One of the differences between high school and college that takes some getting used to is that in college, you have real standing to talk your teachers into giving you a better grade. In fact, according to a survey by two professors of economics, Cher Li and Basit Zafar, more than one-third of university students report having asked instructors to change their grade, with over 60 percent of those getting what they asked for.

Li’s interest in the topic of grade change requests began in her own experience as an educator.

“At the end of each semester, I typically get one or two male students asking me to bump up their grades for no justified reason,” she said. “They just think they deserve it.” Li also mentioned that in six years of teaching, only a single female student had made such a request.

In fact, their research reveals that male students are 18.6 percent more likely than female students to receive favorable grade changes when they ask for a grade adjustment or challenge a grade.

“We do have evidence that women don’t ask,” Li said, adding that women have an “underconfidence” in the quality of their academic work. “They’re much less confident about their answers; they’re uncertain about their performance,” she said. “Personality traits also explain those differences—it explains half of the gender gap in asking.”

Primed by the results of their initial survey, the two researchers conducted a deeper study of grade records from an unnamed large four-year public university. They specifically went after recorded grade changes and chose the school they did because it included the reasons for grade changes in the available records. After sorting out changes due to other causes and making the assumption that teachers make grading errors without bias, Li and Zafar found a few interesting data points.

While men only account for 46 percent of the student body at the target school, they ask for 51 percent of the grade changes, and in more classes. Teachers appear to grant grade change requests (nearly always with a raise in grade) without gender bias, but the higher number of requests means that men benefit more.

Zafar said that professors and instructors could alleviate the problem of male-dominated grade change requests by communicating better with students and giving them “more accurate signals and concrete information about their ability and performance.”

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