May 9, 2018
No, grades undermine spiritual growth and connection
Grades were implemented as a standardized system to compare students’ academic intelligence and work ethic. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have grades, because everyone is different and should be. There might be evaluations and assessments to encourage learning, but the main value of grading is for ease of comparison, especially for college admission decisions. Since many colleges do not consider Judaic Studies courses when evaluating Shalhevet students, why grade them?
Assigning a grade to a person’s Torah learning defeats the purpose of Jewish practice and creates obstacles for forming a meaningful connection with the religion. Instead, grading Judaic Studies courses inevitably leads students to view Jewish learning as something stress-inducing, and consequently damages any intrinsic motivation towards religious learning that they may have.
As soon as students are graded for their performance in Judaic Studies courses, their goal shifts from connecting to God and Judaism to getting a 4.0 GPA. And for those who are currently not interested in living a Jewish life, adding grades only discourages them from thinking of their Talmud and Tanakh classes as anything more than a hassle.
In addition, grades cause stress, giving Judaic Studies courses a negative undertone in their minds. Many studies show this can prevent students from internalizing what they seem to learn.
Everyone agrees that we should encourage students to learn Torah lishma — a Jewish value translated to mean learning Torah “for its own sake.” The real reason Jewish schools teach Tanakh and Gemara is to guide students in how to live their lives in accordance with the Torah. Students’ reasons to learn Tanakh and Gemara should be the same: to live life abiding by the Torah’s values.
Some say that grades motivate students who would not otherwise be as committed to their Judaic Studies courses. They worry that without grades, some students would consider their Judaic Studies a joke to such an extent that they might not even show up.
But we learn in AP Psychology that giving external rewards for intrinsically motivated behavior can actually hinder a person’s motivation in the future. This is explained in Myers’ Psychology for AP, and is called the overjustification effect. So by grading Judaic courses, Shalhevet is jeopardizing the internal motivation many students have to study Torah and Judaism on their own.
Almost everyone at Shalhevet, both students and faculty, would agree that grading davening, even in theory, is ridiculous. One’s prayers to God are based on a unique connection that individuals experience in different ways. It is both counter-intuitive and counter-productive to quantitatively grade any type of religious study or practice.
Just as Shalhevet does not grade davening, so too it should not grade Judaic Studies. The current policy undermines spiritual growth and the intrinsic motivation that Shalhevet tries so hard to develop in its students. Judaic learning should be uplifting, but grades cause undue stress. Reconsidering this system is necessary to turn what is unfortunately viewed by students as an inconvenience into an opportunity to grow as a Jew.