Stu­dents’ top grade? R for re­silience

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY NAEEMAH CLARK Naeemah Clark is an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at Elon Univer­sity in Elon.

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.

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.

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