Want a Grade Change? Ask Your Professor in the Morning

By Sarah Wright


What Is Decision Fatigue?

The principle of decision fatigue involves foundational work from a few psychologists, including Sigmund Freud. The history is interesting, but let's get to brass tacks: what does it mean, and how can it work for (or against) you? Basically, decision fatigue refers to the discovery, through clinical trials, that making a choice gets harder, not easier, the more you're forced to decide. After a long period of making choices, be them mundane or extremely important, those suffering from decision fatigue will lose a significant amount of willpower.

In an article in The New York Times, author John Tierney uses the example of a judge making parole decisions. The earliest case in Tierney's example got parole, but later in the day, the judge consistently said no to prospective parolees. According to studies of decision fatigue, the most exhausting part of making a decision is having to both consider options and make a decision. For the decision fatigued judge, 'no' may be the best answer, because it prevents the consideration of new options.

How to Use This Knowledge to Your Advantage

So, let's say you recently got a bad grade on a paper, and you're considering talking to your professor about it. In this hypothetical situation, you can explain what happened and the reasons why you performed so poorly. Your professor isn't a total nightmare, but he is relatively strict, so it seems like you have a 50/50 shot at successfully pleading your case for a higher grade, or at least a make-up assignment. In situations like this, adding a consideration of decision fatigue might be a big factor in shifting that balance to your favor.

Instead of waiting for the end of the day, try to show up to your professor's office bright and early. If they have office hours, try to be the first in line at the earliest time possible. The best time to ask a fairly inaccessible professor would be before class, not after. And if you have to ask before class, make sure you get his or her attention before any other students accost them. Consideration of timing is important, but you should be careful with your tone and manner as well. Bad etiquette fatigue may not be a formal psychological principle, but common sense will tell you that it's always a factor in play.

Other Tips

Here are some more tips that can help you change your professor's mind:

  • Go ask in person. E-mailing might seem lazy, and you don't want to ask a favor in a way that can be easily dismissed. Plus, using your newfound knowledge of decision fatigue, you might want to avoid asking for a boost in a way that might be ignored until a time when decision fatigue has already set in.
  • Don't abuse the privilege. If your professor has helped you out multiple times, their likelihood to keep doing it is going to diminish with each request.
  • Be outstanding for the right reasons. A good student who messes up big time on one paper is more likely to get leniency and understanding than a bad student who doesn't seem to actually care about his or her work.
  • Take a hint. If the answer is an automatic, firm 'no,' don't push your luck. Excelling on your next assignment will be the best way to prove that you're worthy of assistance.

Decision fatigue might be another factor to consider when you need your professor's understanding.

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