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A Promising Alternative to Grades

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Some critics of narrative evaluations claim that such an approach to assessing cognitive outcomes is workable only in small private colleges and would not be feasible in larger public institutions, where most college students are enrolled. This argument ignores the fact that several successful programs are already in place at public institutions… 


The posting below looks at the use of narrative evaluations as an alternative or complement to traditional letter grades.  It is from Chapter, Chapter 5 – Which Kinds of Smartness Really Matter?, in the book, Are You Smart Enough? How Colleges’ Obsession with Smartness Shortchanges Students, by Alexander W. Astin. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102. Copyright © 2016 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.



Rick Reis

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Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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A Promising Alternative to Grades


By this time you may be wondering, “If Astin is so dubious about course grades and standardized multiple-choice tests, what would he put in their place?” The student obviously needs feedback of some kind, and the college needs some way to document the student’s cognitive development. An excellent alternative way to assess cognitive development is the narrative evaluation, in which the professor writes a brief essay that summarizes and discusses the student’s progress. Narrative evaluations, also sometimes called holistic evaluations, usually focus on the student’s performance in courses, but can also include other aspects of the student’s growth during college. Many college teachers have already had a good deal of experience in making narrative judgments, as, for example, when they write comments on student’s essays or research papers. The narrative evaluation is simply more comprehensive and more focused on the learning process, taking into account the student’s progress and performance throughout an entire course.

Narrative evaluation provides students with individualized, detailed feedback. Students are not only informed about how well they have mastered the course content, but also provided with specific information about their strong points and areas where improvement is needed. This kind of evaluation also affords the professor an opportunity to give the student feedback about basic cognitive skills, such as writing and critical thinking. Narrative evaluations can not only be extremely helpful to the student, but also, because the process itself requires the professor to get to know the student’s work personally, strengthen the relationship between the student and faculty member.

Although most colleges and universities continue to rely on traditional grading practices, there are several dozen that have implemented narrative evaluations. Some of these institutions, such as Alverno College, Evergreen State College, Goddard College, Hampshire College, New College of Florida, and Yale Law School, give only narrative evaluations. Others, including Antioch University, Bard College, St. John’s colleges, and England’s Oxford University, provide both narrative evaluations and traditional course grades. Still others, including Bennington, Reed, and Sarah Lawrence colleges, use narrative evaluations but will also provide traditional letter grades if the student requests them.

To provide a sense of why colleges choose to use narrative evaluations, here is what Alverno College has to say:

The purpose of grades is to measure your academic success. But a single letter doesn’t tell you whether you have mastered the content for a course and know how to apply the theories in the real world. That’s why we don’t give traditional grades. Instead, teaching and learning at Alverno College are enhanced by assessing your individual progress and by giving you meaningful feedback. Instead of a GPA, we give you something more valuable – it’s a narrative transcript. It is documentation that showcases growth, painting a detailed picture of your accomplishments for parents, graduate schools and employers. (Alverno’s Grading System, n.d.)

Hampshire College states it somewhat differently:

We believe that letter grades are inadequate evaluations … narrative evaluations are used in place of letter grades to assess performance and progress on each assignment, project, and course.

These evaluations parallel professional performance evaluations, helping students identify their areas of growth potential along with their areas of strength.

What do graduate schools and employers think? They appreciate Hampshire’s written evaluations, which form a multidimensional narrative transcript. In fact, our evaluations help students get ready for the real world, where they will receive performance reviews, not grades.

What Hampshire faculty say about narrative evaluations: “With narrative evaluations, students don’t compare themselves to each other; they compare themselves to the best that they can be. With grades there is a tendency to think ‘I got an A. I don’t need to do anything more.’ My view is that no matter how good they are, you can always do more. You can always be better.”

What Hampshire students say about narrative evaluations … “Narrative evaluations turn the classroom spaces at Hampshire into collaborative, not competitive, environments where students can work together and combine knowledge in a productive way. Instead of comparing myself to others in order to gauge how I am learning material and progressing in a class, I get feedback on how I, as an individual and as a learner, have progressed from the beginning of the class.” (Admissions Narrative Evaluations…, n.d.)

One common objection to narrative evaluations is that they are qualitative, meaning that they don’t come with numbers that allow others to rank and rate students so they can readily identify the smartest (this is no doubt why some colleges offer both types of evaluation). Some opponents claim that narrative evaluations pose a handicap when students apply for postgraduate study. On the other hand, some professors who teach in graduate schools will tell you that they prefer that applicants come with narrative evaluations because of the richness of the information provided.

Another, potentially more serious objection to narrative evaluations is that they are labor-intensive, usually requiring a good deal more time and effort on the part of the faculty member than traditional course grading. In evaluating this objection it is helpful to consider just what types of additional labor might be involved in preparing narrative evaluations, and what this extra effort might add to the quality of the student’s educational experience. Besides the time required to write the evaluation, there is the effort involved in getting to know the student’s work well enough to be able to write an accurate and meaningful narrative. For one thing, simply getting to know the student this well enhances the professor’s ability to provide useful advising and mentoring. Moreover, having the written evaluation available in the student’s record contributes to the ability of other faculty and staff to perform these same advising and mentoring functions. Finally, it should be noted that, in many institutions that continue to rely on traditional grading, some professors have already done much of the work needed for narrative evaluations merely in order to award the student a grade.

Some critics of narrative evaluations claim that such an approach to assessing cognitive outcomes is workable only in small private colleges and would not be feasible in larger public institutions, where most college students are enrolled. This argument ignores the fact that several successful programs are already in place at public institutions: the University of California-Santa Cruz, Empire State College in the State University of New York, Fairhaven College-Western Washington University, and Evergreen State College.