I often find students discouraged by their grades, particularly in their first few courses at Tyndale. This disappointment can become a source of resentment and conflict with professors. It can also sap our motivation and make material that we once found fascinating suddenly taste like sawdust. But we can avoid much of this disappointment and its fallout if we are prepared with realistic expectations and a plan to handle any disappointments that do come.

Grades evaluate a piece of work, period.

First, it’s crucial to remind ourselves that a grade is not a statement about our intelligence. It is not an evaluation of our potential for fruitful work outside of Seminary. Above all, grades do not categorize people. I do not think any less of a student who gets a ‘C’, and I do not think any more of a student who gets an ‘A’. You never need to be embarrassed by a grade I give you unless you know that you didn’t take the assignment seriously. I often enjoy stimulating conversations with students who have never earned an ‘A’ from me. Their curiosity and eagerness to learn is often no less than anyone else’s and their grades certainly do not keep them from continuing to learn and grow after they leave my classroom. The grade is simply a “snapshot” of where you stand with a particular skill at a particular moment in time.

‘B’ is a good mark

Many of us are used to getting A’s and the sight of a B makes us feel like we’ve failed. At Tyndale, though, a B grade truly means “good work.” It means that you have met the course expectations. You have demonstrated the ability to do what the course is intended to help you learn. A ‘B’ grade does not necessarily mean there is anything major lacking from your work, measured against the desired course outcomes. So a ‘B’ genuinely means “good work” and is nothing to be ashamed of!

‘A’ is reserved for demonstrations of exceptional skill

This means, of course, that the large majority of a class will not receive an ‘A’. After all, if many people receive them then they are no longer indicating exceptional work! Since many of you came to Tyndale with a track record of high grades in previous degrees, that means that inevitably some of your skills that were “exceptional” in (say) your undergrad classroom aren’t as exceptional here.

What does ‘exceptional’ mean? I generally think in terms of the doors that are opened to you beyond Tyndale by an ‘A’. One of the only such opportunities is further study at the doctoral level in biblical studies. When the registrar’s office at the University of Toronto or McMaster sees an ‘A’ they understand it to mean “This person has demonstrated the skills and aptitude necessary to be successful in our PhD program.” So I can only give an ‘A’ for work that does demonstrate that aptitude. Otherwise I am sending a false message. This doesn’t mean that you need to be doing PhD-quality work *right now*, but your work needs to be on a trajectory that will clearly put you there by the end of your current degree, or perhaps after further preparation in a thesis-based ThM. So if I give you a ‘B’, it doesn’t mean you are doing poor work. It just means that your work doesn’t (yet) show me you could do a PhD in this academic discipline.

‘C’ is not a failure

When we find a ‘C’ on an assignment, on the other hand, this can feel like a failure. In some Masters degrees it *would* be a failure. But we have to remember that those are *second degrees* in the discipline. Although an MTS or MDiv is a Masters degree it is, for most students, your first degree in theology. (In fact the MDiv used to be called a Bachelor of Divinity.) So we expect the same full range of grades (and skill levels) that is typical of undergraduate degrees. You just have the advantage of being a bit older, a bit wiser, and having learned to work in a way that most first-year undergrads haven’t yet dreamt of. But that means that a ‘C’ is not a failure.

What does a ‘C’ mean? It signals that something about our work isn’t quite up to the expected performance level for the course. In other words, it’s a signal that there’s something for you to work on improving. That doesn’t mean, again, that you aren’t intelligent or that you don’t have good skills in other areas. I just means that there’s something for you to work on improving here. That improvement probably won’t happen all on its own. It will probably take some focused effort. You will likely need to talk more with your professor about exactly how to improve. But in giving you a ‘C’ your professor is giving you an opportunity to hone your skills efficiently by pointing out where you would benefit from some focused work. And a ‘C’ also says that your professor sees enough skill and ability that improvement is a realistic goal if you put in the effort.

Different disciplines? Expect different Grades

Sometimes students come from a background in engineering or medicine, in the sciences or business or social work, where they grew used to receiving very high grades. It is important to remember, though, that grades in different disciplines are measuring different skills. Your ability to calculate complex vectors or prepare a stellar business plan is wonderful. Even so, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will be equally skilled at the close analysis of texts or evaluation of arguments around first-century history.

Even at here Tyndale our various courses train you in different skills. So you may find that you have a real aptitude for delivering a sermon or counselling someone through a crisis, but that you find it more challenging to trace a theme through a biblical book. This is only to be expected. Even your professors do not all have aptitude for all of the disciplines taught here. So don’t be surprised if your grades do vary significantly from course to course.

A disappointing grade can help us to improve our skills

If we always receive the grades we want there is a danger that we can overlook weaknesses in our skills. After all, few of us can claim to have no room for improvement. So a disappointing grade can often be like an x-ray, highlighting a weakness in our skills that we hadn’t realized was there. We might be tempted to respond with denial and say that our professor has just imagined the weakness. But we can also take that new awareness and look at how we can make our weakness stronger. This positive response will require some work on our part. We might need more than just the scant comments on the assignment, so we might need to make the time to talk further with our professor. The result, though, will be that in the long run our skills are stronger than they would have been if the professor had satisfied us with another ‘A’.

A disappointing grade is an opening for spiritual growth

Many of us come to seminary with a lot of our identity invested in our high grades. We came through a school system that was highly competitive. In many cases poor grades were punished with shaming from teachers, parents, even other students. High grades may have been a chief source of the affirmation we received. Some of us even looked to academic achievement for our sense of self-worth because we didn’t find affirmation with our peers or at home. So for many of us a course is not simply about learning and growth. It’s a chance to demonstrate our superiority again. If we don’t get that ‘A’ it can be deeply threatening for us. We don’t think any less of the average student at the next desk. But we would think less of *ourselves* if we were suddenly average in school. Our first response might be anger, to blame the professor, trying to shore up our image of ourselves as intellectually superior. Or we might feel demoralized and start losing any motivation to study.

If we can turn to Christ with that sense of disappointment, though, a disappointing grade can actually be an important window for spiritual growth. Our emotional response to the grade exposes for us just how much we have invested in being better than other people at this. As that raw need is exposed we can recognize that life has trained us to find our identity and value in the wrong place. If we turn to God with our emotions we can ask him to show us how to find our value in Him. We can ask him to teach us how to view our fellow classmates as brothers and sisters in one body, each with a vital role. We can ask him to teach us how to serve our fellow students instead of being driven by the need to beat them. This isn’t something we need to do alone. It’s a good idea to find someone you trust to talk with, someone who will pray with you about it over time. We might also need a counsellor to help us untangle the emotional reactions that can seem beyond our control. None of this is likely to be pleasant. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. The result can be a new freedom to study and learn without fear and compulsion, a freedom to make our study a gift of service to God and to our fellow students.

The bottom line

In a perfect system we wouldn’t need grades. We wouldn’t have an educational system so focused on competition, on constantly measuring our performance against our fellow students. For the time being, though, this is the system we have. So let’s work first to be realistic about the grades we can expect. And then when a disappointing grade comes, let’s take that disappointment and allow Christ to transform it into an opportunity to grow both in our skills and in our love.

P.S. Your professor occasionally makes mistakes

My experience has been that 95% of the time students who challenge grades I’ve given just haven’t yet understood the weakness I’m pointing out. We do, after all, mark hundreds of assignments a year. So we’ve gotten pretty good at it. But that leaves 5% of those complaints in which the student has a point. Just remember that your professor isn’t malicious and isn’t careless. So if you’ve asked for
clarification and something still doesn’t seem right about your grade, don’t be afraid to suggest (in writing) why you think the assignment should receive a different grade. If you can avoid anger and hostility in your approach, your professor is usually reasonable enough to take your suggestions seriously.

P.P.S. Your professor knows that life Can get in the way

Unless there are grounds for an extension, I likely can’t do anything except grade the assignment you give me. But I know that what you hand me might not represent you at your best. Even if I did think that, I’m not judging you for it. I’ve been a student, though, and I know that sometimes things happen that mean your assignment had to take second priority: sick kids, parents in crisis, a cursed computer, or whatever. Your professor might not be able to grade you differently, but she or he has been there too at some point.

One thought on “On Grades: An Open Letter To My Students

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