From grading to learning

The narrative evaluation system places the emphasis of school back onto learning instead of getting good grades.

Do you feel that your grades truly reflect how much you learn? Do you use your grades to measure your intelligence or self-worth? How often do you study or read just for the sake of learning? How much of your daily stress is school-related?

I ask these questions because I think grades hinder the learning process. I come to this conclusion from my own struggles with school and from seeing my friends go through the same thing. Three years ago, I came out of a final exam knowing that I aced it. I remember saying to my friend, “I didn’t learn anything in that class and I got an A Ö how messed up is that?”

Knowing that my grades were not a good measure for how much I learned and feeling dissatisfied with my college education, I began to question my true motivations for getting high grades. The only “good” reason I could come up with was that I needed good grades to get into grad school or to find a decent job. The other, more dominant reason was that I measured my self-worth with my grades.

And why do people measure their self-worth with grades? Probably because people who get good grades always get rewarded with compliments and attention. I am not saying that it is bad to give compliments to someone who gets an A, but the focus is on the grade, not on how much they actually learned. Students never come back from summer break asking, “Did you learn a lot in organic chemistry last semester?” They usually ask, “What did you get in o-chem last semester?” or “How did you do in o-chem?”

The reason I say that getting good grades to get into grad school or for a job is “good” is because it is obviously necessary to have high scores to stand out. At the same time, the student becomes obsessed over grades instead of actually being concerned about learning the material. When a student gets high marks, his or her thoughts that he or she will get a good job or get into grad school masks the dissatisfaction they have from spending years not learning in college.

Another problem is that students have learned to accept the fact that they will not be using their undergrad education for their future jobs. I remember friends and family telling me, “It doesn’t really matter what kind of degree you have because you will learn everything on the job Ö just keep your grades up.”

Because students measure their self-worth with grades and depend on grades to get into grad school or to get a job, school becomes a competition for good grades instead of a place to learn. School is further made competitive with a curved grading system, which makes the student think, “As long as I do better than this guy, I am set.” Once again, the focus is not on learning, but on the grade and the feeling of being “better” than other students. For many students, school is the main cause of stress in their lives, and I believe the competitive atmosphere of school contributes a great deal to this stress.

The stress that students live with every day during the semester affects their ability to learn by impairing concentration, increasing poor eating habits and decreasing the amount of sleep they get. The subconscious fear that comes from thoughts about getting poor grades causes constant stress in students, which makes it difficult for students to concentrate on learning the material or focus in class. The student then resorts to rote memorization to get high marks on exams. Stress also seems to affect student’s eating and sleeping habits, the best signifier of this being the growing sales of highly caffeinated energy drinks on campus.

I do not think there is any one solution to all the problems I listed, but I think a comment-based evaluation system is a step in the right direction. With a narrative evaluation system, the student can get feedback from the teacher as opposed to a grade that really doesn’t say anything, except suggest that “I am smart” or “I am dumb.” When we are asked to evaluate professors at the end of the semester, the teacher always asks the students to give comments. Why does the teacher ask this? Because it actually benefits the teacher to know his or her strengths and weaknesses.

The narrative evaluation system places the emphasis of school back onto learning instead of getting good grades. In a conversation with a counselor at the New College of Florida, a college with a narrative evaluation system, I learned that students there are more focused on learning the material than on rote memorization. Take a moment to ask yourself this question: if there were no grades, and I came to school just for the sake of learning a subject, what would I be majoring in? It seems like so many students come to college with a genuine interest in a particular field of study only to be told that they are not good enough to work in that field because they don’t get high marks. I find this even more disappointing when I hear people like Dr. Mel Levine, a professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina Medical School, talk about how students who are often considered “dumb” just learn differently and are often quite talented and capable.

What would need to be changed to switch to a narrative evaluation system? Schools would have to hire more teachers so that the teacher did not have to write comments for 300 students; although, it has been done with a computer-based comment system and the help of teaching assistants. Professors would have to create bonds with students and spend more time evaluating them. Classes would focus more on reading and writing papers and class discussion instead of lectures and exams. The costs of implementing this type of system are obvious but justified if the emphasis of school can be changed from grading to learning. Instead of spending money on making the school look good with JumboTron screens in classrooms and professors that research well but can’t teach to save their lives, we could be investing in strong student-teacher connections by hiring more teachers and implementing a system of evaluation that benefits students.

Miki Dezaki is a University student. Please send comments to [email protected]