Reductionism and Final Grades…and the Enduring Legacy

At the end of each semester, I am required by the registrar to report a final grade for each student in each class. At Trinity Western University, we use letter grades with a +/- system, so there are 13 possibilities. A+, A, A-, B+, ..., D-, F. When I was a student at the University of Waterloo, grades were reported as percentages, so there were 101 possibilities: 100, 99, 98, ..., 0. I remember that at the end of my first semester of teaching at Dordt College (where the five possibilities were A, B, C, D, F), I had tried to assign a few E grades as well, for it seemed to me that back in elementary school (my most recent encounter with letter grades up to that point), E meant 50 to 59%.

Now, some educational systems, and some professors, eschew the entire concept of grades, suggesting instead that at the end of an undergraduate degree, a few letters of reference from the most involved professors should be placed into the hands of each completing student. I do think letters of reference are important, stressing to my students from day one that their attitudes and behaviours can be a source of great blessing or curse on that great day of reckoning when they ask me to write on their behalf. But grades do seem to have a place in today's culture, and I believe that most employers and graduate schools do rightly take them into account along with other aspects of the applicant's portfolio.

However, it always gives me pause when having to reduce everything between the student and me in the context of the course down to a simple grade. This smacks of so much reductionism, as if somehow all that the student has experienced --- the joy and grief of textbook reading, lecture, tutorial, and laboratory participation, office visits, E-mail conversations, phone calls, all-nighters pulled to complete that seemly onerous problem set or term paper, late-night study sessions with dorm-mates, balancing academics in the context of social life and employment, discovering new vistas, encountering new limitations --- can somehow be encapsulated objectively in that C+. But I'm gratified that a transcript is not the only thing retained by a student. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, especially as the decades roll on, the grades will mean less and less. And I'm confident that the Christian worldview, the close faculty-student interaction, the networks established, and the foundation and love for life-long learning, will form an increasingly significant and enduring legacy in the lives of those we've been providentially granted an opportunity for mutual influence.


Last updated May 8th, 2009 at 11:33am by