Grading as a Spiritual Practice (Scholar’s Compass)

grading photo

Grading exams. Photo by __o__

Scripture

  • Whatever you do, work at it wholeheartedly as though you were doing it for the Lord and not merely for people. — Colossians 3:23
  • For there is no partiality with God. — Romans 2:11
  • My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. — 2 Corinthians 12:9

Reflection

It’s that time of year again: grading time. I’m sure you’re familiar with the saying “I teach for free, but I get paid to grade.” You may be procrastinating right now, avoiding those last 27 papers you have to grade. Maybe you’re enjoying the clever memes posted by colleagues about student complaints, entertaining typos, or plagiarism. . . .

What is it about grading that is often so miserable?

Grading confronts us with our own identity issues.

For many of us, teaching is part of our identity. We take pride in our instruction and we are convinced of the worth of our investment in students. When we grade mediocre (or worse) work, it can lead to self-doubt. Did I fail to teach well? Was I not engaging enough? Is my life’s work important? Why do students not value my course (or me)?

It’s easy to take rotten work personally, especially if it seems like effortless work. It can feel like an affront when we are trying to help students and they don’t seem to care.

Grading confronts us with our own partiality.

It’s easy to say that we’re objective and we value all students the same. But we’re all biased. Even if the students submit work without names attached, after an assignment or two, we can narrow down the excellent work to a few students. And frankly, it’s more fun to grade excellent work! It’s not only a boost to our pride, but it’s rewarding to see how students have grown and learned to research, write, or think more carefully over a term.

On the other hand, I have students who consistently underperform and I dread grading their papers. Before I even start, I steel myself for the grammar mistakes, run-on sentences, and muddy thinking.

I want to say that each time I come to a set of papers, I have no expectations and no partiality. But that’s a stretch. Knowing my bias and my preference for more accomplished students is also guilt-inducing. I should value all students the same! What’s wrong with me?

Grading requires judgment.

Grading can feel harsh. I often worry about how students will react to their grades. I over-empathize with my students when it comes to grading. The truth is, each student is different. Many are just trying to check my course off of their requirements so they can move on to coursework that better fits their passions. Others have so many commitments in their lives that a passing grade is all they really want. They’ve made a calculation and decided the bare minimum will get them what they need.

I can’t relate to this. I’ve never been satisfied with the bare minimum, no matter what my other commitments. And that’s true for most of us. If we’re in positions of teaching and grading, chances are good that we were the students engaging with the professors and the material, putting forth our best effort. We were the students our professors loved to grade.

Grading would be fun if we could please everyone. If all of our students cared about the course and did their best work, we’d enjoy giving them feedback, even if they needed to improve. If students considered grades an assessment to let them know where they needed to improve and where they were excelling, it might be easier to hand down grades. But grading sometimes brings out relational junk. Students may not respect the authority of the professor and may fight back for the grades they want. And no one really wants conflict over grading. So it’s easy to put off doing that hard job of handing out less-than-excellent grades.

What would happen if we viewed grading as a spiritual practice?

Knowing that grading brings out some unpleasant emotions in me, I’m learning to start my sessions differently. Instead of gritting my teeth and rewarding myself with chocolate after each paragraph graded, I will try to take a step back.

When I sit down to grade, I want to pause and ask God to help me reflect on what I’m bringing with me, asking for confidence in my calling to teach (and to grade) and requesting insight into my students and their work. I pray for freedom from bias and wisdom in my judgment.

When I take a break, I pause again and pay attention to my own thoughts and emotions. Am I feeling discouraged? Frustrated? Prideful? God can help me see the dignity and value of each student wholly apart from their work.

Would you join me in this experiment to treat grading as a spiritual practice?

May we grow in spiritual maturity each time we grade a batch of papers, no matter whether they meet our expectations (of ourselves) or not. May we trust that God is working in us, helping us to find our identity in him and not in the performance or opinions of our students. May we grade with honesty, integrity, and impartiality, not favoring the brightest nor worrying about pleasing students. May we give God the glory in our work.

Questions for reflection

  • How do you prepare for grading sessions?
  • What brings you joy in grading? Where do you struggle?
  • How might you be more aware of God’s presence with you as you grade?
  • What does grading teach you about God?

Prayer

As I grade, remind me that my value is in my identity as a child of God. Remind me of your call on my life, which includes teaching. Remind me of the ways you are at work in my life, growing me in my understanding of students and my self-understanding.

As I work, teach me to invest in each student and to recognize that each one is an image-bearer. Give me wisdom as I evaluate their work, and teach me to separate their grades from their value as students. May my work be for your glory.

Amen.


Scholars-Compass-image-40x40Note: Part of a Scholar’s Compass series on Academic Work as Spiritual PracticeHelp ESN Create a Devotional for Scholars.

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Anna Gissing

Anna Moseley Gissing is an associate editor at InterVarsity Press and senior writing instructor for Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Her writing has been published in Let Us Keep the Feast: Living the Church Year at Home and Not Alone: A Literary and Spiritual Companion for those Confronted with Infertility and Miscarriage. She lives near Chicago with her husband and two children.

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One Comment

  • jsire@prodigy.net'
    James W. Sire commented on May 14, 2015 Reply

    After six years of teaching freshman and sophomore English at the U of Missouri, I taught four more years at Nebraska Wesleyan and then, after joining IVP, I taught part-time at Northern Illinois U.

    During the first of four years at Nebraska Wesleyan I learned that, at least for this school, I was a hard grader. My department chairman, after my first semester (or maybe year), told me that the administration had, for the first time, used a computer analysis to rank the faculty as easy–tough graders. I had come out as the toughest grader of all 80 or so teachers. I knew this could not be because my NWU students’ ability was below the average of those in MU. In fact, I found them clearly a cut more able. Surely, I thought, I’ve only been teaching freshman and sophomore courses here. Most other teachers have upper class courses where grades are bound to be better overall. Does the computer know that?

    Still somehow the admissions department looked at the computer results and raised the issue with my department chairman. He/she/they thought my reputation as a tough teacher would somehow get to students choosing colleges and NWU would be less likely chosen. Sigh!

    I was not in trouble with the chairman. He admitted to me that he found himself in the lower third. He seemed more frustrated by discovering his own position than by where he found mine. And he added, I rather see you up there than down here.

    Reflection: Except for the excellent ones, I never ever liked grading papers. And as I became older, I found myself becoming softer, though I never saw the results of any further analysis, even at NWU. Moreover, I taught more upper class courses and then, as a visiting professor, I was mostly teaching in graduate schools. I had some great students there!

    Anna Gissing’s comments and suggestions are bang on target! To my shame, I don’t remember praying about grading itself, only about the grades I felt I must assign to a given student. I say this to my shame. Mea culpa.

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