Letters from Students Unhappy with Grades

Dr. Linhart,

My world is going to end if you give me the grade I earned in your class. Because of this, can’t you just give me a C instead?



Dear Student,

I think there is a misunderstanding about grades. I do not give grades. I report what happened in my class with regards to student performance. As such, I cannot, and my integrity requires that I do not, report grades that are unmerited to the university.

I wish you fortitude in dealing with your situation. I realize this is not at all the situation you want to be in, but I know you will find the fortitude, dignity and integrity to get through it. Things are often incredibly painful when they are happening, and our challenge is to learn what we can learn from them, so that we don’t have to face the same problem again.


Dr. Linhart

Dr. Linhart,

Are you available in the morning tomorrow? I can bring all my assignments and exams, and surely there are points I can reclaim in order to get above the defined line.

Thank you!


Dear Student,

Please tell me you are joking about this. I have been available all semester long to deal with point disputes. If there is something you feel very strongly about, I will, of course, be happy to hear you out, but this should have been taken care of when the papers were first returned to you.

I think you also misunderstand how many points it takes to raise a grade. Let’s say you had an 79.5% and the cutoff was 80% (I am sure we are talking a larger gap than this, but let’s use it for an example). That seems a small amount, but a handful of homework points or even a few points on the final or another exam will not bridge this gap.

I know you are disappointed with your grade, but I believe your time and energy would be better spent in determining what you need to do to avoid this situation in the future. The power to come for help or to put more effort into learning the material was available to you for the entire semester. If you had exerted this energy then, you would have earned the outcome you desire with no questions from anyone and with a great deal less frustration on both your part and on mine.


Dr. Linhart

Mathematical Modeling

Another instructor asked me tonight to talk to him sometime about what made my mathematical modeling class a success.

Where to begin? Love your students, and believe they are capable.

Foster a classroom environment in which everyone is respected, respectful, and everyone’s goals are aligned.

Let students make choices about what they do. Then they will own the work more than if you choose for them.

Don’t be afraid to screw up. Some things will work, and some won’t. Some of the biggest screw-ups will have the most profound learning opportunities. For you and for them. Some of the “failed projects” taught students more than success at some canned exercise would have.

Praise them. Then praise some more. But you can’t do generic praise. You have to look and see the specific things they are doing that are worthy of your words.

Make things meaningful and relevant to them and their lives. But don’t simplify the hard stuff. Let them see the messy. That is what mathematical modeling is all about, the messy interface of mathematics and reality.

Make sure they understand what mathematical modeling *is*, and keep bringing that theme back into their work. Because if they don’t walk out of your class understanding what it *is*, what in the hell have you actually taught them?

Start by figuring out what you think they ought to know and learn from your class. Then design everything you do around those objectives.

Make assignments that you will be eager to grade. That will make your life easier, and their work more interesting. If you find it interesting, they will too.

Don’t be afraid to do something silly or fun because it is silly and fun, the Zombie Apocalypse has been a great modeling project for that reason.

Since it is your job to criticize, make it their job to praise. Make sure they point out to each other the good things they are doing.

Look for success, for creativity, for talent, for competence. And where you find it, nurture it. It won’t always be in those put-together students who always do well at everything. You will find amazing things in your mid-range students and even in your screw ups. Don’t waste those gifts.

Tell them about your failures. Tell them where you struggled. Make yourself a human being to them — let them learn from your mistakes. You don’t have to be right all the time, and you don’t have to have been right all the time. Understand where they are coming from and forgive yourself for those times when you demonstrated their faults.

And did I mention love them? Love them. Love them. And love yourself too. If you bring grace, dignity, integrity, humility and love into your classroom, you will have it returned to you.

Why You Should Ask Stupid Questions: How to Look and Act Like the Smartest Person in the Room

I’ve got a little story for you, so sit right down and make yourself comfortable.

A while back, I worked as a software developer for a fairly small but very profitable company. The owner of the company is one of those geniuses. He was interested in computers back when desktop computers first became available. He started playing with the idea that they could be used to do statistics and mathematics. Eventually the program he wrote to do that was paying his bills. In the present, that software package has since likely made him many millions of dollars. At a guess? Tens of millions of dollars.

I remember one day, we were sitting in a meeting discussing the future of documentation for this product. Our documentation was (at the time) printed in the dead tree edition: a set of about 12 books or manuals. Online documentation, it was becoming clear, was the way things would be in the future. And the standard way to do documents like that is PDFs.

At some point in the conversation, my boss, the genius, the owner of the company, the man who had been in computing since desktop computers first became available, spit out the question, “What does PDF stand for?”

PDF, very simply, stands for Portable Document Format.

It might not strike you, Dear Reader, that this is a stupid question, but at that time in that context, PDFs had been around for a decade or so. Surely, anyone who was anyone in commercial software development would know what this is. Especially someone who had seen these evolve over the past decade. For goodness sake, he had been into computers when the first PCs came out! How could he not know what PDFs are?

Apparently he didn’t know what PDF meant.

I sat there in my chair thinking, very rudely, to myself, “That is the stupidest damn question I have ever heard in my entire life.”

You know what happened next?

Someone, maybe even me, answered him. I don’t remember who.

The conversation continued as if nothing unusual had happened.

No one ever mentioned it to him again. I certainly didn’t let loose with my opinion.

But I was keen to observe and think about the dynamic of what I had just seen.

I came to a few conclusions.

  1. If you are the smartest person in the room, you can ask whatever stupid question you want, and someone will give you an answer.
  2. So rather than worrying about whether or not a question is stupid, maybe you should act like you are the smartest person in the room, and just ask it.

I’ve put this into practice. If I have a question, even if I have that little nagging doubt in my mind about whether it is a stupid question, I ask it. What have I found out from this?

  1. Almost always, others have the same questions that I do.
  2. I get more respect from asking questions than I do from keeping silent.
  3. People tend to think I’m smarter when I ask questions than when I don’t.

Dear Reader, I conclude with my advice to you. Act like the smartest person in the room. Have courage, and ask your stupid questions.