Gender Gap in Grade-Change Requests

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Are male college students more likely than female students to ask for a grade change, and do they do so more frequently when they receive a grade they don’t like? Do male students have more favorable outcomes as a result of asking?

The answer to these questions is yes, according to new research by two university economists.

Male students are 18.6 percent more likely than female students to receive favorable grade changes when they ask for a grade change or challenge a grade, the researchers report.

Ask and You Shall Receive? Gender Differences in Regrades in College,” a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, was written by Cher Li, an assistant professor of economics at Colorado State University, and Basit Zafar, a professor of economics at Arizona State’s W. P. Carey School of Business.

The researchers based their analysis on “a unique administrative dataset” from an unnamed large four-year public university that included final grade records and any grade changes related to the records. The data set also included the reasons for the grade changes, which allowed the researchers to distinguish changes due to student actions, university rules or instructor decisions.

“Assuming that the distribution of grading errors is the same for both male and female students, we would expect to observe a similar grade correction pattern initiated by instructors for both male and female students,” the researchers wrote.

They noted that while the overwhelming majority of grade changes (95 percent) led to an improved grade, “Our analysis based on the administrative records reveals that although women made up 53.4 percent of the grade records, they represented only 49.1 percent of the favorable grade changes.”

They also found that gender differences in grade changes persist across colleges and departments “and are robust to inclusion of class and student characteristics.”

After analyzing the data, Li and Zafar wanted to better understand the patterns they found. They followed up with surveys to students and instructors asking about their recollections on regrade requests. The surveys revealed that regrade requests are prevalent and that male students are more likely than female students to ask for them. Additionally, 40 percent of students reported approaching instructors for grade changes at some point during their time in college. Over 60 percent of the requests lead to an improved grade (in exams, quizzes and assignments), and over 30 percent resulted in better final grades.

“Therefore, these regrade requests may have a profound impact on grades for students,” the researchers concluded. They also determined that the changed grades could also increase students’ overall grade point average.

“Indeed, using the statistics reported by students, our back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that the upper bound of the included GPA conditional on asking could be as high as 0.43 points for females and 0.47 points for males,” Li and Zafar wrote.

While the survey found that male students also ask, or consider asking, for grade changes in a larger number of classes, the researchers said gender bias played no role in the outcome of those requests.

“We also find that these request patterns persist throughout the semester. Hence, even if instructors change the grades for male and female students at the same rate, the outcome may still favor male students simply because they ask more frequently. We also find no gender difference in the expected change in grades, conditional on asking.”

The researchers also conducted a controlled lab experiment that provided financial incentives based on students’ willingness to pay to request a grade change. Students were given an imperfect indication of how they did on a quiz, which could be their true grade or a higher or lower grade, and then given the option to request a regrade at varying cost levels based on 10 cost scenarios.

“We found that male students are willing to pay higher costs to get it regraded,” Li said. “We also found that higher willingness to pay is related to the gender differences in the confidence level and the uncertainty of their belief in the outcomes.”

Li and Zafar examined whether the gender differences they found in their research results have consequences while students are still in college and have not yet entered the labor force.

“Specifically, we examine whether male and female students experience different rates of successful grade changes in college,” the researchers wrote. “If men are more aggressive than women in bargaining for better grades, they may be more likely to convince their instructors to alter their grades which serve as productivity signals to potential employers. Gender differences in willingness to ask and to negotiate may then put equally capable female students at a relative disadvantage in the job market.”

Li said she decided to research the role of gender in grade change requests after witnessing the disparity firsthand as a professor.

“Basically, when I started this project, it was motivated by my experiences,” she said. “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. They just think they deserve it.”

Li said only one female student had requested a grade change in six years, while at least two male students typically made such requests at the end of each semester. Male students also asked for grade changes throughout the semester while female students did not, she said.

She decided to find out why.

“We do have evidence that women don’t ask,” she said, citing the “underconfidence” of women about 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.”

Li and her research partner were not surprised by what they learned from their study.

“It’s what I expected,” she said of the results.

Said Zafar, “At some level, it’s not surprising that men are more likely to ask. What I think I learned from this study is why it is that men are more likely to ask. Women tend to be more uncertain and have lower confidence in their abilities, which is driving a large part of this difference.”

He said different personality traits, such as women being more agreeable and uncertain, “end up mattering and explaining the willingness to ask.”

Still, uncertainty and lack of confidence “can only explain about half of the gender gap and where it’s coming from,” he said. “The other remaining half remains unexplained.”

Zafar noted that even though other studies have shown that male students tend to procrastinate more, “what we weren’t sure of was whether women were asking for grade changes more during the semester,” he said, “but it turns out that was not the case. The men were asking at higher rates throughout the semester and at the end of the semester.”

The researchers’ survey of students also found that men were more willing to ask for grade changes in large classroom settings; women were not. The women were also more likely to say they did not think their instructors would change the grade when asked, and they said they would be more embarrassed if their instructors rejected their requests for grade changes.

“We asked in the surveys, why did you not ask for a grade change? The women reported feeling very high levels of stress if they had to ask,” Zafar said.

Zafar said professors and instructors could help alleviate these problems by better communicating with students and giving them “more accurate signals and concrete information about their ability and performance.”

“If someone doesn’t think they’re that good or doesn’t think they are performing well, they’re unlikely to appreciate the process and ask for a regrade,” he said. “I think that it would help if instructors would just make grading policies, whatever they are, very explicit and transparent. When it’s not, men tend to ask more for grade changes.”

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