Around this time of year, as students start to see their first term grades and get midterms back, there’s an inevitable round of denials and refutations about how TAs don’t know how to grade, professors are unfair and arbitrary, haven’t taught the material properly, and probably just threw a pile of essays down the stairs and gave the best grades to those that traveled furthest. These reactions take so many forms I won’t even try to catalog them. But when you boil it all down it’s basically this: I don’t want to believe my grades have any relation to my performance in the course or my understanding of the material, so I’m going to attribute them to something else.
I think we’ve all received grades, at times, that we really don’t like. This experience is darn near universal. But people respond to this (unpleasant) experience in a variety of individual ways, and some reactions are more useful than others. Now I’d like to get right to the point here. It’s one hundred percent certain that unfair, arbitrary, and completely idiotic things happen, have happened, and will happen again with grading. I’ll even wager that someone, somewhere, has graded a stack of papers by throwing them down the stairs. But anecdotes of this nature do not prove a rule or establish a pattern. Grading does not rely on the assumption that your grades will always be completely fair and accurate. In fact, while it isn’t often discussed with students, professors and administrators know full well that errors inevitably creep into even the best systems. What is assumed, rather, is that over time and enough courses the anomalies will smooth out and good students will stand out from the poor.
Your grades, be they good, poor, or otherwise, do mean something. Outright denial is not a useful response. If you get a grade or a midterm back that really upsets you it’s perfectly okay to throw it on a shelf, blow it off, and go out for a beer. I wouldn’t fault anyone for that reaction. But at some point you should come back to that information and try to derive something useful from it. If you only tell yourself that your professor must have flipped a coin and you lost, and that’s all there is to it, then you’re denying yourself the opportunity to learn from whatever it is that really happened. Sure, there’s at least some chance that something legitimately “unfair” has happened (whatever that means) but if you don’t at least look at that then there’s no hope you’ll ever know.
Perfect work never really exists. Certainly it doesn’t exist outside of the hard sciences. No one writes an ideal essay. So you can stare at even an “A” paper, for long enough, and eventually find some ways you might improve it. If you really can’t bring yourself to believe that you deserve the grade you received, then at least try to figure out where it came from. Even if you think you deserved better, you can still look at your work (and hopefully the comments and marking on it) and try to determine what you might improve. Poor grades are immensely disappointing, but if you can’t learn from them you’re only doomed to repeat the pattern.
I know it’s a lot easier to say than to do. I know there’s even a bit of willful self-deception going on here. Am I really suggesting that students look at the grades they received, even if they don’t seem right, and act on the assumption that they are right? Well, pretty much, yeah. That’s what I’m suggesting. As much as it sometimes feels otherwise, you are paying for instruction because your instructors are presumed to know more than you. That doesn’t mean they are infallible, but in order to learn from them you’ve got to go into the experience prepared to accept, with a certain degree of faith, that they are going to be right at least the large majority of the time. If you are determined to substitute your opinion for theirs, as soon as their opinion says something you don’t like, then the learning relationship can’t happen.
I don’t want to dismiss students’ feelings entirely. The sense that your professors just don’t get it, that they haven’t seen your point or have misinterpreted your answers, or just that you’d learn better if they weren’t so incompetent … that sense is partly an exercise in self-protection. Far better to believe that than conclude that you’re stupid. But between those unhealthy extremes there’s a happy medium where you can believe in your ability to learn and improve, but accept the idea that maybe you’ve got some work to do. In the worst case scenario, you spend some time trying to decipher the undecipherable, and end up concluding you just can’t learn from some particular experience and feedback. But you’ve got to accept that might happen, once in a while, in order to properly learn from all the other grades you receive. Good, poor, or otherwise, your grades can all tell you something useful. Don’t ignore the message, just because it comes in unpleasant red ink.