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
- If you get a lower grade on an assignment -- or even in a whole course -- than you think you deserve, the first thing to remember is that you’ll be okay. 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, even 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 really will get over it. I promise.
- 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.) Nor is the intensity of your desire to be admitted to med school or law school something that I can factor in. Your grade is determined by your achievement in my class and by nothing else whatsoever.
- 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. You have to be prepared for that.
- 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) Share what you’ve written with me as someone who wants to learn from this experience, not as a resentful, angry person determined to get what’s yours. (4) Do this in writing rather than in person, because long experience has taught me that too many misunderstandings happen in face-to-face meetings, especially when one person is upset. I can't tell you how many times I've had someone cry out, later on, "But you said..." — when in fact I hadn't said.
- Also, here’s something else I have learned from long experience: please know that, if you want to do better in your next assignment, it’s much more effective to focus on that assignment — for instance, by showing me a draft or outline — than to go over the previous one. For one thing, such a meeting largely consists of my repeating what I’ve already written on your assignment. But more important: Trying to re-litigate your previous assignment does absolutely nothing to help you do better in the future. I know that may be hard to believe — at one point it would have been hard for me to believe — but I have learned that it is true.
- 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 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 grade I gave you.
- 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?