Grading Time

By: Wolfgang Vondey
Thursday, April 21st, 2011

It’s a difficult time: grading time at seminary. It’s not a time I enjoy.¬†Grades divide.

Grades divide students into the good, the bad, and the ugly. Well, that’s tongue in cheek. But there are the groups of the A-students, the B-students and so on. Or sometimes just the geeks and the rest. More often than not, the students who excel in all areas find it difficult to join the majority groups. Jealousy, envy, and admiration form a complex divide.

Grades divide students from their teachers. The one gives the grade and the other receives. I would not give my wife or son a grade, but as a teacher I have to grade my students. Sure, my three-year old is not in a graduate degree program, but there is a similarity in relationship. I love my students. Well, most of them. Teaching theology is a significant responsibility. It is always as a person teaching persons that I engage my class. That can be parental love or brotherly love. Sometimes it’s tough-love, but nonetheless, it’s love. Sometimes grades tell the unpleasant story that a student may not be equipped for the graduate program at this time.¬†Grades put everyone back in their place at the end of the semester. No matter how much you got around the table, in the end grades define your relationship.

Grades divide us from our calling. I have a standard question for students: what do you want to achieve in seminary or in my class? The answer is often associated with grades: I want to get an A. When I ask how the class was or the seminary experience as a whole, the evaluation often comes in terms of grades: I didn’t do as well as I wanted or I managed to keep a 4.0 GPA. That’s not what I mean, though. I am not at seminary to give grades but to teach. Students should not be at seminary to get grades but to learn.

Now that it’s grading time, I get numerous emails by students who want one or two or more points in their grades. Some ask to get a better grade or a specific grade. I wish I had received similar emails throughout the semester from students wanting to learn more, wanting clarity on ideas, theological constructs, doctrines, asking for a better understanding even (or especially) if their grades did not reflect their knowledge.

Now that it’s grading time, I wish I could go back and encourage students where I did not, critically engage them where I simply moved on, or question things I left open. I feel reduced in my relationship to numbers or letters. How can I preserve the relationship? How can students engage me without looking for a good grade? How can they give critical feedback without fear of retribution or positive feedback without coming across as wanting a good grade? How can we be persons in a shared journey of faith?

In the end, reviving seminary depends much on our attitude toward grades. I have to give them. Students have to get them. It’s in the manner we give and get that defines us.

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Wolfgang Vondey
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5 Responses to “Grading Time”

  1. Aisha Clarke says:

    This is insightful and I appreciate you sharing. Have a blessed resurrection Sunday, Dr V.

  2. Jared says:

    Dr. Vondey,

    As a current seminarian, I completely agree. I don’t feel like I am completely able to engage in the class material because the overall pressing question as I read, listen to lecture, and participate in group discussion is “how will this material be on the test?”. It is even worse for us Seminarians who are wanting to have the possibility of doing Ph.D. work, grades determine your future. I hate the way the system forces us into this mindset. One way some seminaries (including my own) have attempted to address this is my offering Pass/Fail options. In my degree, students can take several of their classes with the option of only having it on the transcript as a P or an F with no GPA impact. This has helped the problem in some cases but, for obvious reasons, this can not be done for every class in the degree program.

  3. Jesse Niess says:

    The system needs fixed. And telling students that we need to have good attitudes isn’t wrong, but it is a bit fishy. They’re not your grades are they? your grades are safe, and so is your Ph.D. acquired by having mastered the grading system that we call ‘learning’. Having a good attitude is great, almost necessary; but the question that concerns me is: can a student serve both learning (in the Hebraic sense that involves knowledge only when it applies to your life. Not simply head knowledge) and the grading system?
    Let me tell you a short story. A true one.
    There was a certain student in theology class who came to me with two different paper topics to chose from. He couldn’t decide with path to take because topic #1 was highly ambitious and would likely end in alot of difficult research and a poor grade. Topic #2 was easy, simple, and would most likely end in a solid grade. However, Topic #1 was most definitely the path of much greater learning. I advised him to go with topic #1 because he would struggle with it so much that he would learn things he would never learn breezing through topic #2. I warned him, though, that his grade would be bad. We worked on his paper together that semester and I remember helping him revise it many times. We both struggled greatly with his paper, but just as I had predicted, the grade he received was poor. So poor, in fact, that you made him rewrite the paper just so he could get a C, if i recall correctly. I bring this up because the look on his face when he told me wasn’t one of disappointment, it was one of injury. His attitude was one of incredulity towards an injustice. This was his first time facing that feeling. It was not my first time, but this is his story. He was hurt because he spent so much time, effort, and learning on what was ultimately a profound experience, that the result just seemed wrong. He regretted the project and told me he would never abandon the shallow topics again, for at least there, there are good grades. Personally, after experiences like that one, even good grades leave a taste of injustice. That’s why I think the system needs fixed.
    But through who will change come? students hold no power. I mean, they throw us a bone with those end of the semester anonymous teacher evaluations, but those do little. Professors are paid, and controlled by tenure. So on and so forth.
    The grading system is a Frankensteinian monster: created to serve, but now we all serve it, instead.

    But have a good attitude?

  4. Mike Marcano says:

    Thanks for your honesty and candor in expressing how you work through the uneasy time of grading. I appreciate the questions you raised at the end of your blog. The fact that you are asking them reveals that you understand the necessity of giving students a grade along with the desire to build relationships with them in order to develop their theological personhood (regardless of grades). The Regent family is blessed to have you as a part of their faculty.