A Golden Rule For Grading

Grades are a sensitive subject for more than just students.

I TAKE Jesus at His word in the Sermon on the Mount. I think He really meant it when He said that if someone strikes me on one cheek, I should offer the other cheek to be struck or not, as the striker chooses. Of course, there’s also a principle behind the specific example of cheek striking and turning that I accept on a more general, self-regulating level: that when someone attacks or does me wrong, I should take responsibility for my response by, first, not reactively imitating the aggressor’s action in the way I respond; and, second, recognizing that people can act aggressively on a sudden impulse of fear that turns to anger, responding in such a way as to give the aggressor the chance to review and perhaps revise their first act in a second, more controlled, (re)considered action. To be sure, my actions often don’t live up to this principle very well, and sometimes not at all. At the same time, I think that this principle really should govern my actions, and so it has presence and weight in my moral consciousness and conscience.

I also think Jesus really meant it when He said: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”1 Not judging is hard for me, too, but my problem with it is that it’s not just that I don’t live up to this command and the principle that informs it. Rather, it’s also that my job as a professor and administrator at BYU requires me to judge. I judge my students when I grade their performance in class or when I evaluate their applications for admissions or scholarships. As a department chair, I judge my colleagues in annual performance reviews and applications for promotion and tenure. I know that a grade I give a student or a decision I render on a promotion file doesn’t necessarily represent my judgment on their existential worth. But given the real benefit or harm such a decision can exercise in their lives, given the lasting effect such decisions have, given the fact that my decisions matter a great deal to the people I evaluate, and given that they affect the relationship I am already in with them when I make such decisions, it seems to me that “judgment” is the most accurate word I can use to describe what I do in these dimensions of my job.

I’m aware that in his translation of the Sermon on the Mount, Joseph Smith rendered this verse differently: Jesus declared, “Judge not unrighteously.”2 However, Joseph translated Jesus’s Sermon at the Temple in 3 Nephi to say, “Judge not,”just like the King James Version, and Joseph never corrected it later.3 For that matter, the Joseph Smith Translation has never been canonized by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I also understand that you and I make judgments, including moral judgments, all of the time, and it seems that we must do so in order to make decisions about what we will and won’t do. None of this changes what seems to me to be Jesus’s prohibition to judge, other than to make it yet another of the many paradoxes that his teachings seem to embrace, rather than eschew.

I and many of my colleagues would be very happy to teach without grading. I have some colleagues at BYU and elsewhere who have even experimented with teaching classes in such a way as to allow students to grade themselves. And even though we recognize the good that grades can do—their incentivizing function alone seems to make students work harder and better than they otherwise would—we know that grades are a very imperfect way of helping students learn, improve, and succeed. They say some things about a student’s ability, the quality of his or her effort, and, by extension, can reveal something about the student’s character and maturity. But there are other things grades don’t communicate. They don’t, for instance, accurately represent how much a student has learned, nor do they account for the kind of differences in students that are the result of factors and forces outside the students’ control—genetics, environment, and culture—that can significantly affect student preparation, ability, and performance.

In fact, even if I grant that it is possible to judge my students righteously, I have fundamental concerns with the lack of a robust, systematic ethical theory or practice in grading that happens in higher education.4 Grades matter to students, and for that reason alone we need to think carefully about the ethics of grading. But an even more important reason for thinking about the ethics of grading is that these ethics apply to human relationships, something the Lord considers not just important, but sacred. Grading affects and conditions the relationships between student and teacher and between students and each other. And while grades certainly represent the quality of individual students’ work, performance, attitude, and efforts, they also in some measure evaluate the relationships in which the education and evaluation take place. I at least know that the quality of my relationship with students can positively or negatively impact the grades they receive. That makes grading a fundamentally moral activity, whether I recognize it or not.

I think it’s important for me as a professor to be an intentionally ethical grader and to admit to myself that as a grader I fail at being completely ethical because of my own and the system’s fundamental imperfections. But even as He told me not to judge, the Lord taught one of the most important ethical principles in his mortal ministry, so important that it is addressed in several places throughout the New Testament and His teachings as recorded in 3 Nephi: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. / For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”5 The principle on offer, of course, is the principle at the core of the Golden Rule, which Jesus explicitly states only 10 verses later: “Therefore, all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them, for this is the law and the prophets.”6 We pay special attention to the Golden Rule in Christianity because of the Lord’s last comment here. “The law and the prophets,” or all of revealed scripture, can be distilled into this crucial moral principle of action: treat others as we want to be treated by others. Interestingly, the Savior makes the same claim about the importance of His reformulation of the Ten Commandments into Two Commandments:

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,

and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.

This is the first and great commandment.

And the second is like unto it,

Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.7

The “Two Great Commandments,” the Golden Rule, and the “judge not” command are each complementary ways in which the Lord distills all that He has revealed into a comprehensible ethical principle.

What I take this to mean for grading as judging, then, is that it must answer the moral imperative to love others as I love myself, which perhaps in more practical terms means treating others as I would be treated by others. What would grading my students as I would be graded look like? Here’s one thing it means in my personal practice: I’ve come to think that it is unfair for me to grade students on tasks that they have not been able to practice first. I don’t know how to do something the first time I try it. Why would I expect anything different from my students? When I taught an historical survey class, I used to assign short papers for each period (a paper on Ancient Greece and Rome, a paper on the Middle Ages, and a paper on the Renaissance). Because I wanted my students to learn something from each period, it made sense to grade these papers equally. But this doesn’t make sense to me anymore because no matter how much or even how well I tell the students how to write a good paper, their first paper is inevitably a kind of practice paper—a chance to find out in practice how I evaluate their writing, their thinking. So, now, sometimes I use the first paper as a practice paper; I give them some credit for a good-faith effort, but it doesn’t seem fair to me that the grade they get on that first paper equal the grade they get on their third paper, after some practice and feedback. And, sometimes, I have the students do a number of short, less formal writing assignments as a way of prepping for a more formal paper due towards the end of the semester.

But a Golden Rule for grading also means that I, my colleagues, and society as a whole need to work a bit harder at coming up with a better system. In the meantime, we could change the way we rely on grades as a shortcut in moral thinking and evaluation. I wish grades didn’t mean as much as we make them mean. I probably worried a few years off of my life over them when I was in school, and I hurt for my students when I see the same worry and disappointment in their faces and bearing. Grades shouldn’t mean as much as they do; they shouldn’t be taken as a summary judgment of someone’s ability, character, or even as a measure of the effort a student put into a course. I really wish we would treat them as formative assessments that don’t necessarily stay on one’s record forever but are helpful at the right time in the right place to help students progress and mature—kind of like we do in the Church. I’m so glad that my deacons quorum grades haven’t dogged me all of my life.

Given the very different things that grades mean from discipline to discipline and from class to class (sometimes even in the same discipline), I like what Christopher Knapp proposes, what he calls the “Relative Performance” system of grading, which essentially means that grades should only represent how a student’s performance in a class compares to the other students’ in that same class.8 Now, I confess that I don’t like his apparently easy acceptance of grades as essentially a competitive measure between students. I would like to find a way of measuring student achievement and performance that doesn’t simply rank people from highest to lowest because such measurements, once again, don’t accurately convey how much a student learned nor account for involuntary and inherent differences of ability, preparation, support networks, et cetera in students. But what is nevertheless attractive about what Knapp proposes is that grades would not and could not be seen as absolute measures of student knowledge and ability. His system wouldn’t allow what some programs do now: define exactly what their majors should know in classes and in the program as a whole, thus rendering grades in their classes and programs as fixed, immovable measures of how much of that knowledge one can demonstrate on an exam, regardless of different backgrounds and capacities in students and teachers.

Like Knapp, I think this kind of absolute, fixed standard of grading is wrong for a number of reasons, but one of these reasons is worth mentioning here: if student learning depends on my teaching, how could I ethically believe that grades are only a reflection of the quality of my students’ work, and not also of the quality of my teaching? When I grade papers, for instance, I let the students show me what is possible: the best student papers tell me what was reasonable to expect for an A paper in my class, under my tutelage. I derive other levels of achievement from the rest of the class. For that matter, we, as teachers, would do our students a greater service by teaching them how to assess, and perhaps even judge, themselves.

I think learning how to judge ourselves is something that the Redeemer of the world would like all of us to learn. We talk about this sometimes when we share our opinions in gospel conversations about what will happen at the Last Judgment—that we’ll judge ourselves, rather than receiving some unexpected judgment from the Divine Bench. But I still see our Advocate with the Father playing a more active and, indeed, a more advocative role. I don’t think the Lord has any desire to play the role of the objective judge who administers some kind of absolute standard. I think He judges us as our advocate, as someone who is rooting for us to succeed. As President J. Reuben Clark said at BYU in 1955: “I feel that [the Savior] will give that punishment which is the very least that our transgression will justify. . . . I believe that when it comes to making the rewards for our good conduct, He will give us the maximum that it is possible to give.”9 I strive to have that very attitude in my grading and judging because that is how I want to be judged.

Joe Parry is a professor in the Department of Comparative Arts & Letters and the outgoing department chair in the Department of Philosophy.