Students, professors discuss ethics of grade bumping

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Students sometimes ask professors to round their grade up to the next highest letter grade. This practice is known as grade bumping. (Photo illustration by Preston Crawley)

The end of a semester can be a stressful time for college students. Final exam schedules and project due dates serve as a forceful reminder of impending final grades, which affect a student’s GPA and, potentially, their scholarship status or potential for graduate school acceptance.

When the stakes are high, students on the edge of achieving their desired letter grade might consider asking their professors to round up their scores. This practice is known as “grade bumping.” Though grade bumping isn’t uncommon, some BYU students and professors question the ethics behind it.

“Asking for a raise in grade that is not part of the prepared syllabus or widely available to the class is nothing short of cheating,” microbiology professor Julianne Grose said.

The problem is twofold, Grose said. First, professors who allow grade bumps explicitly advantage some students over others, a practice that Grose thinks most students would consider unethical. However, if students who would not otherwise ask for a grade bump hear about other students doing so, they might feel inclined to ask for one as well, so as not to be disadvantaged.

“I don’t think it’s right to put a professor in that position, and most of mine have said they won’t do it at the beginning of the semester,” student Tyler Smith said.

Other students have also reported that their professors have banned the practice early in the semester, including Jessica Boshard and recent graduate Zach Winegardner.

“Basically, they’re saying if you want a certain grade, you have all semester to get it,” Boshard said.

Winegardner said while he was a student, he felt it was more effective to ask professors about individual assignments throughout the semester rather than ask for a boost in the overall grade.

“I would sometimes ask for points back on individual assignments if points were taken off because I didn’t write ‘what they were looking for,’ but their supposed specific expectations weren’t on the rubric or laid out very well in the instructions,” he said.

BYU has no universal policy on grade bumping, Grose said. Bryan Bradley, associate director for BYU’s Center for Teaching and Learning, added that individual departments and professors must make those decisions for themselves.

Some former BYU teaching assistants, including Winegardner, said they were more willing to work with students who had shown consistent effort throughout the semester when they came asking for help with their grades.

“Random students that came out of nowhere and asked for grade bumps at the end of their class without ever having met with a TA before? No chance,” said Winegardner, who was an independent study TA for two years.

Professors have developed their own policies and accompanying rationale when it comes to grading decisions.

Manufacturing engineering professor Andrew George said it feels more “transparent and impartial” to not round grades, though his students don’t often make the request.

Information systems professor Mark Keith said his students frequently request grade bumps, but he doesn’t raise grades because grade inflation could make BYU graduates less competitive in the job market.

He also said that emotional appeals, such as the prospect of losing a scholarship or an assertion that a student has worked hard enough to deserve the grade, do not help a student’s case. Such statements, Keith said, deny the student’s responsibility and blame the professor for the undesirable score.

Keith said he once taught a student who requested a grade change after failing an exam early in the semester. Keith refused, and the student subsequently changed his behavior, increasing participation in class and putting more effort into studying. By the end of the semester, the student had earned his desired grade without a bump.

“In hindsight, that’s exactly what needed to happen,” Keith said. “He kicked it into high gear and did what he needed to do to actually learn the material.”

Keith acknowledged that in his opinion, “significant personal hardships” in the life of a student merit some academic mercy.

“I handle those on a case by case basis,” he said. “Your instructors care a lot about you when you have legitimate problems. We want to help those who are in sincere need.”

Keith said that COVID-19 created such extenuating circumstances for many students. He called the pandemic a “complete exception” to his usual policies. In addition to loosening assignment requirements in his own class during the Winter Semester 2020, he praised administrators for the pass/withdraw option they gave students.

“In my opinion, the primary advantage of the pass/fail option was that it reduced student anxiety,” he said. “That is a very good cause and I fully support the administration in their decision.”

Not all professors agreed with this assessment.

Chemical engineering professor Morris Argyle did not change his no-bump grading policy for the winter semester, nor did he approve of the pass/withdraw option, which he said demotivated students.

“I could detect a significant decrease in some students’ effort after this policy was announced,” he said. “I believe it harmed students because they did not achieve the learning that they might have done if they had expended their normal efforts.”

Though individual policies vary widely among those who determine grades, some people, like Smith, believe the problem with grade bumping is not about difference in policies. Rather, it indicates the grading system itself is flawed.

“I’m more against the fact that .1% can affect your GPA to a greater degree than that .1% itself,” Smith said. “The GPA should be based off of (grade) percentages themselves.”

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