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Why Do Some Professors Grade So Hard?

In college, understanding professors’ different teaching styles and expectations are critical to a student’s success. Some professors are more lenient in their grading system, whereas others come across as “tough” – but a demanding professor does not mean an impossible class.

Some professors grade harshly to maintain academic standards and accuracy. Others lower grades if they feel a student isn’t reaching their full potential. Professors know going easy on grading can put students at a disadvantage, so they raise their expectations to encourage them to reach higher.

Sometimes it can be uncomfortable to deal with a professor who grades harshly. However, by knowing why they grade the way they do, you can better understand what to expect. This article covers some of the reasons why some professors grade so hard and what you can do when dealing with a strict professor.

Why some professors grade so hard.

Professors Grade Based on Standards and Accuracy

In the United States, most universities have a standardized grading system. Some colleges, however, allow the professor to set up a grading scale. This scale is discussed within the syllabus at the beginning of each semester.

Students are expected to meet specific standards, but choosing what meets the criteria for an A or an F is subjective. No matter whether the school or professor sets up the grading scale, the professor ultimately decides the final grade.

Generally, an A-level performance on an assignment or within a course implies excellence. It indicates high-level thinking and understanding and demonstrates a wide range of knowledge, skills, and abilities related to the course subject.

With that said, an assignment that meets the basic requirements does not immediately constitute an A-level grade. To reiterate, A is for excellence, not a general understanding of the subject.

Contrarily, an F shows little to no knowledge or understanding of the subject matter and demonstrates an overall lack of ability.

Source: The Foundation for Critical Thinking

Many students are under the impression that if they work on an assignment for an extended period of time, then their effort justifies a higher grade. However, grades are not given based on time spent, especially when the work contains mistakes or mediocre content.

If every average student who spends weeks on an assignment receives a high-level grade, it gives these students the impression that their work is excellent. More than that, it prevents them from reflecting on the project and their work, so they don’t look for areas to improve. Professors realize this and fully understand that it does not contribute to academic growth.

When it comes to grading, uniformity does not reflect student ability. All students are different. Hard grading tends to be more accurate and reflective of this reality. 

By maintaining these high grading standards, professors maintain academic quality.

Professors Know Your Level of Capability

The percentage you receive on an assignment or within the class is not to upset you. Rather, it’s to show you that the professor knows that you’re more capable than what is reflected in the work you’re producing.

Many professors develop an intuitive understanding of their students’ potential and capabilities. They can tell when a student isn’t putting in their best effort and know that when a student isn’t giving it their all, they’re not going to reach their full potential. If a student isn’t utilizing their individual learning style, they’re not giving themselves the best opportunity to succeed.

Source: University of San Diego

Thus, a professor may grade harshly because they know that a student is holding themself back. Professors want you to take the initiative and succeed.

In other words, grades are a way for the professor to communicate to students that they are more capable than they may think.

Professors Care About Their Students

Many students take it hard when they receive a poor grade. The immediate reaction is to feel slighted. In fact, some students may even feel personally attacked. However, students must reflect and think deeply about why they might have received that particular grade.

Professors aren’t out to make you feel like you’re unintelligent. They aren’t there to break your spirit and lower your morale. Despite what you might think, professors do care about their students.

Source: Safety Management EKU

Tough professors often teach their students the most valuable lessons. These professors know that success in life depends upon hard work, dedication, extra effort, and the ability to overcome obstacles without giving up or blaming someone else.

Because of this, they grade with higher standards with hopes that students will push themselves to reach those expectations.

They’re Preparing Students for Their Careers

Professors believe in the importance of what they teach. They fully understand that their job is to prepare students for their future careers. Some of these careers require a well-developed understanding of the field, high-level critical thinking skills, and extreme attention to detail. 

Without these abilities, lives could be at stake.

For example, imagine a math professor teaching an engineering class. He has a lax grading system, and any student that puts in minimal effort receives an A.

One of his students doesn’t fully understand the math involved in the course. However, thanks to his grade, the student goes on to become a civil engineer. His job requires that he design a major bridge, but he makes a critical mathematical error. The bridge later fails under the weight that’s applied to it.

The professor not only failed the student, but he indirectly put innocent lives at risk as a result of his lenient grading system.

As another example, imagine a professor teaching human anatomy classes to pre-med students. She often uses grade inflation to improve her class’s reputation. A student in her class doesn’t fully understand human anatomy but still receives a passing grade. She becomes a physical therapist – and injures one of her patients due to her lack of knowledge.

Source: Ohio State University

All-in-all, professors are high-level educators that specialize in their field. They are responsible for teaching this information to their students and ensuring that they retain and understand that information.

It’s irresponsible to pass a student that doesn’t demonstrate some expertise within the subject.

When students enter the workforce, grade inflation can affect them negatively. Below-average students might find that they’re unable to handle criticism from their boss or coworkers.

They’ll soon realize that their bosses aren’t nearly as lenient as their professors. Many employers have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to mistakes – and rightfully so, considering that mistakes can cost lives in some fields.

A professor that’s “hard” on a student is teaching a necessary life lesson: give it your all. The world is unforgiving.

Developing tough skin in the world is a harsh lesson that’s necessary to learn. Feedback through grades can toughen students and encourage them to grow a thicker skin. This allows them to be more open to constructive criticism on the job and in life and to learn to reflect and improve with each passing day.

Source: Colorado Mesa University

Professors Were Students Once

Strict-grading professors often come from schools that implemented strict-grading policies. They know the amount of knowledge and work required to pass the class—and they did it, so they know that their students can too.

To maintain academic integrity, they pass this grading policy on to their students.

Using exercise as an analogy, we can sum up why professors are sometimes hard on their students:

When we exercise, microtears form in our muscles. It’s often painful, but as the tears heal, the abrasions are filled with new cells. As a result, the muscle “grows.” It’s a struggle, but as a result of that struggle, we become stronger. The same goes for learning.

We may struggle to understand something, and it may be mentally (i.e., remembering critical information) and physically (i.e., staying up to study) demanding, but the result is strength. Professors went through it as students, so they understand the struggle. However, they also recognize that the struggle is necessary.

Considering that a professor was once a student and their job now requires them to know the course material inside and out (and stay up-to-date with the latest research and advancements in the field), it’s safe to say that they know the kind of work required to understand the subject matter. They also see the difference between “kind of” knowing and fully understanding.

Source: Estrella Mountain Community College: Professors Were Once Students Just Like You

Hard-grading professors believe that students must continue to expand their educational horizons. They must struggle to understand things on a deeper level. If they don’t, they’re selling themselves short.

College Is Not Supposed To Be Easy

College implements rigorous academic standards to prepare students for the future. It’s not supposed to be easy – the subject matter is complex, it involves fast-paced learning and higher academic expectations.

In addition, there is a level of accountability that must be maintained, so self-discipline is a must. Students cannot coast along through lectures and expect to receive a good grade. They can’t go home and skip studying and hope to pass.

Professors fully understand that not all students are fully invested in their coursework, and they’ll often reflect that in the grades they hand out.

On the other hand, professors reward students with higher grades when they give it their all and more. Students that reach or exceed academic standards often develop a respect for the professor and the course itself. When the students later walk the stage to receive their degrees, the moment means much more because of the work they put in.

Source: World Global Education Network

Tough Grader vs. Nitpicky Professor

While there are thousands of quality professors out there, not all professors who give tough grades do so for their students’ benefit. It’s unfortunate, but it’s a reality nonetheless. The education system is not perfect by any means.

So, how can you tell if your professor is a harsh grader that cares or a nitpicky professor who couldn’t care less?

Here is a chart that will give you an idea:

“Tough” GraderNitpicky Professor
Provides feedback

Grades are consistent across class

Reasonable exam score spread

Average number of passing students
Grades arbitrarily

Refuses to provide useful feedback

Low exam score spread

Most people do not pass the class

While this table provides some general ways to weed out tough graders from nitpicky professors, it’s important not to assume the worst automatically. Sometimes, professors just aren’t as adept at getting through to each student. So if you have questions, make sure to ask!

Source: The New York Times

Thus, if you’re looking for a challenging class that will push you to reach your full potential, choose one with a professor that has a reputation for “tough” grading. 

If you’re looking for an “easy” class – beware! Choosing a class because the professor utilizes grade inflation puts students at a disadvantage. When the entire class receives an A in the course, it does little to make you stand out among the crowd, and this could potentially hurt your chances of landing that dream job in the future!

How To Get Good Grades with a Tough Grading Professor

When your professor is challenging you to do better, there are several ways that you can improve your work and, hopefully, your grade.

Here’s how to get good grades with a tough grading professor:

Read the Syllabus

It’s essential to understand the professor’s expectations, and the syllabus is the best place to start. The syllabus includes the course, policies, rules, textbooks required, and a general assignment schedule. Professors often include their personal standards or expectations as well.

Ask Questions

During lectures, don’t be afraid to ask questions if you’re unsure of something. If you still need clarification, reach out to classmates or email the professor directly after the class. Asking shows that you’re invested in the course and doing your best to understand the material.

Find Out What the Professor Is Looking For

When a professor is tough on their students, it’s usually because they expect specific things. They may not make these expectations clear right out of the gate, but you’ll start to get a feel for what they deem acceptable over time. 

Again, if you’re unsure, ask. Asking for feedback is another excellent way to figure this out.

Reach Out for Feedback

If you have a paper due in a month or so, go to the professor and ask them to review it. Let them know that you’re unsure whether you’re on the right track or taking the right angle. Make sure to listen closely to what the professor says and use it to improve your work.

Talk to Former Students

Look for students who have had the professor before. Ask them for feedback – did they do well in the class? How can you get a passing grade? What is expected of students? 

You don’t have to figure things out on your own. Other students have been there before, and they’re likely to have your back.

Get a Tutor

Are you still finding it challenging to meet the professor’s expectations? Consider getting a tutor. It could be that you’re just having difficulty retaining information, or perhaps your learning style is different from the professor’s teaching style. A tutor can help you study, look over essays, and help you flesh out research papers.

Go the Extra Mile

If you genuinely want to succeed in the tough-grading professor’s class, then put in some extra work. Work harder. Join study groups. Meet with your professor in person whenever you have a question or want some advice. Go to the lab a few times a week. Wake up earlier and read your textbooks more.

These things can help you learn and retain information and get a better grasp on the subject.

Final Thoughts

Professors know the ins and outs of the course material. They know what it takes to gain the knowledge, skills, and expertise necessary to succeed in the field, and they know that the basics are never enough.

Tough professors grade based on standards, accuracy, capability, and because they care. Despite what some students think, demanding professors can be incredibly valuable. If your professor is not pushing you to reach your full potential, they are wasting your time and money.

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