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Emotional Responses to Being Graded

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15 Sep 2015
Stories from the Front
Tags: assessing students   |   student assignments   |   assessing learning   |   grading

Though this particular meeting of the Academic Standing Committee was five or six years ago, my memory of a request as filed by a student yet lingers.  Bonnie, not her real name, was petitioning for a grade change from “B” to “A” in our required ethics course.  In the rationale section of the form, she explained that she would soon be going before the denomination’s ordination committee.  Her dilemma was about her transcript and its interpretation by the lay committee.  Bonnie feared that by having been given a grade of “B” in Introduction to Ethics she would be misconstrued as an unethical person.  In the petition, Bonnie took great care to assure the faculty committee of her high character and high moral fiber.  From my recollection, her writing conveyed a low-grade sense of desperation and shame. 

Of course the committee recognized the confusion of her rationale and elected not to change the grade.  A grade in a disciplinary course, even if the course is ethics, is not an assessment of personal decency.  Similarly, an academic transcript is not a predictor of vocational success or failure.  After the Academic Standing committee ruled, Bonnie’s advisor was asked to talk with her and explain our decision. 

My hunch is that the sentiments and fears of Bonnie are more pervasive in students than we would
B paperwant to think.  What are we communicating to students about their personal virtue and value in grading? When a transcript is interpreted by non-academic persons in authority, in Bonnie’s case an ordination committee, are they clear that the grades are not a measure of the goodness of the candidate?  What do grades mean to adult learners – many of whom are already highly accomplished in the vocation for which they study?

Once the joys and jitters of the beginning of the semester settle-in, I look to the next milestone - the first assignment.  The part I enjoy about the first assignment is seeing the work of students up-close and personal.  The part I dislike about the first assignment is grading.  Specifically, I dread returning the graded assignments to students.  My difficulty is the emotional response of students about their grades.    

Returning graded assignments is a moment when the energies of the room rise and fall; spike and soar higher, then dip; quiver and swirl – all seemingly in simultaneous, mostly silent, drama.  Students who receive a “good” grade, usually A, sit looking proud, feeling understood and sometimes smug or condescendingly satisfied.  Some students look inquisitive, usually the A- or B+ grades, re-reading my comments and trying to make sense out of their “mistakes” or my poor judgment.  Students with grades which are below B+ often allow their attention to drift or even pout for the remainder of the session unable to engage with the teacher who obviously is incompetent, misinformed, or down right prejudiced against them.  Returning graded assignments is a moment loaded, overloaded, with student emotions and this moment, for me, has proven many times to be distractingly burdensome.

So many student reactions communicate that if I gave their assignment the highest grade then I “like” them and think they are “good” human beings.  And, if I gave their assignments a lower grade, then I “dislike” them and think they are “bad” human beings.  I am just as un-prepared for the emotions of joy, satisfaction and pride as I am for the emotions of frustration, disappointment or anger.

My spiritual practice for this weighty moment has turned to detachment.  It is not my want to disconnect (not to become unattached) from the students nor to dampen their responses.  I do not want to shield myself from the emotions of my students.  Detachment helps me to maintain my own composure and direction during their emotional highs and lows.  I want to keep this moment in perspective as one moment among many throughout our shared experience of learning.  I want to resist reacting to their mood with my own mood.  The practice of detachment allows me to stay focused on the building of community in the course as well as upon the notion of mutual respect.  Detachment, like submitting one’s self to be graded in the creation of a transcript, requires hard work, discipline and commitment.

I have thought of Bonnie many times when I return the first, graded assignments in a course.  Her heartfelt dilemma reminds me that while grading is not a determiner of character and worth, it is a sensitive experience to which I need to carefully tend. 


This is the 3rd post in this series by Nancy Lynne Westfield this semester (Fall 2015).

Nancy Lynne Westfield

About Nancy Lynne Westfield

Professor of Religious Education
Drew Theological School

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Comments

  1. “A man who depends upon externals for his significance, who must look to others for the nod of the head, is one whose life is constantly at the mercy of whatever it is he is courting in his environment. […] Often, he ends up by stretching himself out of shape in trying to be to others what he can never be but what someone else could be without trying. Where do you place your emphasis?” – Howard Thurman, Deep is the Hunger

    I think my tension with grading arises out of the interpretation that it is often used as a judgment upon the work of an individual rather than solely a constructive critique. When I receive a graded piece of work I always tend to gravitate towards the bottom of a page or the end of an assignment in hopes of finding some notes from the professor either reinforcing the work, providing points for growth, or ideally, doing both. That, for me, links the educator and me together along the same journey.

    In many ways, I feel grading has become a creative barrier inhibiting communal partnering (at least it has for me in the past). I don’t want this to be the case for any educational experience – inside the classroom or beyond it. I’ve felt those pangs of needed affirmation from a teacher before and now carry some angst for having been conditioned to have such a reaction. It’s a tricky task having to assign values to another’s work. I appreciate you voicing your own means approaching this process through detachment because it exemplifies the very question that Thurman poses: where do we place our emphasis? Placing it on the communal good (and being anchored in that collective commitment) is a lovely start.

  2. Thank you so much for this post Dr. Westfield. As a student who has always been pretty conscious of my grades, mostly for scholarship purposes, an insight into what the teacher might be thinking and feeling around this issue makes it a little easier to understand. I know that each teacher has a different take on the grading and what the grades mean, but to know that we as students are not the only ones who are anxious when it comes to getting graded assignments back, means a lot.

  3. The discipline of detachment may be viewed as a state of indifference; however, in your context it is having the ability to professionally dissociate which lends oneself to experience clarity of thought without the emotional attachments.

    I believe that those who have the ability to detach from negative emotions and the negative emotions of other people are practicing a form of spiritual discipline which allows one to find inner-peace. As an educator, this is essential. It doesn’t equate to one not having empathy; however it does allow one to detach emotionally or personally.

    Adult learners oftentimes resort back to an infantile state as was stated in lecture; this in mind, when it comes to their grades they respond very much like students in grammar or grade school. Adult learners can become very defensive in position and perspective when grades received are not what was expected. Perhaps it’s because they work so hard and have elevated expectation levels which are later quashed when grades are returned. I don’t think that it’s necessarily about impressing others (such as the case with Bonnie) but perhaps it is also about self-perception. We call into question how disciplined we were when we worked on assignments and in the moments when we have not lived up to our own expectation, we tend to self-examine. So as an offensive measure, adult learners tend to deflect and blame the educator/professor for “giving” the, their grades rather than viewing it as a grade earned.

  4. As an ‘older’ student my reaction to my grades is much different from when I was a ‘younger’ student. I am not as interested in the letter grade as I am in the comments found within the assignment. If all I get is a final grade with no comments – I am disappointed. I value the discussion of my work, ultimately it is what I take away from the assignment that really matters the most to me but I also value hearing what my voice says to the reader, because it may not alway be the same message. Dr. Westfield I appreciated most your line “I want to keep this moment in perspective as one moment among many throughout our shared experience of learning.” that is really what we are about here – a shared experience of learning. Thank you for sharing.

  5. When I was younger, I intentionally avoided higher grades as a means of resistance and spite to a system that wanted to define me easily. I would show myself capable of achieving with the best, and then withdraw my effort to avoid it. In a way, I just wanted to be free to learn as I saw fit. It seems childish now, and I no longer carry on like that.

    I very much enjoy the feeling of getting a higher grade on assignments and for classes. I can’t deny that truth. I will say that I hang onto the advice I received here at Drew regarding my grades in the grand scheme of things. That my congregation will not care if I got an A or a C in church history, but they will care that I love them. I am far more invested in the quality of character that develops for me through my studies.

  6. Since entering Drew theological Seminary I have been in the receivng end of grades and submitter of the same. This is truly a paradoxical concern for anyone who lives juggling both positions as the receiver and giver. In the final analysis each case contends with its own tension and consequences. Are the students or subjects at the receiving end justifying the grade earned or received. Is it conceivable that a student is able to become objective over the A- versus B+ instead of A. How has the grading system neutralized the perspective all students have regarding a grade being paralled with self-esteem vs. the actual requirements of the course. And to what degree are the providers of these grades objective? During particular meetings on this concern, faculty members and administrators came to the conclusion that being truly objective is a matter of personal decision that defies that fine line of subjectivity. There are moments where the individual has to address their intentionality. At least that is what happens with professors at our college being non-traditional. I concur with the feelings this places on the professor such as yourself with the particular student and empathize tremendously. This week a young lady challenged me with a grade received from the summer semester. Before I could respond she was already tensed and angry to the degree the class was interrupted by angry comments. I calmly referred the student to the department chairperson knowing that the work prepared by the student was measured against the rubrics and criteria for the course. I knew the grade was fair and your comments regarding self-worth was emerging into a reaction in class. I appreciated the individual’s intense response and felt this is a part of the university experience that will help her grow as a teacher in training. For me as an older student learning is lifelong and hopefully grows into wisdom. I appreciate knowing that the work I accomplished for the course was thorough, clear and of substance. As someone else indicated; the comments added with the grade is something I value and appreciate. For me, it means the professor was reading for meaning and took the time to respond to the individual. I too have to create a sense of distance in order to go over the work submitted and keep a perspective that addresses the relationship between the work and the expectations for the course. When I receive a letter grade I examine within myself in terms of the knowledge gained throughout the process and the connection with the professor. In all professions there is are processes of evaluation and assessment. For human beings being assessed upon going through medical procedures creates as much anxiety for the results. Hey doctor; am I okay; was it negative or positive. I can imagine the quandry a medical doctor experiences with having to indicate the positive for cancer with the parents of a young child. Yes, with the results of the examination for Ordination much anxiety is created. As I understand from persons who completed the process, failure has lead to serious devastation with the participants. You raised issues that require significant discussion and questions for me with high testing these day in the New York City school system. I am left in a quandry. Peace.

  7. I am reminded of the one time i went to a professor to discuss a grade that I received on an exam and was positive that there had to have been some error on the part of the professor of course. I liked the class and believed (falsely) that I had thoroughly grasped all the concepts that had been taught. Well, needless to say after the professor and I went through my exam, answer by answer, I was ashamed at all I had missed or misunderstood. I can laugh now and believe I did then, that is how absurd my own false sense of confidence and maybe arrogance had been.

    However, this experience taught me to dig deeper and think more analytically. I went back over the material because I needed to know how my perception had been so flawed. I realized that I must step back and take a long hard look at my work and finished product and ask is it good enough, has it said enough, does it say anything? Since that experience I have found that I have earned the grade that matches the effort that I afford the assignment, Thus, the grade I receive satisfies me, because I have done my best.

  8. The flashbacks that I experienced while reading this work. As a student who has parents that are immigrants, education is something that was and is on top of the totem pole. I am the first of my family who was born in the United States, the land of opportunity…the Promise Land. Education is the ticket to a future filled with hope and success. “You get yourself an education, get a great job, make great money and then you can take care of me.” Something I have heard throughout my growing up. Come into my house with anything less than a “B” and the response to it was a leather strap to my backside. “Your only job is school. No bills to worry about…you do what you are supposed to.” Now, grant it some may call this abuse…but I do understand the principle and the discipline it was trying to cultivate. The grades were made but out of it emerged perfectionism. Bonded, yoked and shackled to being the best and nothing less bled to other areas of my life. It became more than just a grade but anything less than a “C” played on my esteem. The introduction of standardized testing did not help. As one who has learning challenges, the idea of being graded and categorized by my responses on a scan-tron sheet created various emotional trauma. If all of this happens on a student’s end…I can’t imagine the emotional toll on a teacher (until I became a teacher). Dr. Westfield, you have really placed a spotlight on an elephant that has taken residence in many classrooms. Thank you.

  9. I understand the dilemma that Professors have to go through. There are however a couple of reflections that I wish to express. First the people that are on the boards that we go before are usually at least Master if not Doctoral graduates or even higher. They make sure we know it when they ask and review our backgrounds in schooling. The issue I have with Professors grading systems is not that I may get a B if I did less than adequate work, but that there are Professors that feel No One deserves an A. They will never give them because no student is this accomplished in their eyes. My main concern is not BOOM or other committees rather that my scholarship rides on my GPA. With this thought if I struggle in a couple of classes and get C’s then get only B’s in classes I am doing my best in-the average kills my GPA. I know I give all of my classes all I can. I believe students should get consideration for effort not just end product. Some students struggle with papers and some with exams. Classes that only allow for two grades to be submitted gives a heavy weight of 50% on each when it comes to grading.
    In reference to your detachment-I get it. As a social worker I cannot allow my personal feelings to effect what I say and do. Sometimes removing one self from a situation allows for clarity and objectiveness. A Professor should not be a student’s friend. Not to say that socialization is off the table, but there still needs to be respect. As an adult I have parishioners of all ages and education levels. I cannot treat one any more or less than another even if I feel I am closer to one than another. As an adult we need to evaluate situations and act appropriately. I understand hurt feelings from lower grades, but if you grade fairly and equally across the board then the grades should stand. If someone has a situation where something was interpreted wrong or if a person is unable to convey him/herself productively then a conversation needs to be had for consideration. In your case the answer was no to the student, but if there was actually an issue I am sure the grade would have been changed. I have had professor’s-the ones that think a C is a great grade to get-change my grade when I explained the scholarship dilemma and had a good reason for the increase. My final thought on this matter is that if it is possible to get any grade from A to F and all students are treated equal and considered for effort as well as final product then the grades should stick. Unfortunately different Professors grade with different perimeters and so us students do not know how or what to submit. This backfires when either a Professor does not return graded assignments before others are due or only gives two assignments and right off a student is out 50% of his/her grade.

  10. As was stated above, this really is a bit of an “elephant in the room,” so I very much appreciate the conversation. When I began seminary, I made a promise with myself that I wouldn’t place too much emphasis on getting an A all the time because I understood the challenges I would face in terms of balancing self-care, care for my family, success at work, attention to ministry, etc. etc. I knew I couldn’t do it all. With that said, that promise was easier to state than enact. The pull to do all I can and have it reflected in the form of an A+ or A or A- is quite strong. Growing up, my mother in particular was very involved with me in my studies. I recognize today that I have always carried a strong desire to please and be affirmed and that most certainly is connected, in some way, to my mother’s involvement and the pride she would convey when I did well. If I reflect on this, allowing some distance from my emotion, it’s easy for me to see how these grades are not a measure of me. It’s easy to see how these grades will not reflect upon my ability to love and minister now and in the future. But I confess it’s not always easy to distance myself from that emotion. I’m tempted right now to dig further in this topic and write MORE, in part because I believe it could enhance my grade! So .. as a measure of detachment and growth … this is the end of my reflection … for today 🙂

    Grace & Peace,
    Anthony

  11. I remember reading a quote many years ago by Albert Einstein: “Education is what remains after you’ve forgotten everything you learned”. As one who didn’t start pursuing higher education until the age of 45, I have come to understand Einstein’s statement in a unique way. My formal education may have gotten a late start, but the education of “life” helped much of what I learned in school make sense.

    Probably every high school student in history has asked the question about when they would ever need to make use of the algebra they learned. But the truth is that algebra provided problem-solving skills that come into use throughout life whether you “use” the algebra or not. That’s the way it is with most of the higher education that I have experienced. The things that I have learned have not be as important as the way it impacts my life.

    That’s why your practice of detachment makes so much sense to me. Ultimately, you’re talking about the ‘big picture’. The ethics for which Bonnie received a B are not the same as the ethics with which Bonnie undoubtedly lives her life. Don’t get me wrong: the grades are nice. But the education is irreplaceable.

  12. Testing comes in many forms. If an examinee’s test is Multiple Choice or True or False the outcome and emotional results of a letter grade tends to be owned by the examinee. Unless there is a mistake in the correcting of the paper, these grades are usually accepted without complaint. On the other hand if the testing is an essay or report which are usually subjective and does not ask for a listing or numerical data, this is when examiner and examinee can differ. But society has us so wired that we are placed in restricted confines of good and bad; high achievers or low achievers and the like. I can remember a number of times I literally crammed for tests, received a high score and “letter” as results but when forced to recall information, I could hardly remember what I crammed the week prior. This was in my younger days when I did not understand the full meaning of study, and knowledge. The goal of learning is not so much what is in the gradebook but what you walk away with and the impact it has upon one’s life.
    Secondly, from a parent’s point of view, we put so much emphasis on grading for younger kids and teenagers that we are continuing the pressure cycle of the A’s and B’s. Yes, children do experience emotional responses but I think they may be responding the way they think their parents may respond! I am in the process of entering my daughter into a Choice High School. She will be graded on an entrance exam and also work from 7th and the first marking period of 8th Grade. I found myself the other night telling her that she had to get all high A’s to be accepted into the program. I know from past experiences that she does not do well in testing environments and this comment from me added more stress which I found myself exhibiting and it is not healthy for her.
    Finally, as I was writing the above I suddenly realized how ironic it is that we call the classes after Kindergarten “Grades!” No wonder there is that unseen pressure existing, before we are even aware of it.

  13. Dr. Westfield,
    This was a great post. You spoke so well to emotional roller coaster that many of us as students go through. There are so many times that we have issues with our grades but feel as if we are pushing it too far if we question the teacher. Looking at the teacher student relationship as it relates to this article is very helpful for those who may have a problem with different systems of grading or are sometimes wondering what the teacher may be thinking. Thanks again for your deep insights and be blessed.

  14. Thank you for sharing the post. Its great to read your stand on the value of grades, and the distinction of grades on your transcript not defining who you are. I agree with that thought completely. I am an adult returning back to college, and have very little experience in the world of seminary student expectation. Yet, I am willing to give my best efforts in all that I am expected to participate in/with, including assignments/projects. And, know that I am not defined for failure or success by a grade.

  15. Wow Dr. Westfield. Thank you for sharing this post. Grading…such a subjective task for the teacher. What I interpret the notion of grading to be is a measuring bar to meet a certain criteria for a particular task. In my experiences as both a student and an teacher, I have experienced the roller coaster effects. I can remember my days in formative school education and the anxiety that waiting for a grade on assignment reared up in me. The thought of receiving a failing grade used to disrupt to the point that I would be in tears. If the grade was not a decent one, then many times I would feel like a failure of some sort. During those formative years, I cannot recall taking times to reflect on my responsibility in receiving such a grade. In other words, I didn’t take ownership of my learning.

    It wasn’t until I was in the twelve grade that I came to some realization that a grade doesn’t define me nor does it necessarily paint a picture of my intelligence. What I have come to understand is that learning is the essential goal. Grades to me are peripheral. If I receive a “C” or less, then the question I ask, “Did I give it my all and still received such a grade?” If I can earnestly say yes, then I look at my “C” as a learning experience grade and the aim is to implement and learn from this. Ever since I have been a student in higher education, I have come to an understanding to not fret over a grade. My goal is to learn something along the way.

    As an educator, I wrestle with giving a grade for the similar reasons of my struggle. I have found that when I give a grade that a student may not find to be favorable, I provide a qualitative description and allow students to reach out to me to discuss their thinking. These experiences have been progressively created a healthy meeting space.

  16. During the academic year at Drew, I mostly have had reasonable grades. When I researched resources well or put much energy to complete my papers or projects, I had higher a grade. Once I had very lower grade, I was kind of shocked but I wasn’t upset. Actually I should not upset with my lower grade because I know the reason. During that semester, I didn’t follow the professor’s lecture well, and my mid/final papers’ quality wasn’t that good. Later on, I felt regret like I could have learned more. The class was over and I cannot go back to the first day of the class.

    In my childhood and college year, I mostly had accepted my grade. I’ve never request a better grade to the teacher. Also I didn’t feel shame and hide my lower grade when I had it, because I didn’t believe that it determined my character and worth. I believed grade was just grade. Professor can judge my intelligence, knowledge, understanding or etc, however he/she cannot measure my personal virtue and value.

    7 years ago, I started to serving as a Sunday school teacher. At that time, definitely I recognized who’s can get A+ or C- if I was grading the children. I had different emotion responses to individuals including some bias. As time passed, I realized each child’s talent or strength, it was helping to remove bias to the children. It was a sensitive issue and valuable learning to teach.

  17. To stop to look closely at the dynamic that takes place between a teacher grading students’ work and being graded, it unpacks so much of who we are as a culture and as a people. This blog invited to reflect on my own experiences with the grading process. A’s were really important to my father. So much, that when a neighbor asked me how did I do on my first day of college, and I shared I got my first F, he got infuriated. He proceeded to go fetch his transcript from his first semester of college to show our neighbor that my incompetency had nothing to do with him. In that simple act, he disassociated himself from me, with the use of a grading document. Of course, he was comparing apples to oranges. The A’s he earned on his first semester of college as 40 year old man who had been to war and retired from the Navy, cannot be compared to the first F I earned as a 17 year old, who was raised over protected and sheltered and who was experiencing life on her own for the first time. My academic F was a symptom of the A I was trying to earn in learning the ins and outs of life as an adult. Regardless, that moment marked me. And indeed grades became a way to measure my worth. After all, if was the only measure my parents used to define me.

    When my advisor at Drew told me Jesus did not care for A’s I was so relieved. And that freedom allowed me to enjoy the learning process even more. The focus shifted from earning As to really engaging with my fellow students and the material at hand. When you ask: What do grades mean to adult learners? I think the answers are unlimited as there are people on this earth. However, I think many adult learners as myself, carry the burdens imprinted on us as young people. I appreciate your invitation to look critically at how is it that we define this particular moment in our lives and how it impacts how we interact with each other.

    I confess I wrestle with my desire to earn A’s, even outside of the classroom. Outside the academic world, we are being graded all the time. For me as a pastor it comes in the form of the statistical reports for the small church I serve. Right before I started this first appointment, one of my mentors said these words that I recall often on this journey, she said solemnly: “Teresita, in this business you are always going to feel like your failing. You are always going to feel like your are missing the mark. And your skin will never be thick enough.” What she did not say, it was most important to me. She is a well respected pastor, and hearing her say these words to me unapologetically meant that what seems like failure, what feels like failure ought not to measure the worth of my work or who I am as a pastor. And that is liberating!

  18. Thank you for sharing on the topic of grading papers and your spiritual practice of detachment. I find the emotional highs and lows experienced by the student in relation to grades rarely take into account the emotions of the one who grades and return these papers. I can only imagine this practice of detachment allows the professor to shut the door on the possible emotional response of the student and their grades, while creating an atmosphere of new grading opportunities.

  19. Wow! Always I’m thinking I’m an average student, please not much pressure, thanks. This blog reminded me when I grew up because my parents saying all the time this phrase: “You are not C’s Student”…If get better classes graded, “We’ll going to Disney World” (ye’right!). Those statements or labels don’t helped at all making me always feeling frustrated. My “curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will” (Grazer, 123). In some point my curiosity was turned to motivation to understand what happen if you getting control “surfing” over my learning process to enjoy holding hands with my mind and experience. Always and every semester I/You starting thinking what grade we’ll get not exactly what earning would be. Now my life is more than the expectancy to learn, or taking vivid momentums, is see how to get my goals and enjoying is the “zigzags” of my emotions including my life. Dr. W thanks!