The letter that mattered most

Once I wrote a reference letter for a student who had never been in any of my classes. In fact, she was not in my program and was applying to a very prestigious graduate school in a totally different field. Her grades were mediocre at best. I enthusiastically said yes, but had to sit with it a while and contemplate my strategy. In the end, I wrote her a knock-your-sock-off academic reference letter, and she got in. (I like to pretend that my letter mattered.) Here’s the gist of the letter.

Her grades were maybe not great. (In fact, they were unarguably not great). But. BUT. She chose extremely hard classes as electives. Like – really hard classes. Her foreign language was Japanese. She took the real physics instead of the “not for majors” physics. When I asked her why, she said it was simply because she didn’t want to miss out on something the science kids were learning. She has an amazing work ethic. (In fact, she worked almost full time throughout her undergraduate career). She is a humanitarian at heart, a constant learner. She traveled the world truly making a difference – working at international consortiums. She is an amazing team player – one of the best. She nurtures relationships. I could confidently say these things about her – in an academic letter – because every one of these traits matters in academia. And yet they very rarely become part of a course grade. Writing this letter taught me a lot about grades and what they don’t say.

During my first year of ungrading, I saw students justify their grades with things like:

“…I really held this project together for weeks when 2 of my teammates were out with Covid and one had to work overtime…”

“…I’ve always been so nervous to speak in front of peers. I had to glance at my cards, but I did it. I’m so proud…”

“…we had a safe project we were going to do that was just something modified from what another group did before. Instead, we designed something that was really hard and probably wouldn’t work…”

This year I have learned the nuances of what self-reflection and assessment can capture. Every student in my classroom is their own whole human with a unique experience they are reflecting on. I have decided that I am OK with each of these humans assessing themselves on a different arbitrary scale, because the scales are personal reflections of their own growth. I will keep on ungrading.

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