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How to handle frustrating professors

Classroom Chairs 2
Classroom Chairs 2 (Photo credit: James Sarmiento (old account))

There are seven empty mugs of coffee on your desk, nine marked up drafts in your trashcan, and one pristine final copy in your backpack. Two weeks later, that ten-page essay returns with one extra letter on the first page: F.

Before you exile yourself to a dark corner or rally every other student against that tyrant of a teacher, understand that a lot could have happened between the day the assignment was given and the day it was returned to you. Instead of retaliating, no matter how justified it may be to do so, consider how you could better walk through an assignment from a difficult professor in the future.


1. Make sure you understand the assignment guidelines completely.
Clarification is your friend. Sometimes a professor will word instructions strangely, and it is better to decipher them from the beginning than to find yourself halfway through the assignment, questioning whether you did the first step correctly. Pay attention to contradictions. Maybe the professor wrote 1-2 pages for the length, but in class says 2-3. Don’t be embarrassed to ask painfully simple questions.

2. Treat the assignment as a live piece.
Sometimes, a professor will change a fundamental aspect of the assignment when you have nearly completed it, and may even insist it was this way from the beginning. To avoid this, try to periodically check in with your instructor and ask for feedback on your work. If he or she approves throughout the process, you should have nothing to worry about.

3. Ask for a rubric.
If you can obtain the rubric your professor will use for grading, you’re almost guaranteed to produce the correct type of work. If it helps, connect each piece of the rubric with the corresponding item on the assignment instructions.

4. Handle conflict respectfully.
If it’s too late for the above steps and you’ve already received what you believe to be an unfair grade, resist the urge to talk about it with classmates. You may feel like you’re accomplishing something by venting about the issue to fellow students in the same situation, but it only aggravates the situation. The best approach is to confront your professor directly, one-on-one, and explain your reasoning behind deserving a better grade. Don’t rally your classmates and put the professor on the spot during lecture.

5. Be honest with your level of effort.
Did you really put in the necessary work for the assignment, or are you just angry because you wanted an easy A? Having evidence such as drafts, research, or feedback can help your case when fighting for your grade, but if you have nothing to show beyond the final draft, your professor can only take you at your word and risks being subjective in grading.

6. Know when to concede.
Unfortunately, it’s highly likely that you will end up with a low grade you didn’t deserve. It is difficult, but in some situations you are better off letting it go, especially if the professor is unreasonable or extremely defensive. The most you can do at this point is maintain or develop a positive relationship with your professor, seek out extra credit, and do your best on future assignments. If the project was a substantial part of your grade in the class and will negatively affect your GPA, and you feel that you made every effort to remedy the problem, consider outside sources such as the university’s conflict resolution services.

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