In her recent CSR blog post (November 18, 2021), Marybeth Baggett invited professors to reconsider their grading practices through the lens of spiritual disciplines, guided by Richard Foster’s influential book, Celebration of Discipline. Baggett’s essay argued that grading student work, while a necessary part of teachers’ “mundane” work, can be rejuvenated when understood as an opportunity for spiritual growth, both for the professor and for students, each image-bearers of God. Intentional focus on each individual’s work eschews the mechanistic and transactional nature of current assessment practices. She wrote,
With each paper I turn to, I have the choice either to affirm the humanity and vocation of the student at the receiving end of my feedback or to fall back into my old mechanistic practice. I can either commune with this student’s mind and surrender our interaction to the lordship of Christ or stand in detached judgment. Undertaking the grading process in prayer, in personal relationship with and in service to my students has opened up new vistas for me to inculcate patience, develop humility, and practice love.1
Judging from the comments and popularity of the post, her words struck a chord during this season of the semester. I found her post refreshing, a beautiful reminder to place our relationship with students, even in the drudgery of grading, before the face of Christ.
While Baggett pondered how our disposition during grading can be a spiritual discipline, a different question haunts me. How might grading and assessment be Christ-animated at the heart of its academic purpose? Baggett and others (Ballock, 2018)2 offer pertinent reminders that our attitude should remain loving, charitable, and respectful, but how do we approach the root act of grading, assessing the quality of a product? In other words, what’s love got to do with grading?
Scripture points out that love is not just an emotion, but involves action (I John 3:18) and self-sacrifice (I John 3:16). Love considers what is best for and honors another (Romans 12:10). To the extent that grading contributes to student growth and flourishing as whole persons, it is an act of love.
I have argued elsewhere that assessment, including classroom grading, is a normal part of our work as teachers, best undertaken within a caring learning environment. I stated,
(a) educational assessment constitutes a God-designed natural act of human knowing and valuing, though finite and distorted by sin; (b) human fallibility necessitates assessment processes characterized by transparency, enabling learners to use their gifts for God’s glory; and (c) assessment is most effective when enacted in a loving community of learners who recognize that performance doesn’t determine worth in God’s eyes.3
Even when conducted with loving consideration of the unique creature behind each piece of work, the valuing task remains, and grades or scores of some kind are required. So how might conscientious teachers determine them? While volumes have been written about assessment overall, I suggest three principles for loving our student neighbors while engaged in grading work.
First, clearly determine the purpose of grading. Why grade? Assessment experts posit two main purposes for grading: 1) to provide information about how well students are progressing toward learning goals (formative) and 2) to assign a final grade that is an evaluation of how well overall objectives were met (summative). Key questions to consider are: Is the grade to reflect only performance against academic skills and contents standards? Will effort or other behavioral performances be included? What are the symbol systems you will use and why have they been selected?
Chappuis and Stiggins (2020) suggest that assessment marks (whatever form they take) should only reflect the quality of performance utilizing course “learning targets,” a set of criteria revealed to students before instruction. In criterion-referenced assessment, learning performance is compared to pre-determined criteria for success.4
Ideally, instructor feedback throughout the course guides students toward accomplishing the learning goals. For classroom grading purposes, criterion-referenced assessments offer opportunities for learning to all whose work demonstrates evidence of learning.
Regardless of what factors are included, communicating grading policies and philosophy enables students to devote their energies to the learning tasks and builds confidence. While there are several purposes for assessment, classroom grading offers students information about their progress toward essential course outcomes. It also provides professors a way to adjust their teaching in light of students’ needs. Sharing the purpose of grading is one way to love and care for students.
Clear Learning Goals
A second principle, closely related to a clear purpose, involves describing the expected type of learning. Often referred to as “student learning outcomes,” these statements are written from the perspective of what the student will know and be able to do or become. For those skeptical of educational assessment jargon, this is an essential piece of the process and one that all professors engage in, whether written down or not. This step forces the teacher to ask, “What are the essential aspects of this course, and what might evidence of learning look like?” This may have been done at the beginning of the course; however, it is worth reviewing with students as final assessments approach. Did they understand what I hoped they would learn? What did they value? Did they connect the goals with the tests, projects, papers, and other tasks facing them?
As I have reflected on reasons why professors dread grading, I suspect that too little focused attention on this second principle may be one of the culprits. When purpose and learning goals are well-aligned with assignments and scoring tools, everyone involved has a roadmap to guide the journey through the learning process and the course. It forces all involved to interpret the work in light of essential learning desired. When transparent criteria for success accompany clear goals, learners and professors alike can steward their time and energies to important learning activities. If one waits until the end of the instructional period to determine grading criteria or offer feedback, the work “piles up like the snow on the front of a snowplow,” as one colleague expressed it.5 Rather than a celebration of learning, a culmination of visible evidence gained along the way, grading becomes a punishment accompanied by noticeable grumbling about how students don’t read the comments anyway.
A third principle for Christ-animated grading is to design multiple assessment tasks of varying types. Smaller low-stakes assessments assigned frequently throughout the semester provide students and teachers with information about progress toward the more significant learning goals. In addition, offering options that involve mediums other than writing or traditional tests can tap into students’ particular gifts and talents. Angelo and Cross’s (1993) classic work, Classroom Assessment Techniques,6 offers numerous tools to assist professors in gathering data as students progress.
Involving students in the assessment process also enables them to track their learning and serves as a motivational tool. Peer editing, multiple drafts of work, opportunities to redo assignments, and the use of exemplars with a rubric are all effective methods for active learning before the end of the term. Such practices reduce the grading load on professors, enhance student involvement, and create joyful opportunities for celebration. If Christian higher educators aim for transformation rather than transaction, student-involved assessment can shine a spotlight on how one’s gifts have been used for God’s glory, rather than what one has earned as a form of payment.
Conclusion: What’s love got to do with it, again?
For Christians, study of God’s creation and the interactions of its inhabits (general revelation), along with insight from Scripture (special revelation), suggest guidelines for what counts as “good” or “high-quality.” Humans made in God’s image and placed in the environment of created reality can appropriately attempt criteria for success. Christian educators can confidently and lovingly design learning and assessment practices focused on enabling students to discover and enact their gifts as they investigate the natural and social world God has created.
None of the principles suggested here are unique to Christians, nor do they directly demonstrate “love” understood as an emotion or disposition. They do offer a way for those whose mission is to imitate Christ as loving teachers to turn the attention away from their own knowledge and needs toward their students’ learning needs. Intentional assessment practice is one way to love our students as neighbors.
- Marybeth Baggett, “Grading as Spiritual Discipline,” Christian Scholars Review, November 18, 2021, https://christianscholars.com/grading-as-spiritual-discipline/.
- Ballock, “Toward a More Loving Assessment Practice,” International Community of Christian Teacher Educators Journal 13, no. 1 (2018), 2. https://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/icctej/vol13/iss1/2/
- Rebecca Pennington, “Assessment as Science and Story: A Roadmap for Christian Higher Education,”
- Jan Chappuis and Rick Stiggins, Classroom Assessment for Student Learning: Doing It Right-Using It Well (Hoboken, NJ: Pearson, Inc., 2020)
- William C. Davis (philosophy colleague) in personal interview, December 2, 2021.
- T. Angelo, and K. Cross, Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993).
Thanks for this good reminder!
Wow! What a clear, concise, and comprehensive look at assessment through the lens of Christain love. Providing compassionate yet honest feedback to students is truly reflective of one of the core values of the Christian life. How can one “get better” at any endeavor without timely and reliable praise and redirection. Thanks, Dr. Pennington for refocusing us back to the humanity of assessment and the need to show Christ in all we do.
Thank you Dr. Pennington for this wonderful challenge and reminder. I have passed it along to all of our nursing faculty as a reminder of what we do as teachers especially in light of our sacred covenant nursing philosophy at our School.