OPINION Do we even need grades?

Looking at alternative education methods

Marlena Chertock

FEB. 3, 2011

Your professor hands back an essay and you flip to the last page to see your grade. The page is full of comments in red but lacks a grade. What if this wasn’t a mistake but rather the usual circumstance?

Students at high schools and colleges around the country experience this alternative every day. Elon should consider the benefits of this alternative to grading.

Hampshire College in Massachusetts uses narrative evaluations instead of grades.

“Narrative evaluation is one of the things that distinguish us,” said Jessica Ortiz assistant dean of admissions at Hampshire. “The idea behind narrative evaluation is that we’re eliminating the culture of competition. Students are not comparing themselves to each other.”

Narrative evaluations are somewhat like letters of recommendation, except much more detailed. After every class at Hampshire students receive written feedback detailing their strengths, weaknesses, things they could improve upon, their class performance, ideas for future research and other areas.

These alternative ways of providing feedback to students highly value the inspiration and motivation of the student. Eliminating the focus on grades and competition offers students the ability to focus on creativity and learning.

“What’s great about narrative evaluations is that there’s no upper limit to how a student can do, not as if you get an A or A+ and stop,” Ortiz said. “It’s about students continuing to achieve their personal best.”

“As opposed to one or two sheets for a student’s entire experience, each transcript is a thick booklet,” Ortiz said.

The evaluations can be sent to graduate schools. Graduate officers can choose how they want to read them, all of the evaluations or only the ones related to the student’s field of study, Ortiz said.

Elon transcripts consist of the official list of grades from all courses, GPA and the Elon Experiences transcript which details study abroad and internships completed. While Elon has taken a step in the direction of alternative and more engaged learning with ELR, it is a very small one.

Written feedback is more meaningful for students, according to Ortiz.

“They love narrative evaluations,” Ortiz said. “They really appreciate the fact that it is meaningful feedback, personalized, about their work, about them striving and moving forward.”

An atmosphere devoid of competition would be beneficial for students. College students are reporting high levels of stress, anxiety and depression, according to a New York Times article. If students weren’t so focused on grades and instead on learning, some of this stress and poor emotional health would be alleviated.

David Cooper dean of education at Elon said he doesn’t think grades are necessary to rank student performance.

Cooper studied at Brown University and went through the new curriculum system that allowed for optional grading or non-grading. Faculty members wrote extensive feedback upon request, which became a part of student’s official transcripts, Cooper said.

When you get a grade you’re often not fully informed as to what the grade indicates,” Cooper said. “With a narrative evaluation you get specific evaluation on where your strengths are and areas of improvements. It requires faculty members to be very engaged in all students.”

Part of the intent was to foster risk-taking in students, Cooper said. The lack of grades pushed students to go out of their comfort zones and take classes they might not normally out of fear of wrecking their GPAs, according to Cooper.

Such a system might not work at Elon, according to Cooper. The curriculum here is very structured so there is not necessarily the incentive needed to attract students to difference discipline areas, he said. He said students already collaborate and work together.

“I think it would be somewhat jarring to somewhat change that system. My guess would be is that if you were to put a system like that in place I would imagine students would still opt for a grade if they were given a choice.”

Perhaps a system of written feedback and no grades would work better in certain areas of study, such as creative writing or English where it is very subjective to give writing a grade or rank. But the benefits would help any student, regardless of his field. For instance, if science majors didn’t have to worry about their grades perhaps they could focus more on experiments and undergraduate research.

There should be punishments for students who didn’t perform well or weren’t doing their work, just like there are lower grades. A lower grade can often be a slap back to reality. But verbal or written feedback from professors would be more beneficial and informative for students to work to improve.

“Performance anxiety went away,” said Kevin Boyle department chair of English, who studied at the University of Iowa. For his creative writing courses there were no grades, it was a pass/fail basis, he said.

“It was liberating,” he said. “You never felt as if you had to perform dutifully on every work.”

Elon students should be able to hope for the same liberation.

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About Marlena Chertock

Marlena Chertock's first collection of poetry, On that one-way trip to Mars, is available from Bottlecap Press. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Marketplace, and WTOP. Her poems and fiction has appeared in The Deaf Poets Society, Moonsick Magazine, and Paper Darts.

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