The Limits of the Letters

Limits of Letter GradesStudents pull all-nighters, ask for extensions, stress, worry, and fret, all in the name of one little letter – often as if their entire future were relying on this simplistic assessment. Designing a system that successfully evaluates student progress is challenging in many ways. It is difficult to create a system that is useful, accountable, and encouraging. Unfortunately, traditional grades actually tell us very little about student learning and often fail to encourage deep learning, all while producing anxiety and tension (Bain, 2012).

Deep learning can be described as deep, passionate, joyous and creative learning. It is best explained by King and Kitchener’s seventh stage of development; this stage states that individuals draw the most reasonable or probable conclusion from current evidence, and when new evidence appears, they must re-evaluate their initial conclusion (Bain, 2012). This requires asking questions, interpreting others’ opinions, and weighing possible solutions. While deep learning is not required to achieve success, success is often a result of deep learning.

In reviewing the experiences of many highly successful people, grades were not something that particularly mattered in their personal journeys to success. There are many contributing factors when we consider the great achievements of these highly successful people, namely, that deep learning was an endeavor that they pursued with vigor and enthusiasm. Bain (2012) cites research on strategic, surface, and deep learners, stating that:

Strategic and surface learners…just want to survive or shine…grades represent
nothing more than a passport to something else….in contrast, deep learners have
some interest in grades, but only to the degree that they convey useful assessments
of their work and abilities that they could use to improve… (p. 46)

One can conclude then, that while grades are useful for indicating a pass or fail, they are not comprehensive, and fail to reflect a student’s engagement and performance in their courses.

What are the alternatives to the traditional letter grade system? A revision to academic grading policies might include an option to supplement letter grades with narrative evaluations. These evaluations would provide an in-depth description of a student’s unique learning process. The purpose of the evaluations would be to give students meaningful, constructive feedback. Faculty members would be responsible to provide extensive written feedback on papers and projects. These detailed written evaluations would reflect students’ engagement and performance in courses, internships, fieldwork, projects, study abroad, and other evaluated learning activities.

Each course, program, or other evaluated learning activities could be evaluated with three documents. The first of these documents would be a faculty evaluation of the student, the second, a student evaluation of the faculty member, and the third would be a student self-evaluation. Potential elements to be included in the evaluation could be description of the learning activity, credit earned – broken down by subject, and description of the student’s work, which might include: evaluation of completed assignments, class work, and exams, how the student approaches their work, how they work with their fellow students, the student’s objectives and preparation, attendance record, and highlights of the student’s skills and abilities.

More than a few colleges and universities, including Brown University, Antioch College, Goddard College, and several others, have implemented narrative evaluations (Cappex, 2015). Some schools have chosen to eliminate the traditional letter grade completely, while others, such as Brown University have opted to supplement traditional grades with the option of narrative evaluations. Such evaluations would serve to enable students to better understand their own learning.

The most important player in implementing this revision to grading policies would be the faculty members responsible for student grades. The faculty of the college would need to be in agreement with the revised policy, as policy decisions delivered from the top-down are often received as unpopular or unnecessary. In making such a drastic change, it would be vital to have faculty support. Additionally, deans of student development, the vice president of academic affairs, and the provost would all have to approve the revised policy in order for it to go into effect on campus.

Revising the way that faculty evaluate student learning is an intervention that may seem far-fetched and outlandish, but in providing a narrative evaluation, students will be able to better understand their own learning, as well as being able to voice their own opinions and understanding of classroom material. It should be noted that not all colleges and universities are the same, and while implementing the revised grading policy at small, private institutions is anticipated to be successful; such methodology may not transfer to larger state-funded institutions. Additional options must be explored for institutions with larger class sizes, where the professor may be unable to name all the students in their lectures.

Additionally, a component of the revised grading policy that may be wise to consider would be to have an evaluation week on campus, perhaps mid-semester, or even in place of finals week. This evaluation week would be time for professors and students to meet one-on-one and discuss their learning thus far. Professors would be able to give the students feedback regarding coursework, participation, and overall progress in their learning. Students would be able to communicate with professors in a one-on-one setting – asking questions about their professional work, or even continuing dialogues from the classroom.

To be sure, grades are an effective way of reporting who is doing the work and who is not, who is making the effort, and who is not; however, grades do not offer the whole picture. Rarely do they speak to an individual student’s potential to learn, and often they are affected by other factors than a student’s learning – such as class participation, or attendance. There must be a better method of evaluating student learning, and this author proposes that instead, we use narrative evaluations, in order that students and faculty alike might have a more comprehensive understanding of a student’s learning.


Bain, K. (2012). What the best college students do. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.,. (2015). No Traditional Letter Grades | Cappex College Insider. Retrieved 8 April 2015, from

Slider Image Source

Post Image Source

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Post a comment here. Your Email address will be kept private.