Narrative Evaluations in College: Working Even Harder Not to Make the Grade

The last time you received something other than a letter grade in a school course was probably back in Kindergarten. Letter grades have become ingrained in high school and college life as a method to equalize all students. Courses that are pass or fail and include narrative based evaluations are rare and a college that bases its philosophy off of the principle of not giving any grades, just narrative evaluations, is unique.

Of the more than 4,000 colleges and universities in this country, maybe fifteen give out narrative evaluations. Some also forgo grades; others use the evaluations in conjunction with traditional grading methods.

Philosophy: The purpose of an all-narrative evaluation school is to eliminate the pressure or worries associated with graded papers and shift the focus to more discussion-based classes. Many people will associate this idea with a method to pass all individuals in a class because they view “passing” as doing the bare minimum. This is, however, not generally the accepted reasoning behind a narrative evaluation. It is common for a narrative evaluation school to accept only applicants with the best grades and test scores so that there really is little worry about slacking off in school. In doing this selection, the most motivated candidates that are tired of competing for grades are selected.

Methods: Two main methods exist for giving narrative evaluations: adding the evaluation to a regular grade, or having the evaluation be the grade.

The first method is much more conservative. Students receive grades, either letter or number, on all assignments and the weighted average determines the grade for the class. Grade point averages (GPA) are still calculated and class rank and graduating honors are established. However, the class professor will include a short paragraph about the student’s performance in the course that cannot be shown by the grade.

Exclusive narrative evaluation methods are more radical. Using this method, class work is handed back with comments or corrections, but papers do not receive a number or letter grade. Instead, the professor makes a qualitative decision at the end of each semester or quarter as to whether the student did enough quality work to pass the course. The pass or fail judgment is backed up by the written evaluation. This evaluation is much longer than those in the first method. Evaluations typically begin with a summary of the course and the major projects that were required; this takes about two paragraphs. The rest of the evaluation describes the student’s work in the course and identifies if they pass or fail. This section is also about two paragraphs. All told, this type of evaluation results in a one-page document that encompasses the evaluation and recommendation for passing or failing the class.

Benefits: For those students who detest competing for grades or class rank within their classes, a narrative evaluation exclusive school may be for you. Students that wish to supplement their letter grade with some personal feedback may also appreciate the addition of a written report. A major benefit is that students do not have to worry about class rank or GPA in evaluation exclusive schools and can downplay these factors in places that supplement grades with evaluations. That means everyone in an evaluation exclusive school graduates at the same level, a factor attractive to some students.

Less emphasis on grades allows students to take classes that are more difficult without worrying about doing poorly even when they try their best and also allows people to choose subjects of interest, but where they lack background to insure success.

Downsides: The only major downside to a narrative evaluation school is that many individuals do not understand how such a grading system still requires hard work and effort.

Graduate Schools: After graduating college with no GPA and only narrative evaluations for grades, can one get accepted into graduate school? The answer is overwhelmingly yes. Schools that utilize written evaluations make it one of their missions to educate graduate school admissions offices and the general public about their grading process. Often the college will have already made contact with a graduate school admissions office to inform them of the rigor of their program. If this has not yet happened, the college will send a description of the grading system and the school in general to the graduate school to explain why the student cannot submit a GPA or grades from their college career. In fact, some graduate schools are more likely to accept students from colleges with narrative evaluations because they have previously received students of high-caliber from that college. Of course, if you choose to go to a low ranked narrative evaluation school and do very little work there, your evaluations will be on display for the graduate school. In this way, it is more difficult for a student who does nothing in college, but gets by with a good grade to get into the graduate school. So, the school puts a great deal of weight on the fact that you, as an applying student, went somewhere to really work hard. In this way, students with a written evaluation can help boost their chances for admission to a graduate school.

Who is this for? Schools with written evaluations are not for those seeking to complete little work. Think of it this way: the college does not need to give grades to its students because all students would get the highest marks anyway. A “pass” from an evaluation school may exceed the work to get an “A” somewhere else. You will be forced to speak with your professors often and establish relationships with them. After all, written evaluations can be negative if you do nothing in the class. That same student who turns in “A” work, but does nothing would fail and receive a poor evaluation. A student must have a passion and desire for learning, engaging with others, working extremely hard, and establishing personal connections with everyone in class. If you do not like grades, but always work to get an “A” a narrative based college, either as a primary means of grading or as a supplement, may be a good fit.

Resources: There are a small number of colleges and universities that use narrative evaluations. Among them, some, like The Evergreen State College, Goddard College, Hampshire College, and New College of Florida, never give grades for their courses and rely solely on narrative evaluations and pass or fail judgments. More institutions, namely Bennington College, Bard College, Oxford University, and Prescott College, use the grade and evaluation combination method.

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