Grading as Truth-Telling

A false balance is an abomination to Yhwh, but an accurate weight is his delight. (Proverbs 11:1)

Grading papers is among the most difficult parts, and is certainly the least pleasurable part, of my generally agreeable job as a professor.

It is difficult because one must pay close attention to the various qualities, measured along various axes, one is assessing in a piece of written work, re-setting one’s mental adjudicator with the beginning of each new paper. No matter how clichéd the prose (and it’s usually clichéd: there isn’t much truly original writing among students who are, after all, trying to write in imitation of the scholars they admire), how familiar the territory (which is pretty darned familiar, of course, or I shouldn’t be charged with grading the papers), how irritating the recurring flaws (“Really? You don’t know how to use commas parenthetically? You haven’t bothered to look up the correct punctuation for a footnote? Really?”), the grader has to hew rigorously to a consistent standard, avoid giving in to surges of emotion (“That’s pretty funny!” “Hmm, that was frustratingly obscure…” “You’re clearly a lazy idiot and deserve a good smiting”) and provide not only both encouraging and critical words, but also a final, cumulative grade. “On the whole, all things considered, this paper deserves a ___.”

It’s tough work, then, sorting all this stuff through, paper after paper (and after about 10 papers, the eyes and the mind glaze over in sheer self-defence). But it’s crucial work, among the most important things we do as educators. Students need us to tell them the truth: How good was my assignment? How does my work stack up against that of my peers in this course of study? Am I truly getting it or not? Is this subject the path I might follow for a career, a pleasant educational digression, or a pit of frustration I ought subsequently and forever to avoid?

To “use” a grade, therefore, for any other purpose than to tell students the truth about the quality of their work is to use a false balance.

It is abominable, that is, to grade harshly, as some professors do, in a pose of machismo: “I’m the roughest, toughest hombre in this here department.” (Uh, get some therapy, man, and stop taking out your insecure overcompensation on your students.)

It is abominable to play favourites, to reward any other behaviour than the behaviour of putting forward a good paper. (I refer not only to various degrees of hanky-panky—or worse. One of my professors was notorious for refusing to grant an “A” to any student who didn’t major in his own field.)

It is abominable to grade lightly in order to curry more positive student evaluations in hopes of strengthening one’s professional profile toward re-hiring or tenure. (Students don’t always give higher grades to professors they sense are cynical toward them, so beware this nasty little tactic.)

It is abominable also, however, to confuse grading with other legitimate modes of education, such as encouragement, sympathy, or compensation. “It’ll make this student feel particularly badly to get less than a ___ on this assignment. He’s been going through a romantic break-up/his heart is set on becoming a scholar/his parents will kill him if he doesn’t succeed/he’s worked so hard on this thing/he didn’t get that scholarship.” (So we’ll lie to him? Lovingly?)

Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck reminds us in The Road Less Traveled that mental illnesses are, essentially, one or another way of dodging reality. Mental health, by contrast, is taking it on: facing up to what is the case and making good decisions in the light of it.

Professors who give anything other than utterly true grades are failing to give students the crucial gift of reality: This is truly what I think of what you’ve done. I might be wrong, of course, and another expert might see it differently. But you’re paying me your money, time, attention, and respect in the hope of receiving from me not only reliable information about the subject and its required skills, yes, but also my judgment about your work as you respond to the challenges of the course. For me to deliberately mislead you is simply to fail in my job. It’s malpractice.

Most professors with whom I have worked truly love giving high grades and hate giving low ones. Very good work is simply more pleasant to encounter, of course, whether it’s in a course paper or in a student violin recital. But it also is truly painful to have to assess substandard work and name it as such. No one is indifferent to receiving a low grade and we professors all know that. Only to students who have been true nuisances do we enjoy giving bad grades—and (I’ll tell you a secret) even then, as soon as we do, we usually feel sad for such a student who is clearly so unhappy that he or she has chosen to lash out at us, and the educational opportunity we represent, instead of embracing what we have worked hard to offer him or her.

Our pain in offering bad grades, however—including, yes, the pain of anticipating those tense confrontations in the office afterward, which are “fun” only for the bellicose or sadistic—simply cannot justify rendering any other judgment than what our professional training says we ought to render. The world, and each of our students, needs all the truth it can get.

Yes, we professors should couch our judgments in encouraging language. Yes, we likely could do more to approve what is good rather than focus entirely on what is deficient. Yes, we certainly must take the trouble to make clear just why the grade is what it is, or students can learn very little from the process or the judgment.

But we must give a dependable, truthful bottom line, just as we insist our accountants do, or our judges, or our physicians.

To do otherwise, for whatever motives, is Biblically abominable.




12 Responses to “Grading as Truth-Telling”

  1. Steve

    Over my years of study I’ve slowly learnt to appreciate the comments on a paper much more than the grade I receive. writing papers should be an educational experience. That said, good comments along with a good grade is always nice…

  2. Ryan

    I well remember my first experience with truth-telling in one of your classes, John. It was a book review, and you gave me what was probably the lowest grade I had received since I was 15. I would have preferred something more abominable…

    With the benefit of hindsight (and hours of expensive therapy) I can now say that I appreciate that grade. It forced me to try harder, to follow instructions more clearly, and to write better. It forced me to confront reality and adapt as I was able. Thank you for telling me the truth. I guess.

  3. Glenn

    Thanks for this blog – welcome respite as I am correcting three assignments of doctoral students – two that I regretfully had to send them back to make major corrections. I have colleagues that have assistants correct assignments. I resist that for all the reasons that you mention, including that if I am the prof of record, this is also an evaluation of me to a certain extent. BUT, oh how I wish students would learn how to use commas and spell check.

  4. Keith Shields


    I often find that a single glass of red wine per marking session calms the nerves and stomach and results in more accurate assessment. Beyond one, the ratio of benefit to harm decreases. :>)

    • John

      Now THAT is advice one can truly use. And it’s even quasi-Biblical, as one “takes wine for one’s stomach’s sake.” And by “quasi-,” of course, I mean “not.” But it’s still good advice. Thanks, Comrade Keith!

  5. Mark

    Good point. And relatable to many subjects, i.e. auditions for church music. What makes it tough for me as a church music director is that people often seem to think I’m obliged to find a place for them irrespective of their talent level (on the “sincerity” principle, I guess). They don’t necessarily appreciate my spiritual charge of discernment between “joyful noises unto the Lord” and the sounds of swine being butchered.

  6. Matt

    John, great thoughts.
    Mark, great application.
    A friend of mine who also lives in the world of church music and church music auditions frequently uses a “truth-telling” phrase: “I (we) have a different assessment of your gifting.” Initially I struggled with this as a response to the well-intentioned and (as you put it) sincere would-be team member. But the longer I was around the ministry for which this friend was responsible, the more I grew to appreciate the fruit that this response bore. However, by means of qualification (and John, you alluded to this briefly in your post), for this commitment to honesty to be most beneficial to the recipient, the requisite counterpart must be love. Simon Cowell delights in speaking truth to his X-Factor contestants, but devoid of love does so in such a way as to discourage them from continued personal development and pursuit of the discipline. In contrast to that, time and again, I saw my worship pastor friend speak this same unwelcome truth yet with a redemptive ethic aimed at the betterment of the individual.
    Perhaps the true challenge for the Christian intellectually honest professor or the artistically true worship pastor is to hold in tension their respective responsibilities to uphold the truth with their respective responsibilities to genuinely care for the individual.
    What should it look like to pastor your students through grading process, or to pastor your worship-team applicants through the audition process?

    • Mark

      Helpful points, Matt (certainly more helpful than my hyperbolic little “cheap shot” at bad auditions above!). Yes, it’s a very important challenge to love and encourage people as we try to speak truth to them. Sometimes asking them to rate themselves (out of 10 or whatever) is a helpful inroad to honest feedback (in the context of music auditions, anyway). It’s tough, though, and like most tough things, is best done prayerfully.

  7. Frank

    An important part of grading that teachers (or others doing evaluation) often omit is setting a clear, measurable set of criteria against which to judge the effort. It’s much tougher to grade if you’re making up your criteria as you go along (and almost impossible to be fair). Teachers at the beginning of a course need to ask, “What do I want my students to be able to do by the time they leave this class? And how am I going to measure it?” If you do that, grading is easier, although not easy. Grading is not a one-way street. Every time I mark a paper, the student’s interpretation of my assignment at least partially reflects how well I’ve explained my expectations and prepared them in class. (And now back to marking.)


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