What if this grade is simply unjust and unworthy of your work?

If you really think your paper has met all of the learning outcomes, you can appeal the grade. You can ask your professor to reconsider -- even if this makes him or her grouchy or defensive. Every university has a grade appeal process, and most have special criteria for single papers and for class grades themselves.

Universities and colleges have a highly contested, often esoteric set of grading systems and each professor has a singular, usually insular approach to assessment. In effort to increase quality control of their professors, institutions of higher learning employ all sorts of administrators to make grading and college assessment rational, even though the professors are working in a system that itself is neither rational nor always just to teachers at every level, nor always centered on student needs and learning.

Your job is to remind those in higher education professors are here to help and teach their students.