Can students learn without receiving grades?

Ask yourself: If you didn’t have to worry about grades, would you still take your classes seriously?

I began pondering that subject when I came across an article titled “5 Real College Classes You Should Have Taken.”

Its author, Randall J. Knox, makes a strong case for accounting, constitutional law, art history, international relations and, oddly enough, tennis.

As someone interested in the United States legal system, I’d definitely be up for a constitutional law class. An accounting class, on the other hand, sounds less humane than waterboarding.

I’d never sign up for accounting because I don’t like math, and I don’t like math because I’m bad at it. But Knox points out that the skills learned in a beginner accounting course could be useful not only during tax season, but in that “real world” everyone always talks about.

“Even if your position has nothing to do with the finances of your company,” Knox writes, “you make yourself a lot more valuable simply by being able to read a balance sheet.”

However, any notion of taking such a class flies out the window when I remember one crucial, anxiety-inducing factor: grades. An accounting class would kill my GPA.

In an alternate universe where the traditional grading scale doesn’t exist, I might enroll in Accounting 101. I’d attend every session because I’ve chosen to take this class even though I’m not required to. I’d do the absolute best I could and ask for help on assignments and probably cost fictional companies millions of dollars as a result of my ignorance.

I wouldn’t worry about a final grade. Instead, I’d worry about taking away as much as possible from the course.
At the end of the semester, I’d receive detailed written feedback from my professor. Ideally, it would show that, despite my abysmal math, I improved greatly in my conceptual understanding. Anyone who read my evaluation would realize how hard I’d worked.

Turns out there’s a name for that type of academic-performance measurement: narrative evaluation.

Furthermore, 10 colleges around the country utilize narrative evaluations exclusively. They’re mostly small, four-year private liberal arts colleges – Bennington College in Bennington, Vt.; Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass.; and Reed College in Portland, Ore., to name a few.

Hampshire’s website directly addresses its unique grading system.

“Our narrative evaluation system eliminates competition, enhancing Hampshire’s collaborative learning community,” the website says. “Graduate schools and employers appreciate Hampshire’s comprehensive narrative transcript, which offers a level of detail not reflected on traditional transcripts.”

I’m not suggesting that Gannon University ditch its grading scale in favor of narrative evaluations – at least not altogether. It might be a good idea for electives, though.

Without having to worry about their GPA, students might sign up for classes that actually challenge them, particularly those outside their major.

They might learn something just for the sake of learning it. Shouldn’t that be the purpose of higher education?

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