On Grades and Grading

Because there’s insane pressure on high school students to achieve and get into college, by the time they get here they’ve already got a mindset: “All right, it’s absolutely imperative that I get an A+ on every single test and I need to know what I have to do to achieve that.” But what we want in students is creativity and a willingness to fail. I always say to students, “If you’ve never at some point stayed up all night talking to your new boyfriend about the meaning of life instead of preparing for the test, then you’re not really an intellectual.” The issue—and this is actually much more a problem in the United States but even in Canada it’s true—is we’re selecting a group that has gone through so much pressure to get to university that they don’t have that wide-ranging curiosity that’s a really important part of having an intellectual life. 

 — Alison Gopnik

• I am not likely to give all of you the grades you are accustomed to getting. If the prospect of this troubles you, please remember that you are not compelled to take my class. There may be other sections of the course I am teaching; or there may be other courses which would serve to meet the requirement you are taking my class to fulfill. Also, Baylor is not the only university you could attend; and many people have lived happy and fulfilled lives without attending college at all. People, you got options.

• If you get a lower grade than you think you deserve, you’ll survive. I made a number of C’s in college, and one F — a course I meant to drop but forgot to, which the registrar’s office would not erase from my transcript because, in their view, if I was careless enough to neglect filling out a drop form I deserved the resulting F. I think they were right, too. But whether they were right or not, that F didn’t do me any lasting harm. So if you get a B when you think you deserve at least an A–, don't worry. You'll get over it. Seriously. 

• Nothing that you have done in the past has any bearing whatsoever on my evaluation of your work. Nor am I able to give you credit for working hard, even assuming that you have worked as hard as you think you have. (Most of you think the correlation between "working hard" and "staying up really late" approaches 1, but I think it's . . . a lot less than that.)

• I do make mistakes in grading, I know. But before you ask me to reconsider a grade, please understand that I believe that 90% or more of my errors are in favor of the student. That is, when I regret giving a particular grade, nine times out of ten that’s because I think it was too generous. So if I re-read and re-evaluate an assignment, I may not come to the conclusion you’d like me to come to. (Plus, if I’m going to re-evaluate a paper you think I was too harsh with, shouldn’t I also re-evaluate your other work for me, including work that received grades you like? And why is it, not incidentally, that in my twenty-five years of teaching I have never once had a student ask me to re-evaluate an essay because the grade was too high?) (Okay, okay, I'm getting carried away. I shouldn't expect moral heroism from my students, especially since I don't expect it of myself.)

• If you really do think I’ve been unjustly harsh in my grading of an assignment, please follow the following steps. (1) Wait a week and then look at the essay and my comments again, and see if things still look the same to you. (2) If they do, then write out in the most specific terms possible what you think the problem is. (3) Either write to me or come see me, but in either case, present yourself as someone who wants to learn from this experience, not as a resentful, angry person determined to get what’s yours. Of course, you may well be a resentful, angry person determined to get what’s yours, but you don’t have to act like one. You’ll catch more flies with honey than battery acid; and (to shift metaphors) a genteel hypocrisy is the grease that keeps the wheels of social intercourse rolling smoothly. So if you can’t truly be gracious, just fake it. That’ll be better for everyone concerned.

• And above all, know this: I do not evaluate people when I’m grading, I evaluate their written work. Some students have this strange notion that professors like or dislike people in proportion to their grades. There are surely some professors somewhere who think that way, but I have never met any. Some of the most memorable and delightful people I have had in my classes got mediocre grades from me; and there are some people to whom I gave nothing but A’s who weren’t much fun to be around. And in any case, a semester after you’ve been in my class I’ll remember you perfectly well but I probably won’t have the first idea what grades I gave your papers.

• I should probably add a suitably edifying comment here about how a concern for grades can impede or thwart a genuine quest for learning; or, maybe, about how Christians find their value and worth in God’s undying love for them, not in performance or achievement. But y’all know that already . . . don’t you?

• Finally, you are welcome to come in and explain to me that your grade is unfair, or how circumstances conspired to make it impossible for you to do your best work and therefore I really need to give you another chance, or whatever the case may be, and I will be doing this, but deep down inside this is what I'll really be thinking.


A Practical Note: How to Read Your Graded Papers

Typically, I’ll ask you to submit your papers as PDFs. When they’re returned to you, they’ll be commented on, and you’ll be able to read my comments in the PDF-reading app of your choice. Most of my markup will be immediately comprehensible: unnecessary passages struck through in red; brief inline comments will also be in red; etc. But if I have to make a longer comment, I’ll put it in a yellow comment box. In most PDF-reading apps you’ll double-click on this box and it will open to reveal the text inside. Sometimes, though, it fails to expand to reveal the whole comment, and the box may not have a scrollbar. If that happens, then just click inside the box so that you can see a cursor. Then use the down-arrow key to move the cursor down, which will reveal the rest of the text. 

I will usually give numerical grades, which translate as follows: 98-100 = A+, 93-97 = A, 90-92 = A-, and so on. 

© Alan Jacobs 2017