“I am not happy with my mark” – Tough!

A lecturer releases coursework grades for a recent assessment and then emails begin to flow into their inbox from students who are not at all happy with their results. One student for example did ok on the Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs) but the Short Answer Question (SAQ) was below a pass grade. The email which was brief and very much to the point stated “I am not happy with my mark and would like to arrange a meeting to discuss this with you”. The lecturer begins to feel overwhelmed with the emails and thinks “so you don’t agree with the mark, tough!”

This was a conversation I had recently with a colleague, the emotional responses both from the students to their feedback and the immediate feelings of the lecturer, wanting to do the best they can and feeling pressure from students, feeling like they have to do more and more. This creates and contributes to a sense of resentment, the belief that students are not taking responsibility for their learning and simply complain about their grades. A barrier is created for effective feedback dialogue.

Dr Naomi Winstone’s research on learners’ proactive recipience within the feedback process has been a catalyst for me professionally, prompting our investigations into approaches that support feedback dialogue in our Programmes. A funded project on “Demystifying Academic Expectations” has enabled some further insights into approaches that will impact positively on our students, empowering them to learn more effectively.

So what happened with the student who emailed?

After the initial TOUGH response, acknowledging those reactive emotions that surfaced, the lecturer responded by email and arranged a meeting with the student.

The lecturer made sure that they were in a calm state ahead of the meeting so that they could have an adult to adult conversation with the student. They had in the back of their mind, that initial response that this student might just want to argue the mark but also that they could be wrong, the student might be concerned and looking to understand how to improve. The important point, let’s not jump to conclusions ahead of the meeting.

After exchanging pleasantries, the lecturer asked them, “how well do you think you did on this assignment?”

The student explained their concerns, they were performing better on other aspects of their studies and this grade worried them because it was the SAQ that resulted in the poor mark overall. They will be writing further SAQs on other modules and in exams so understanding what is not working for them is very important.

The lecturer explained the criteria and standard against which their work is being judged and then examined the student’ work against this to highlight the feedback and have a discussion on that.

From the conversation with my colleague, the feedback dialogue process that took place between the lecturer and student had a very positive outcome. Creating the right environment to have that conversation was key.

The lecturer then addressed answering SAQs in a subsequent workshop with all the students that supports demystifying academic expectations.

  • An activity to help students focus on the verbs used in questions and what the difference between verbs used was the first part of the workshop. Students wrote in their own words what they understood was meant by “define”, “discuss”, “explain” etc.


  • Then the lecturer introduced Bloom’s Taxonomy in a brief format and the development of intellectual thinking skills. So for a first year student remembering and understanding are important skills with perhaps some applying. In second year the skills of applying and analysing develop to distinguish the expectations required between those levels of study. The students were then asked to consider the verbs on the activity sheet and consider which levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy are addressed.
  • Following discussions, a summary of frequently used verbs was presented where students could compare to their own interpretations.

Verbs in questions_title (2)

  • The students then examined some questions from different topics so that they could apply this approach within a specific context.
  • The final part of the workshop involved exemplars that students could evaluate. The exemplars produced by the lecturer were created to illustrate an outstanding example, a good example and a poor example. This is something that Prof Phil Race mentioned to me when I had an insightful conversation about exemplars. Thank you Phil. The lecturer deliberately included some errors in the exemplars that students included in previous assessments so this was feeding back to the students their errors. The students evaluated each exemplar and then using a think-pair-share approach they discussed their evaluations with each other.
  • The lecturer then gave the students a behind the scenes look into how they would mark the exemplars, this is the demystifying aspect, helping students to understand what goes on from the academic perspective. Students could ask question to clarify the differences between the exemplars and how the lecturer awarded and deducted marks.

Student feedback on this has been extremely positive, when you hear students use “amazing” it must have had a positive impact on their learning experience which ultimately is the reason we devise and pilot new approaches in our teaching. I think unpacking the ‘black box’ and demystifying academic expecatations can only help and support our students.


Winstone, NE, Nash, RA, Parker, M & Rowntree, J 2017, ‘Supporting learners’ agentic engagement with feedback: a systematic review and a taxonomy of recipience processes‘ Educational Psychologist, vol. 52, no. 1, pp. 17-37. https://doi.org/10.1080/00461520.2016.1207538

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