The Conversation about Grades, Talents, and Self-Worth

Covenant students care about their grades. This much is obvious from a single walk through campus. Students constantly discuss the next assignment, quiz, or test that is coming up or the exam they just finished grinding out. Sleep schedules slip through the cracks in between the next test and hanging out with the hall. Covenant students are motivated to great extremes. I was recently speaking with a new professor who lauded the work ethic and brilliance of his new students as compared to those he had taught at previous institutions.

This motivation can come with costs. Students become anxious about their work, terrified that they might have to confront the reality of failing a quiz, midterm, or class. Such terror is not conducive to a good learning environment and can often poison an otherwise joyful learning experience, sometimes ruining entire courses or fields of study for an individual.

In response to these fears and anxieties, the Covenant community regularly reminds itself that caring about grades is not important and instead we should focus on loving God and others well. But this reminder does not solve the issue. Sometimes it is a helpful encouragement to someone with a massive test but it can also trivialize the struggles that students go through over their grades. Caught up in their work, even very talented students can become gripped by the anxiety of maintaining a G.P.A. that satisfies their parents, their dream graduate program, or even their own standards. Students have to worry about meeting scholarship requirements and maintaining sports eligibility. These are simply some aspects of the burdens that come with being a student.

To trivialize concern for grades or academic achievement does not solve these issues; however, silence is just as damaging. We must discuss where we find value, the prioritization of our work and how it affects our community, our self-esteem, and most particularly our relationship with God.

First, it should be made abundantly clear everyone at Covenant is a person before they are a scholar, and no academic work should be done at the cost of one’s health. While staying up late for one paper is sometimes a completely responsible and effective decision, habits of sleeplessness, napping, and over-caffeination can lead to many other issues. Moreover, anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses can create feedback loops of self-destruction potentially fueling unhealthy academic habits. These are tremendous issues in a community of such academic rigor and repute as Covenant College and should be treated with the gravity due to them.

But notwithstanding the above issues, the conversation surrounding grades needs to change. Caring for and about one’s grades is a practical necessity of our calling as students. Just like the stewards of the master’s wealth in the Parable of the Talents, we must use our gifts and work to the best of our ability. Stewarding an investment well requires regular review, and the world outside of Covenant demands assessments. This is one of the realities of being an academic institution. But not everyone is equally gifted, particularly in different fields of study. Every student should be reminded that every proficiency and talent is an outpouring of God’s free grace; we have no ownership of any part of it. The lack of ownership frees us to try our best, to glory in the joy of learning, but also to grieve the pain of realizing our limits and confronting our finitude.

Our conversations and exhortations about grades should acknowledge the liberation that comes with a proper understanding of our talents. They should acknowledge the often unavoidable concerns that careers, graduate schools, scholarships, athletics, and even natural personal pressures create. The conversation needs to recognize that mental illness can compound these into a lethal mixture. We need to keep having this conversation with the understanding that it is right and good to care about one’s grades but always with the reminder that sacrificing for one’s grades will kill you. Our talents are not our own; we are free to invest and free from shame and fear. Even in the midst of our failure, God carefully crafts our future, our best future, even with that failure as a crucial part of it.