When I was still an undergraduate student at BYU, I took a job as a student instructor for FREN 102, the second half of a two-course sequence in first-year French. I had a lot of weird experiences as an undergraduate student teaching and grading other undergraduate students, but the one that I remember this morning is the time that I held a student’s scholarship in my hand. I don’t remember the student’s name or much about her, except a vague recollection of her face and a couple of conversations with her.
During the first conversation, she came to me to explain that I had done some math wrong on an exam and given her a higher grade than she deserved. I explained that whenever math errors were in the student’s favor, it wasn’t my policy to correct them. This was a good conversation. I don’t remember if that had previously been my policy or if I made it up on the fly, but I still think it’s a good policy. I’m also happy for students who are honest in situations like that; in particular, it reminds me that despite the pile of problems that BYU has, there are some moments when it lives up to its own ideals in a way that are incontestably good. I’m still frustrated with my alma mater for a number of more important things, and I don’t think for a minute that the phenomenon of student honesty is limited to private religious institutions, but I was still happy for the student coming clean in that moment.
Later on in the semester (or perhaps later on in the conversation; I can’t really remember if these were two separate conversations), the same student came to me to ask if there was anything I could do to bump her grade up just a point or two. Her scholarship depended on a certain GPA, she was so close to the next-highest letter grade in my class, and if I couldn’t make the adjustment, she was going to lose the scholarship. I was sympathetic to the situation, but I had to focus on my assessment of her French, not the bigger picture. I didn’t make the change, and she presumably lost her scholarship.
I don’t know that I made the wrong decision that semester over a decade ago, but I’m thinking of it today, as end-of-semester grades are once again due. I have so much more experience grading now than I did as a FREN 102 instructor. I’ve turned in grades semester after semester, I’ve designed my own assessment structure for class after class, and I even taught an entire class on assessment theory and practice in graduate school. And yet, despite all of this, I think I feel more and more conflicted about grading as time goes on.
I hate being aware of my own subjectivity in grading. I hate being aware of my inconsistency as I move from project to project, and I hate asking myself whether such-and-such a decision is arbitrary. I hate not knowing what a grade is supposed to represent—what do I do when a student who works hard but burns out on the final project winds up with a lower grade than students who don’t understand the material as well but at least turned something in? I hate the judgment calls that come when a student is right on the edge of two letter grades, I hate asking myself if I should be generous on the concepts that I know I didn’t teach well, and I hate holding scholarships and GPAs in my hands.
I also hate the approaches I’ve taken to respond to all of this. I hate that I’m over generous in my grading, that so many of my students get As—and that it’s often because the thought of a B would have stressed me out as the 4.0 perfectionist student that I was. I hate that students take advantage of my generous late policies and my ungrading to wind up with good grades in classes that they didn’t show up for. I hate that I’m not able to incentivize students to show up and try hard without dangling carrots and sticks, and I hate the thoughts that cross my mind that treat students as customers (who wasted their tuition dollars by not learning anything) rather than learners (who could have learned so much more in my class but didn’t).
And yet, I also hate who I could become by overcorrecting. I hate the idea of being a punitive professor who deals out penalties for students who were having a tough week and couldn’t make it to class. I hate the possibility of being a grader who punishes students for not understanding instead of asking myself how I can teach the material better.
I know enough about assessment to fix a lot of these concerns. I also know enough about myself to say that I’m probably overthinking this and projecting my own anxieties and insecurities onto my students. I’m confident that over time, I can fine-tune my assessment strategy, adjust my teaching, and feel better about how I grade. In the meantime, though, it’s another day that final grades are due, and it’s another day that I hate the whole process.
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