Reflecting on Reflection

– Melissa K. Downes

Children's Reading 1

Melissa Downes reading poetry to an audience of children and adults.

When I first started teaching, my enthusiasm, content knowledge, emphasis on discussion, and strong emphasis on reflection were my primary teaching strengths. It took me some time to realize that reflection was not something that every novice teacher did. I would define reflection as the time and practice taken to think about thinking (metacognition) and about feelings and to review what one has done (and why) and what one has learned. Such reflection reinforces both content and skills and makes students more aware of their own learning. Similar reflection on a teacher’s part helps build a stronger teacher. From my perspective, such reflection forms an essential part of good teaching in my discipline.

Many of the assignments I create (especially team assignments and presentations) have, as a final part of the assignment, a required two-to-three-page reflection. In these essays, students describe their strengths and weaknesses as tied to the assignment, what they learned, what they valued, and what they would do differently if faced with a similar challenge. Here’s an excerpt from such a reflection assignment (for a College Writing  team paper studying Clarion University students):

Consider the strengths, and weaknesses of both your process and your product in terms of your team-built essay, your primary research, your scholarly research, and your group skills. Reflect on and discuss your own work and performance and reflect on the work of the group as a whole. What were the hard parts of the research? Of building the essay? Of working as a group? Did everyone share the work equally? Was there a leader in the group or did you share out leadership roles? Did the leadership work or were there difficulties? What were the strong parts of what you did? What were the valuable things about the experience? What did you learn about Clarion University students? About your chosen topic? About the skills you had to practice to be successful for this paper/project? Do you have new or different insights after the experience? If you could go back and do the paper/project again, what would you do differently? Concrete details, please.

How do students respond? Here’s a student response from one of my inquiry seminars:

I learned that inquiry is all about asking a lot of questions. Some questions may not be as solid as you hope they are, but with practice you can fine-tune your questions. I think that inquiry is about trying out your ideas in the form of a question and then re-asking that question in a different way to see if you get different answers.

I learned that research comes in many forms, some more credible than others. I now know that looking over a journal or website before using it is important to do so that you know the material is useful and proves your topic.

Sometimes they tell me what I should do differently, which itself requires reflection and some metacognition on their part and also encourages it in their teacher:

I wish I would have spent a little more time on really connecting and relating both my primary and secondary research together. I asked a lot of questions in my interviews and gathered a lot of information in my secondary research that I wish I would have had more time to elaborate on. I feel like connecting my research together is important, I think I did the best with the time that I had but I would have liked to spend more time presenting this.

I learned the importance of using primary research alongside secondary research to help prove a thesis. Analyzing and comparing results from both secondary and primary research make your point stronger.

I like helping my students think about how an assignment might apply outside of the classroom or outside college. I also believe that reflecting on feelings helps my students intellectually. I am delighted when I get responses like this:

From this project, I learned some new things about my family and friends. Based on my interview questions, I learned what makes them laugh and how laughing makes them feel. I never realized how laughter can make someone feel, or how much of an impact laughter had on people’s attitudes.

While I was finishing up my project I was thinking about how important laughter is in life, it makes you focus on the little things and to not take things so serious sometimes. I realized that I need more laughter in my life, I need that little laugh every now and then to boost my mood and make my day better.

I think that this project has helped me academically, by introducing a new way to research as [well] as personally, by showing me to enjoy life and laugh.

I also have students practice personal reflection as an early assignment in a number of my classes. For example, my Introduction to English Studies students write personal narratives/reflections on why they have chosen to be English majors and what they think that means. I want my students to think about their choice of the major and to expand their understanding of the discipline they have chosen to study. I ask them to write a focused personal essay reflecting on the issues at the heart of questions like the following: What does it mean to study English? How would you define the field? How did you come to this field? What events and experiences motivated you? What do you think being a student of English is and why do you value it? Do you? My students write an initial version of this essay early in the term, but they return to it and revise it after they have had more experience with being an English major. Thus, they get to revise the essay not only to build better sentences or a stronger thesis but also in light of what they have learned about being an English major in a semester of being an English major

While I like the more extended and insightful  responses that come from a reflection essay, I have been practicing doing more with short-answer reflections turned in at various points during projects. Such short reflections prompt metacognition, but they also hold my students accountable for keeping up with their work and alert me to possible difficulties or misunderstandings.

Reflection works well in many of my courses and fits well with my discipline, but I believe it must be a valuable component in many courses and many fields. What are you already doing in your classes to promote student reflection and metacognition? What would you like to do? If you want to bounce around some ideas, I’m happy to have coffee and a conversation.

Melissa K. Downes is an associate professor of English at Clarion University. She loves teaching. She is interested in talking about how people teach and enjoys sharing how she teaches. She is an 18th century specialist, an Anglophile, a cat lover, and a poet. She can be contacted at

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Dear Best Intentions

Dear Ms. Scholar, Last semester, despite my best intentions, I had some real problems with cheating. I had a student who plagiarized on a paper, another who repeatedly took exams late, and students in an online course who requested much longer testing times than my face-to-face students receive, yet felt rushed (presumably because they were looking up all of the answers). Any suggestions?


Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear Best Intentions, You are not alone. All of us have been affected. We have had either minor cheating/plagiarism problems (e.g., phrases “stolen” without attribution) or major forms (e.g., the same answers given by two students or, my “favorite,” a student who turned in a Science article as a research proposal).

All of us have heard and use a variety of suggestions. These include:

  • Developing a positive rather than a confrontational relationship with students;
  • Educating students about what plagiarism and cheating are;
  • Building assignments and exams that make plagiarism and cheating more difficult;
  • Creating scaffolding exercises that build toward major projects. Good design of these can relieve some of the stresses that can lead to cheating, make cheating more difficult, and allow one to discover it early in the process, when one can use it as a teaching moment without necessarily making it a failing moment;
  • Setting manageable and developmentally-appropriate tasks in class and building intermediate skills to teach complex tasks over the course of the semester or their undergraduate degree;
  • Discussing growth mindset with students (Dweck, 2006), so they recognize that they can develop the skills to succeed in a course, and continue to use “growth language” over the course of the semester;
  • Teaching study and time management skills in a course so that students have the skills to succeed. Ms. Scholar likes and uses the skills described in McGuire’s (2015) book.

One of the most interesting suggestions Ms. Scholar has seen comes from Maryellen Weimer (2018). She sends her students a memo to help them consider the personal consequences of cheating and recognize how cheating hurts them. She encourages faculty to revise this memo, make the language their own, and use it as they see fit. I’d encourage you to do the same. The following memo is my version of her ideas.

To: My Students
From: Ms. Scholar
Re: Cheating

You’ve heard it before: Don’t cheat. Yet despite knowing that it’s wrong, many students still cheat. Why? In response to a survey about cheating, one student compared it to speeding: “Everybody knows you shouldn’t speed, but most of us do. And when the weather is good and the road is clear, there is only a small risk of an accident. I might get caught, but that risk is also low.” This student reasoned, cheating is like speeding.

No, it’s not!!! Here are seven reasons why you shouldn’t cheat that you may not have considered. Getting caught isn’t one of them (you already know this).

  1. I don’t know what you really know. When you cheat on an exam, it looks like you know the content. When you’re confronted with that material again, you’ll have to fake it. Because I think you understand it, I move on. Because knowledge in one part of a course affects later sections – and later courses – you’ll either be unprepared or need to work twice as hard later. 
  2. You don’t develop the skills you need. When you cheat, skills that employers assume college graduates have remain undeveloped or underdeveloped. You learn problem-solving skills by solving problems, not by copying answers. Your writing strengthens as you write, not when you recycle someone else’s paper. Your abilities to think critically, analyze arguments, and speak persuasively develop as you practice these skills, not when you parrot the thinking, arguments, and persuasive ploys of others. Standing around exercise equipment does not build muscle mass, borrowing others’ work does not build mental muscle.
  3. Cheating can become a bad habit. Don’t kid yourself, a small cheating problem seldom stays that size. It’s more like a malignant tumor that starts small and quietly grows into something big and ugly. The research is clear. Students who cheat generally don’t do it just one time or in just one course.
  4. Cheating can become a bad habit, not only in college. Cheating in college sets you up for cheating in life. Maybe you’re telling yourself you’ll stop when you graduate. The research says otherwise. People who cheated in college are more likely to cheat their employers or employees, fudge their taxes, and use unethical business practices. Cheating becomes a lifetime habit right – along with the lying to cover it up.
  5. You can accomplish what you need to without cheating. Some students cheat because it’s easier than working for the grades. This is a short-sighted rationale with serious consequences. Others cheat because they don’t think they have what it takes to get the grades they need. Success in college is a function of your study habits, not your brain size. You can develop and use good study habits. Start with one course – this one – and try an experiment. See if regular class attendance; short, regular study times alone and with a friend; and daily work on your classes make a difference. Use the study skills we discuss in class. Bottom line: you are probably smarter than you think.
  6. Cheating puts your personal integrity at risk. What kind of person do you want to be? The actions you take now are defining who you are and what you will become. Consider how you feel when people you care about lie to or cheat on you. Do you hold them in high esteem? You wear your personal integrity every day of your life. You can wear it with pride… or not.
  7. Cheating doesn’t just hurt you, but hurts your professor, fellow students, and the larger community. Faculty who discover students cheating often become more cynical about students and education. Your classmates who “followed the rules” are hurt by your cheating, particularly if your professor grades on a curve or creates a more difficult test for future classes. The community as a whole is hurt when one of us does anything that hurts any of the rest of us: we trust less, become more cynical, and withdraw from each other. As someone said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I’ll do the same.

Ms. Scholar particularly likes this type of response to preventing cheating, as it addresses the real issue: cheating is not just about the grade, but how it affects you and the people around you. We can use our start to the semester to remind students to reflect on who they are and who they want to be.

Ms. Scholar doesn’t read Faculty Focus and other teaching resources daily (e.g., Inside Higher Ed, Chronicle of Higher Education), but she does read them regularly. You can sign up to receive a regular newsletter from Faculty Focus filled with great ideas in your email by completing the form on the top right of the Faculty Focus page. Or you could wait and read our next issue of Hand in Hand. Have a good week! – Ms. Scholar


Dweck, C. J. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Balantine Books.

McGuire, S. Y. (2015). Teach students how to learn: Strategies you can incorporate into any course to improve student metacognition, study skills, and motivation. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Weimer, M. (2018, January 17). A memo to students on cheating. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from

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When the Task Calls for A Hammer

Jeanne Slattery

Jeanne Slattery

– Jeanne M. Slattery

When I was an undergraduate, my faculty used chalk and chalkboards: they were Sages on the Stage. That works well for some faculty and some students, but this strategy often falls short for students who are not initially engaged by the material. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”

The new learning technologies, when used well, open doors for both faculty and students. When I first started teaching Abnormal Psychology, I used chalk, overheads, and a few videos – which limited the kinds of information I could share. Now I use PowerPoints to help me organize the vast amount of information we’ll discuss, YouTube to give my students a range of perspectives on a single diagnosis, and Discussion Boards so my students can continue the conversations outside of class. My students use Google Docs to collaborate on projects outside of class, either side by side or across the state. The newer technologies allow me to use the right tools for the task.

Screen Shot 2018-01-21 at 12.58.33 PM

Part of the check list posted in D2L for my seniors’ research project.

Our learning management system allows me to post assignments, handouts, rubrics, videos, and grades in one easily-accessible place. This can put my students in charge of their learning, as they know their grades, can identify when an assignment is due, and can find the readings they need – even at 2am! Last Spring, my seniors had a multi-part, semester-long research project. They asked whether I would create a map of the process for them; I posted a checklist for the process on D2L, with all of the small details that I mistakenly believed they knew.

I use technology to support my teaching and help compensate for my weaknesses (and those of my students). I use technology to engage my students and to help them access information more easily. However, I don’t only use technology. I use multiple approaches and strategies, and I don’t use technology just for show or because it’s there. In Abnormal Psychology, for example, I partially flip our classroom: we are spending the semester finding research to solve real problems (and building critical thinking, information literacy, writing, and research skills). One example:

Vic and Vac Scene are new parents of their first child. They are excited and trying to do everything “right.” They just watched a TV interview with Jenny McCarthy, who argued that children should not be given vaccines, because she believes they increase the risk of autism. Their pediatrician strongly recommends vaccines, and their daycare requires them. The Scenes want to know what the research suggests about vaccines and autism. Should they give their child any vaccines?

This project uses technology – online library resources to find research answering their question; Google Docs to collaborate; GroupMe, texts, and email to stay in touch; and PowerPoint to present their findings – but only when that technology helps solve a problem more effectively.

Is technology necessarily better? I think it helps me do my job more effectively (e.g., show examples, present figures and tables from published research, stay organized in my teaching); however, I have colleagues who sit on a desk, occasionally write a word or two on the chalkboard, and are very effective at what they do.

Technology can be used at the wrong place, at the wrong time, or in the wrong way: a hammer can’t do a screwdriver’s job. Still, in my own teaching, technology has often been freeing: it allows me to imagine different ways to approach things – which keeps both me and my students engaged.

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She is interested in thinking about what makes teaching and learning successful, and describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has written three books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy, an Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill (with C. Park), and Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Research and clinical perspectives. She can be contacted at

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Self-fulfilling prophecies

Jeanne Slattery

Jeanne Slattery

— Jeanne M. Slattery

Yesterday my freshmen and I were talking about optimism, pessimism, and the role of thinking: “No one can make you feel any particular thing without your permission. It’s your thoughts that make you feel a particular way.” Their eyes were wide as I shared that I had gotten angry when my college boyfriend gave me large, beautiful diamond earrings — until they learned that I don’t like diamonds and had told him that. He didn’t listen.

Still, this idea that no one can make them feel anything is one that they only tentatively believe — and primarily about other people. Many of my students are also in a class where they’ve heard Professor X say that they won’t be successful, that they won’t learn this material, that they will be back. (I don’t know that this is what Professor X says, but this is what they hear.) “Professor X makes me want to give up.” “I don’t even want to go to class.”

Some students, however, note that they work harder in such situations. I’m not sure I believe them, but the mind is a powerful organ that interprets and responds to information based on its worldview. Did they already believe they could be successful in such situations?

When I asked my students about their high school experiences during the first week of class, two students said that they hadn’t liked anything. Anything. They felt that their teachers hadn’t cared. They felt that their teachers hadn’t believed that they could be successful.

They also believe that Professor X doesn’t believe that they can be successful – even though I know that isn’t true. Like many of our faculty, this person would bend over backwards for our students. I’ve seen Professor X do so.

Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 8.46.34 AMI don’t think we should praise students for poor work. I don’t think we should give everyone A’s. In fact, Crocker and Nuer (2003) suggest that praise and focus on self-esteem can be counterproductive and create people with fragile self-esteem, problems in meeting competence needs, maladaptive behaviors such as lying and stealing, and avoidance of situations that could potentially lead to failure. On the other hand, as my friend and colleague Miguel Olivas-Luján has observed, we need to consider whether we are fostering maladaptive self-fulfilling prophecies. Have Professor X’s comments encouraged such self-fulfilling prophecies without intending to do so?

Do we really believe that our students can learn? If so, we need to find ways to talk to them using the language of growth mindset (Dweck, 2006). We need to communicate that it takes effort to complete tasks, that challenges and criticism are good things, and that we believe that they can learn. When we talk to them, we need to compliment the work they’ve done, rather than lead them to believe that their successes or failures say something central about who they are.

They are neither their successes nor their failures. With effort, with our support, they can achieve more than they believe they can.


Crocker, J., & Nuer, N. (2003). The insatiable quest for self-worth. Psychological Inquiry: An International Journal for the Advancement of Psychological Theory, 14, 31-34.

Dweck, C. J. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Balantine Books.

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She is interested in thinking about what makes teaching and learning successful, and describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has written three books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy, an Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill (with C. Park), and Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Research and clinical perspectives. She can be contacted at

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Dear Not Working as a Team

Dear Ms. Scholar, Last semester, I had a class that had a group project worth about 1/3 of the overall grade. One team member was frequently absent and didn’t actively participate when they were in groups. The team was unhappy, but unfortunately did not express their concerns until the end of the semester. Any suggestions about how I could handle this better next time?

Ms. Scholar at work.

Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear Not Working as a Team, This is an ongoing concern for faculty teaching courses with significant teamwork requirements. Often groups need much more support than we expect they need – and they end up floundering without that support.

Let’s start with the simplest problem. Perhaps, as in your question, the problem belongs only to a difficult student – perhaps one who is depressed and withdrawing, overwhelmed, has poor social skills, or weak academic skills and goals – while the group members are conscientious and hardworking. Ms. Scholar has sometimes been good at working with such difficult students, but at other times has had more difficulty. Four factors have contributed to her success:

  1. Interest in change. Does the student recognize a problem? Does the student want to handle things differently? If the answer to these questions is yes, intervening seems to be easier and more appropriate. Not all students are interested in contributing to a group project, however, even when the project is worth a considerable proportion of the grade.
  2. Faculty/student relationship. Ms. Scholar finds it easier to give a student difficult feedback on group performance when she has a good relationship with the student. When she genuinely wants the student to do better, the student is more likely to listen to her. When the student genuinely values Ms. Scholar’s input, the student is more likely to solicit and respond to feedback.
  3. Assertiveness. Giving difficult feedback can require significant assertiveness from the faculty member. Can you find a way to give feedback to the student – and team – that is positive, hopeful, and respectful? When Ms. Scholar’s first response comes from anger or frustration, she first goes outside and takes a walk around the building, then tries again.
  4. Time. It’s easier for Ms. Scholar to give difficult, but helpful feedback when she has the time available, in or out of class. When her course load is especially heavy or she has taken on too many responsibilities, though…

In Ms. Scholar’s experience, however, problems often go in both directions – both the “problem student” and teammates – and feedback has to go to all parties. Both “sides” may have surprisingly different perspectives on the problem. Often, but not always, one of the parties feels left out while the other party complains that the student did not pull his or her weight. These problems may be due, in part, to differences in expectations about work habits and communication. When groups communicate and meet regularly and respond quickly to emails and texts, they are generally happy, even when, from an outsider’s perspective, they did not all pull their own weight. Those groups that are least happy are those where one or more parties fail to meet with the group – even when they had good reasons to miss (e.g., work, illness, travel constraints, problems with babysitters).

Sometimes different members of a group may perform different tasks, with all believing they’ve pulled their weight – and that their peers did not. For example, in one recent group, two members collected their data (poorly), while a third pulled together the final written products (somewhat well). All members believed they had done their share and pointed fingers elsewhere.

Figure 1. Part of Ms. Scholar's instructions to class teams, posted in Announcements.

Figure 1. Part of Ms. Scholar’s instructions to class teams, posted under Announcements in D2L.

The most difficult piece: Ms. Scholar believes that both teacher and team must take responsibility for problems with teamwork and creating solutions. More and more Ms. Scholar attempts to educate students about ways to perform teamwork well. For example, Ms. Scholar posts this list describing successful teamwork skills under D2L’s Announcements. See Figure 1. She tries to regularly debrief after teamwork and encourages students to reflect on the group process throughout.

Ms. Scholar wishes that she had talked more frequently with a recent team having problems. She had been concerned about their work quality from the very beginning. She had talked to the group throughout the semester, received interim feedback on the group mid-semester, and had talked to individuals on several occasions. Nonetheless, these discussions were often during class or when students/Ms. Scholar were rushing from one place to another, situations that did not foster the kind of assertiveness needed to identify and address problems with team functioning. She had responded better to teams with “squeakier wheels,” those groups more clearly identifying problems.

The point is that, as you note, teamwork is difficult. If it were easy, we wouldn’t need to give our students opportunities to work on their teamwork skills during their college careers. Teamwork, though, can both be a challenging aspect of teaching and offer many rewards both to faculty and students, as many teams can produce products that are stronger than what any single student could do on his or her own. – Ms. Scholar

If you have questions regarding teaching, student/faculty issues, or other comments/suggestions, please write to: Ms. Scholar c/o


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He Made a Difference

– Jeanne M. Slattery

JMS hugging 2012 or so

Jeanne Slattery

I heard a story recently that got me thinking. A student emailed a faculty member asking him whether he was going to go to graduation. He was not her advisor and had never had her in class. He couldn’t even remember who she was, but thought maybe they’d met to resolve an academic problem she was having.

He went to graduation, at least partially because she’d asked him. She was happy to see him there and excitedly introduced him to her parents. He was glad to meet them.

There are two ways that I look at this story. On the one hand, sometimes the little things are all that’s needed to make a real difference for our students. Making eye contact with our students, learning their names, and recommending opportunities that suit them well, each of these things – and more – can make a significant impact in our students’ lives.

On the other hand, I wonder about this student’s experience  – in life, at our university. How could such a small contact make such a large impact? Could this really have been one of the most important interactions of this student’s tenure?

In the weeks and months since first hearing this story, I’ve gone back and forth between these two perspectives. I now believe that he really did something meaningful for her (perhaps not for him), but that other people probably did as much or more for her each and every day. Perhaps he helped her resolve some problem that she thought couldn’t be resolved. Perhaps he was just in the right place at the right time: it was one of those terrible, awful, no good, very bad days that we all have, and he happened to listen to her, take her seriously, and make a difference.

There are things that people have said to me at various points in my life – both good and bad – that have stuck with me and made a difference. Sometimes little things do matter.

We never know when we will make a difference: we can treat each moment with our students as if this is the one that will make the difference. And this one and this one…

Who was he? He was a history professor, but it could have been any of us. On this Thanksgiving, we thank him and all of you for what you do.

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She loves teaching and learning and describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has published three books: Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice; Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; and Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill She can be contacted at


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Dear Devastated and Embarrassed

Dear Ms. Scholar, I received my first grade complaint this year, and I don’t know what to do. I am devastated that my student would complain, as I bent over backwards for her at several points this semester. I’m also embarrassed that my department chair and dean might believe the really outrageous complaints that this student made. Any suggestions?


Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear Devastated and Embarrassed, Grade complaints are really uncomfortable (really, really uncomfortable). Just remember: Students are not their grades, and you are not their complaints.

I wish handling the uncomfortable feelings was that easy. Given that it’s not, here are several things to consider:

  • Avoid acting impulsively. Speaking in the heat of the moment can lead you to say things that you don’t mean. When responding to their complaints, make sure that you choose a time and place when you can respond calmly and assertively rather than aggressively and impulsively.
  • Stop and reflect. Is there a kernel of truth to what the student said? Did you really act fairly? Did you provide the necessary information to help them understand why they lost points and how to do better next time? If the student had a reasonable complaint (or partially reasonable complaint), admit it, learn from it, and move on.
  • Document, document, document. Administrators adjudicating a complaint can only respond given the information available. What do your syllabus, assignment, and rubric say? How did you respond in emails and other communication trails?

Ms. Scholar recently had a student make a complaint about her final grade and struggled with many of the issues you describe. Some parts of the student’s complaint made sense, while other parts didn’t. For example, she complained about how Ms. Scholar determined test grades, clearly not understanding what a percentage means. Her email complaint to the dean – completely bypassing the chair – was unfocused and not written in standard English.

On the other hand, while Ms. Scholar has and uses many rubrics, she didn’t use one for a particular reflection assignment. The student didn’t understand why she only earned 9/10 for the assignment – because you didn’t develop your ideas to the degree that earns 10/10. In this case, the student’s complaint was at least partially valid. As a result, Ms. Scholar developed a rubric for the next time she teaches this course and uses this assignment. We can use student complaints as opportunities to identify problems and strengthen our teaching.

People responding to student complaints cannot see our behaviors in the classroom; they can only make inferences about the fairness and accuracy of these complaints. They can read our syllabus, then determine whether our grading system was fair and whether we follow the rules outlined in our syllabus and assignments. They can determine whether the student complaint is consistent with their own observations of our teaching or our discussions of our students and teaching. They can look at our communications on D2L or via email to see whether we were fair and respectful.

At some level, then, to respond effectively to a grade complaint, we have to be proactive. Before a complaint is ever made, we need to cultivate a reputation of being thoughtful, hardworking, fair, and unbiased – as well as be each of these things. Any student complaint to the contrary would go against the evidence built up over the course of our careers.

Finally, Malcolm Gladwell (2005) described research on which doctors are sued. He argues that being sued has very little to do with whether or how many mistakes a doctor makes; instead, “patients file lawsuits because they’ve been harmed by shoddy medical care and something else happens” (p. 40). People are less likely to complain about physicians they like. Ms. Scholar is not recommending that you give As regardless of student performance; however, she believes it is wise to listen carefully and thoughtfully to students and respond assertively rather than aggressively to their complaints.

These recommendations don’t necessarily address your uncomfortable feelings, but perhaps they do offer some ways of responding to the complaint that will be less painful or that will prevent future complaints. – Ms. Scholar


Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

If you have questions regarding teaching, student/faculty issues, or other comments/suggestions, please write to: Ms. Scholar c/o


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