The best grade students should seek? An ‘R’ for resilience

Students approach the Alamance Building on the campus of Elon University. (Photo courtesy of Elon University)
Students approach the Alamance Building on the campus of Elon University. (Photo courtesy of Elon University)

As I posted my final grades, I emailed my students the same note I’ve sent for nearly two decades: “Your semester grades are online. Please let me know if I’ve made any errors. THIS IS NOT THE TIME FOR GRADE GRUBBING OR PLEAS FOR EXTRA CREDIT.”

Twenty minutes after hitting send came a smattering of “Merry Christmas” or “Thanks for the great semester!” messages. However, the majority of the replies began, “I know you said not to beg for extra credit, but …”

Clearly these students read my missive, but somehow thought their situations were unique and worth some consideration. One fell ill with mono in September, did the make-up work during a three-week period in October, but knows she could do better if she had one more day. Another said he studied very hard, but my exams didn’t allow him to demonstrate what he learned.

Throughout the semester, I had heart-to-hearts with teary eyed students who were concerned about their grades. I imparted to them that grades are not as important as understanding and building their critical thinking skills using concepts from their academic major. Still, their need for the higher grade remained … even if they hadn’t earned it.

To 18-year-olds, these situations seem dire, but those of us who are slightly older than 18 know that the difference between an A and B+ or even a B and C in an Intro to Communications class matters very little in the grand scheme of their worlds.

Ultimately, we need to rethink the way we prime students for success.

Our students are in need of resilience. The word “resilience” means the ability to bounce back from injury or failure. The theory of resilience is not new to educators. However, it needs to be reimagined. Students should not return to where they were before the misstep, but they should actually be a step further along toward excellence. Perhaps a better term for this is “dynamic resilience.”

Dynamic resilience pushes that definition and students a bit farther. They should not just bounce back when there are errors, but they should bounce higher. When they fall short, they should learn from their missteps with the goal of doing better.

All of us who have a hand in educating students, should teach them that absolute excellence is rarely attainable, but that the habits and behaviors required to reach absolute excellence should be continually practiced. The habits and behaviors aren’t just duplicated. Dynamic resilience must include reflection, a recognition of what went wrong, a retooling and remaining persistent. Without purposeful changes, the same behaviors, even when doggedly duplicated, will deliver the same results.

Students should be encouraged to take classes they are a bit afraid of just for the sake of learning. Over the holiday table, grandparents should not ask students what their grades were, but how they were changed by their courses.

While it may be pricey, students should study abroad or complete internships away from their campuses. Figuring out bus routes, social graces and international grocery store check-outs force students to make quick decisions on their own each and every day. Confronting these simple challenges will give them confidence in their ability to learn, change and improve over time.

For my part, I have decided to start each class session asking, “What inspired you this weekend?” or “What do you know today that you didn’t know yesterday?” This prompt requires them to think of their experiences as formative. I will also create assignments that require trial and error with the points awarded increasing incrementally as their competence grows.

The disappointment in falling short can be mitigated when there is an automatic thought process toward dynamic resilience that will lead to growth. If the students who contacted me for a few extra credit points at the end of the term, used that same energy to reflect and improve on how their work fell short — penalties for late assignments, grammatical errors, poor time management — their subsequent grades would be higher. Their frustration with their grades would be turned into positive action.

And my email inbox would be less cluttered.

Naeemah Clark is an associate professor of communications at Elon University in Elon.