Midterm season is upon us, and that means subjective grading may bring a wave of disappointment to the halls of USC in the coming weeks. But a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that there may be a reason for hope: requesting a grade change is over 60% effective. The research also indicates that asking for a bump isn’t so rare: More than 40% of college students have, at some point in their undergraduate careers, approached a professor for a grade change.
But there’s an interesting twist. The research shows that while women and men are similarly likely to ever ask for a grade change, male students ask for the change in a greater number of classes.
Some, like the paper’s authors, suggest it may have something to do with confidence levels. In a follow-up study, the researchers administered a test for a group of college students and awarded them fake grades without letting them see their corrected exams. They found that the percentage of male students that believed they performed better was higher than the percentage of female students.
In a separate survey, the researchers asked college students for the reason they did not ask for a grade change. They found that the female students reported “feeling very high levels of stress if they had to ask.”
The researchers took these results a step further and suggested they might in part explain the difference in pay between men and women. They cited different studies showing that female graduates are significantly less likely to ask for higher pay for study participation and even less likely to negotiate job offers. Other studies have concluded that women are more likely to be penalized for initiating negotiations, attain worse returns from negotiation when it is mandatory than when it is optional and make more generous offers or demand less when paired with men. They are also the most likely to reach an agreement when paired with women and less likely to initiate negotiation with men.
The question then becomes whether the gender difference emerges before entering the labor market. In part, the answer to that question is yes, given the results of the study. However, an area that most definitely needs further study is which professors are most generous with grade bumps. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it might be likely adjunct or pre-tenure professors trying to bolster their reputation to gain those coveted tenure spots, incumbents of which might be less likely to negotiate grades with students.
It’s difficult to provide the reason for the results. Perhaps women overall score higher on assignments than men and therefore don’t need to ask for a grade correction. Or perhaps men are more likely to disregard potentially looking petty in the case of an unsuccessful attempt. It’s also possible that the professor’s gender is a factor in the equation.
It looks like the study leaves readers with more questions than answers, but its results are something that college students should be aware of. Maybe if more students — particularly female students — recognize how common it is to ask for a grade bump, especially among their male counterparts, the data will correct itself.
One guaranteed takeaway is this: Regardless of your gender, it’s worth asking a professor to bump your grade. If you never ask, you’ll never receive, and the odds they comply aren’t as low as you think.
Shauli Bar-On is a junior writing about sociopolitical issues. His column, “The Bar-On Brief,” runs every other Tuesday.