by Jonathan Lash, Hampshire College President
I recently had a letter to the editor in “Education Week” on the topic of narrative evaluations as teaching tools (or why grades are not enough). Here are some expanded thoughts on that topic.
Consider the many ways that grades fail the learning process, and the learner:
Grades are inarticulate. They don’t tell a student anything about what he or she has done well, or might have done better.
Grades tend to inhibit curiosity and learning by encouraging students to do only what is required to earn an A. How many professors hear the question “what do I have to do to get an A?” in their first class of the semester?
Grades stress competition and reduce collaboration, a much-needed skill and better preparation to meet the challenges of the world today.
Grade inflation makes it difficult to talk meaningfully about quality and excellence.
Grades will not be part of students’ lives once they leave school. Evaluation functions much differently in “the real world.”
A few schools and colleges use narrative evaluations instead of grades. Hampshire College uses narrative evaluations because they are teaching tools and our mission is to educate. With detailed evaluations designed to assist the individual learner, professors cite particulars as they convey full and useful information. Students can understand the strengths and weaknesses in their work, and how they might improve it. They learn to hold themselves accountable and how to strive for their own best performance.
Grades might seem necessary if one accepts the premise that one purpose of education is to sort out winners and losers, and who gets to go on to the next level of education. But our experience is that even for graduate schools grades are not necessary. Two-thirds of Hampshire’s alumni go on to get graduate degrees and we are in the top 1 percent nationwide in sending students on to the highest degree in their field. Graduate schools and professional schools find our narratives to be real indicators of accomplishment. How useful can grades be when at some elite institutions an A has become the most commonly awarded grade?
Thoughtful narrative evaluations demand more from both professors and students. Far more is also gained. Rigor in education is not about being told how well you did, but about being told what you need to do next in order to improve.
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