Young unrecognisable female college student in class, taking notes and using highlighter. Focused student in classroom. Authentic Education concept.

Rethinking Evaluation Through Empathy

Assessment & Evaluation

Assessment often feels like a necessary evil. We must evaluate our students’ competence, we must measure our own effectiveness in the classroom, and we must endeavor to track the work of the institution as a whole.

In its least pleasant forms, assessment leads to gatekeeping. We must honestly consider the long-term educational prospects of a student who cannot pass basic writing courses, or a pre-med student who cannot pass the first quarter of biology. But like the enforcement of any barrier, it never feels good.

Young unrecognisable female college student in class, taking notes and using highlighter. Focused student in classroom. Authentic Education concept.How fortunate, then, that Christianity offers an alternative to coldly rational, purely quantitative, formal assessment. Jesus challenged us to think about assessment not as mere gatekeeping, but as a means to connect with our students and address their needs.

Our students come to Adventist colleges and universities in part, because they want to be treated as whole people. It’s easy to get torn up in the cogs of the larger university-machines. But we offer to teach the whole person—and part of that is Christ-like assessment.

What does this look like in the classroom?

Recognize that your students have many concerns outside of your class. I know that the students in my upper-division general literature course are not English majors. My course is tangential to their core classes. So, while I think my course is important, I empathize with their decision to put off reading Frankenstein so that they can pass Biochem II. I acknowledge the pain involved in that decision, the stress of the exam, and the shame they may feel if they do not do well on the exam.

This knowledge doesn’t make me grade their essays with an asterisk that allots for a difficult Biochem test, but when I acknowledge their feelings they understand that I value them as a whole person, even if ultimately they still receive a low score.

When an English major tells me that she has three papers due this week, and that she has not had time to sufficiently work through the paper for my class, I remind myself that our care must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Yes, my syllabus says no late work. Yes, she could have planned better. But empathy tells me she already knows that; she has already learned that she needs to consider how she manages time, or takes on tasks. What is left to teach here? Mercy. I would rather she write a paper she can be proud of, and that she understands that I value her intellect more than her adherence to the law.

Compassion is all about meeting students where they are. The truly amazing thing about grace is not that it covers all our sins. That’s important, but anyone can simply ignore an offense. The truly amazing thing is that Jesus meets us where we are.

When a student receives a failing grade on a paper, and then comes to me to ask for extra conferences and help in improving their paper, I’m more than happy to meet that student where they are. Compassion can build a community of care that encourages the students to meet each other where they are as well—in discussion, in study sessions, and outside the classroom.

We are charged with gatekeeping, but we can keep that gate closed through law, or we can follow Jesus’s example and help people find their way through. Assessment matters. Consistency and clear standards matter. But, as Jesus reminds us, people matter the most.


Peter Katz, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of English at Pacific Union College, USA, where he teaches courses in literary theory and the history and philosophy of science. His book manuscript explores the formation of English as a discipline, and how novel-reading came to be associated with empathy.


  • | June 7, 2019 at 8:24 pm

    This is a well-done, intuitive, sensitive piece. My prayer is that it becomes widely read and followed!

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