Saturday, December 13, 2014

The guilt of grades

There's a scene from the Simpson's I've been playing through my head the last couple of days. It's an episode where the teacher's are on strike, causing the elementary school to postpone classes. Bart is obviously thrilled, but Lisa is struggling despite her emergency preparedness kit. In this scene, Lisa is bouncing off the walls, demanding that someone grade her. Marge, looking around while clearly concerned, picks up a piece of paper, draws an "A" and hands it to her daughter. Only then is she appeased. Only then is there calm.

With the end of the quarter comes finalizing grades and submission. For as long as I can remember, these periods of transition have always been hotbeds of anxiety. As an undergrad, I remember the trauma that came with unexpectedly lower grades. The anxiety; the guilt; the confusion. Explanations always revealed the expected, but for some reason I consistently managed to get it into my head that I was performing better than expected in my courses. In graduate school, I suddenly found myself on the other side of the equation. I remember working with students who insisted up to the very end that they were fine and had a firm grasp of the material. All the while with me knowing that the excel sheet I had been generating wasn't reflecting this.

Grades are a hard thing. We use them as a metric for quality, assessing performance and potential. In the ALI community, someone declaring that they have grade "A" embryos brings on cheers and hope, while grade "B" gives anyone supporting pause, trying instead to figure out how to prepare for the potential failure that seems to be looming. We grade our food, our clothing, our schools and even our physicians. Grading is a norm within our society.

But what we don't consider is the negativity that comes with attaching a grade to a person. When we give someone an "A," we assume that they are smart. What isn't taken into consideration is that their performance may be due to their ability to grasp the material or other external factors. For example, I've had students who thrive in lecture-exam based courses. Their ability to absorb the material presented to them and spit it back out is impressive. But take these same students and put them into the lab, and it usually isn't long before meltdowns happen. On the flip, I've had students who do well with presentations and group work. They thrive in these social settings. Isolate them, though, for individual projects, and the work tends not to be as good.

One of the things I love about teaching is tapping into these learning styles. Within my field, there's been a lot of work to overhaul how we present information. The focus in more on learning goals and incorporating activities so that students learn how to apply the knowledge vs. stuffing their heads full of every little bit of information. With this overhaul has come more "ah-ha" moments; the moment where students put the information together in a manner that they understand it. Granted, there's a lot of upfront work, both for myself and the students (which tends to frustrate them), but the end result is often gratifying.

Despite this and the fact that I want every one of my students to succeed, I know that at the end of the day I have to assign grades. And even though I'm meticulous with my spreadsheets, clearly laying out where points are earned and distributed, I still have that way of anxiety and guilt when I'm in this process and days after I hit the submit button. Because I know that I will have students who are shocked by the outcome of the quarter. Disappointed that they didn't do better. And even though I will not have heard from them all quarter, I know in the next 48 hours I will suddenly have questions and requests for an explanation.

I'm struggling because I'm internalizing all of this. That I should have prevented this shock some of my students are experiencing. That I should have held more meetings, required weekly meetings to check in, been more clear about expectations and even had clearer rubrics (this one I will be working on during the break). What I'm trying to remember, though, is that sometimes failure is the best teacher. That we need to fail in order to reassess and relearn. Without failure, people become comfortable and are unwilling to expand. Failure can push us to make changes or try new things we otherwise wouldn't. Failure is usually what gives rise to success.

Obviously, none of that is sinking in at the moment. Instead I'm stuck with the guilt. How I hate grading.


  1. Failure is a GREAT teacher. And this is a lesson that so many of our student must learn, because they are so used to all being the very best at what they do. Some of them encounter the bumps earlier when suddenly learning becomes hard. Or they take an exam and realize they didn't know how to study. Some of them refuse to believe until the end, when they are faced with a final grade that isn't an A. They struggle with being imperfect. But that lesson is just as important as failure: not only do they need to learn HOW to learn, but that not everyone is good at everything, and no matter how much work you put into something, there will be times when you just won't get it in the same way someone else does. It requires them to reframe their ideas of success. Hard lessons. So part of our job, I think, is not just to grade them, but to help them understand how to grow from the experience.

  2. I think something also has to be said with the emphasis placed on grades by your parents when you were little. I think everything you're saying will be felt regardless, but the degree to which that pleasure or shame is felt can be influenced by external factors.

  3. My husband is also a college teacher and I can see how anxious he is right now as he is finalizing grades. There are a few students who have failed and he takes it very personally... Wondering what he could have done to prevent it and if he can help them make it your. I'mcomforted to know that it's not just our household bogged down by final exam stress! You guys are great teachers and there is only so much you can do to help people succeed.... The bulk of the work is up to themselves!

    Happy end of semester!


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