Rambling Thoughts on Julie Byrne's Facebook Post, Grading, and the Power of "Not Yet"

Time spent on book: 3 hours
Words written: @200
Grade for the day: C

So today's Facebook Teacher of the Day award goes to the one and only Julie Byrne.

I am very much looking forward to reading her new book The Other Catholics. And I can't say enough good things about her first book on the Immaculata Mighty Macs. (Quick, name three other academic books that became a movie. Take your time. Got any yet? Of course not. All hail, Byrne!).

But today, I want to turn your attention to this quick post from a few days ago. And in particular point one, which drew a good many comments from Facebookistan's professor class--although, I would like that callaloo recipe and Nurse Jackie is now on my Netflix queue.


"I really don't believe in grades and I don't know what to do about it."

Yep. Completely. Like, I'm 100 percent in on this one. I have found more often than not that grades are a barrier to learning. They become the object of focus, the only thing that matters.

"Is this going to be on the test?" 
"What do I have to do to get an A?" 
"Do you take points away for [random writing sin]?"

These questions--so common--still make me twitch. I understand completely, I really do. I am dealing with a population that has been conditioned to base their entire sense of worth around grades. Moreover, they are forking over unholy piles of cash for a degree that--they hope--will pay off in the future. While I can say that there will come a time when their GPAs won't matter, I know that for them, the difference  between an A and a B can seem like life and death.

But still...

I'm here because I have a deep love of learning that I want to help others discover within themselves. I know that most will never dive as deeply as I have into the discipline of religious studies. But how about some snorkeling along the surface?!?

I heard (brace yourself) a Ted talk a while back from Carol Dweck. In it, she talks about fostering a "growth mindset" by harnessing the power of "not yet." When we don't understand something, it's not a matter of brain power, of being "too dumb" to get it. It just means that we don't understand it "yet"--that will come with a bit more time, effort, and creativity.

Many of my most rewarding teaching experiences have come when grading has been an afterthought. I had mentioned earlier Jordan Gorsuch, my student who did a research project on some local murals. Not once did we ever discuss a grade. Instead, our conversations centered entirely around research, context, and interpretation.

I confess, though, that Jordan is an outlier--he has a passion for the humanities that has nothing to do with me. I was just there to nudge him along, albeit briefly at the end of his undergraduate career.

For just about everyone else, grades become the thing that defines our relationship. For as much as I dislike grades, they are an imperfect incentive. When I want a good discussion, I grade it--with really, really clear criteria and feedback. If I'm asking for revisions (plural), I grade that too with the same approach. And so it goes.

So I'm right there with you Professor Byrne. I hate grades and I have no better alternative. Yet.


  1. This is NOT a perfect solution; it is only more "not yet." My syllabus states that grades are the corollary to the goal (="having fun with intellectual work") and just "happen along the way." Three assignments (30% of the grade) are graded during the semester. Everything else they get back during the semester is graded as just "done" or "not done." If they are in trouble and trending toward a D or F, I tell them in good time so they can turn it around. Then they get their final grade. I do get complaints, IF they have a low grade, that they would like to have seen more feedback. But it SEEMS the relief of a context that gives them permission not to obsess on grades, actually does outweigh the obsession, somewhat.

  2. "Done" and "not done." I like it! I think I'll be stealing this one. Thanks!


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