“Will I get an A in this course?” MHC Students & Grade Anxiety

Breaking news: honors students are grade conscious. We often hear professors say that honors students are totally intolerant of ambiguity: they want clear, specific, step-by-step instructions on how to do everything, and they seem anxious — even obsessive — about getting good grades. They tend to be extremely involved on campus and in their communities, to balance lots of responsibilities (like all CUNY students!), and to define academic “success” in the same kinds of narrow ways that got them into an honors college in the first place.

Of course, none of these things mean that you shouldn’t set high expectations for students or encourage them to stretch themselves. You can help students to maximize their time with you, minimize unnecessary worrying, and take risks that won’t punish them for learning.

Consider these strategies:

1. Co-design rubrics: Do you use rubrics when you grade? Consider co-developing the terms of a rubric as an entire class. You might give students a rubric that you normally use and ask them to edit it: to add, subtract, or further clarify its terms. Or you might start by brainstorming about what an “A” paper / project / presentation should contain. Asking students to help you determine how they’ll be assessed gives them some agency over the process, and it also helps them to clarify what you’re asking them to do.

2. Model good work: Show students examples of the kind of work that you’re looking for them to do. Have students critique the work (maybe in the service of coming up with the terms for a rubric). Build in some time for workshopping student drafts (a great use of asynchronous time for an online class). Let them know what you mean when you say “good” or “clear” writing, acknowledge that what you mean and what another professor means could be different, and allow them multiple attempts to work toward achieving it.

3. Design assessments to value measureable labor rather than subjective quality: The difference between an “A” grade and a “B” grade is subjective: two professors might give the same paper or project a completely different grade. To maximize equity, consider basing your assessment on measurable labor (i.e. the project contains 5 key components, the student participated in a peer review, the student participated in a Macaulay common event, the student consulted with the Writing Center) rather than basing it on a more subjective judgement. You can still give students feedback on quality without tying their assessment to that feedback.

4. Balance formative and summative assessment: Build in multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate their learning. Integrating into the final grade things like blogs or response papers, synchronous conversations or freewrites, presentations, smaller projects, and portfolio assignments — rather than high-stakes tests or papers — can be a way to ensure that students are learning throughout the semester instead of just at the midterm or the end.

5. Design great assignments: Anxiety about grades generally starts with an assignment design that is either far too detailed or not nearly detailed enough. For more ideas about assignment design, talk to your TLC Fellow.


There are many different types or rubrics, and many are not painful at all. This post from the Cult of Pedagogy talks about some commonly used rubrics.


Credits: Original post by Lindsey Albracht, Christina Nadler, and the students in the Macaulay Honors Program at Queens College; updated and remixed by Hamad Sindhi.

Featured image from The Pattern Library.

Last updated: July 6th, 2020.