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No-Grade Colleges Encourage Hard Work

Bellesi Barbara | January 12, 2010

shutterstock_18561961 In yesterday’s blog, I gave a shout-out to Evergreen State College, known not only for its most famous alum (“The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening) but also for its grading system—or lack thereof. That’s right—Evergreen State is one of a handful of colleges and universities in the U.S. that offers written faculty evaluations rather than traditional letter grades for the completion of coursework.

But don’t think that a gradeless system contributes to a campus full of slackers. In fact, much the opposite is true. Schools that opt for a written evaluation system often find that students work harder, because without the stress of a letter grade hanging over their heads each semester, students find that they enjoy learning for the sake of learning. Just ask Bridgette Mongeon, who earned her degree from Vermont College Union Institute, a school that offers written evaluations rather than traditional transcripts.

“It is my opinion that in this type of learning, you really do more than is expected of you,” she wrote in an email to CBN. “It is important to state that student-driven learning is not for everyone . . . I am a perpetual learner and find the search for knowledge extremely stimulating. It is important to note that with that hunge,r I must guide my own studies to be pertinent to my future.” It’s a plan that apparently works for Mongeon—she is now pursuing her graduate degree at Goddard College, also in Vermont and which also does not have a traditional grading system.

In the place of awarding a letter grade, faculty members at certain schools are required to write a page-long evaluation of each student’s performance. In some cases, like at Evergreen State, the student is also required to write a self-evaluation of their own progress in the subject area.

Other colleges that choose narrative evaluations over letter grades are Hampshire College in Massachusetts, Antioch University in Ohio, and the New College of Florida, which does not offer credit hours, but rather a “contract” made between faculty members and their students that clearly explains the requirements needed to successfully complete a course. First-year students at Harvey Mudd College in California are graded on a pass-fail basis, which allows them to settle into the rigors of college-level work without the stress of GPA just yet.

Critics of the no-grade system say that the lack of a traditional evaluation can contribute to lazy students, but proponents are firm in their belief that without letter grades, students feel freer to explore different subjects and get the most out of their coursework.

Maeve MacSteves, a graduate of Evergreen State, says that her professors’ honest feedback in her written evaluations could sometimes be “tough to hear,” but considers it a positive experience on the whole. In an email, she wrote, “I think [evaluations are] an amazing system, although as a college instructor now myself, I can’t imagine finding the time to do a good job for every student in every class.”

While the written evaluations seem great in their own context—specifically the college at which they are distributed—they are still received with some hesitation by other colleges (for graduate or transfer applications) and by employers who are looking for a specific minimum GPA among their applicants. It’s not that they doubt the validity of such degrees and transcripts, but there is still a lot of comfort in tradition.

Are you applying/heading off to a college that has a non-traditional grading system? Post a comment or question below.

–Barbara Bellesi

File Under: General

1 Comment

  • Thanks for the great article. I would also like to state that the two colleges that I have been involved with are regionally accredited colleges. I think some people think that no grades somehow equals a false education. That is not the case. The program at Vermont College originally came from Goddard and has been around since the 60’s. Also Goddard does allow you to petition for traditional transcripts that will accompany your narrative transcripts

    Thanks for a great article. May others find the joy and excitement in this type of learning that I have!