March 30, 2015

Narrative Evaluation System

by Caroline Kim, Doctor of Pharmacy Candidate, University of Maryland School of Pharmacy 

Years ago, I attended elementary school in South Korea. My report card consisted of a letter grade accompanied by a short narrative from my teachers.  These comments stuck with me more than the grades.  They gave me insight into my performance beyond numbers.  They explained areas where I needed to improve — even if I earned a high grade — and areas where I did well despite a poor grade.  The finality of my letter grades was inescapable, but the comments were a source of motivation for further learning.

The purpose of evaluation in education is to guide student development, promote excellence, aid in defining the successful completion of a program, and provide performance evidence.1  The traditional grading system might be effective in promoting high standards, but it fails to capture abstract details related to student performance. Traditional grading systems also provide little room for feedback to guide the future learning process.  I would argue that there is a need for a more effective method of evaluation beyond numerical and letter ‘grade’ classification systems.

The Narrative Evaluation System (NES) is a nontraditional grading system, which provides constructive feedback on student’s performance using a narrative format.  In construct, NES draws heavily from Walter Fisher’s narrative paradigm theory.The theory states that narration and storytelling are the basis of all human communication. 2  In the NES system, the evaluator takes into account the objectives of the course when evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of a student’s performance.  Like traditional evaluation models, NES also recognizes noteworthy student performance.  In addition, NES encourages cooperation and collaboration by personalizing descriptions of student performance. 3 This helps to promote closer relationships between students and instructors.

NES does have some drawbacks.  NES requires a larger time commitment from educators. 3  In order to summarize student performance into a narrative, educators are required to keep detailed notes on each performance and provide suggestions on how students can improve in the future.  NES explores more dimensions of the evaluation process and educators must devote more time and energy to constructive criticism.  Simply put, NES is more difficult than  the simple categorization required in traditional grading systems.  Even after providing narrative comments, some institutions force educators to use traditional grading systems — allowing a comparison between students using the same grading scale.  The NES system supplements traditional evaluation.3   Students who have been evaluated using the narrative evaluation system often request letter grades — in one study more than two thirds did so.4 The most common reason for requesting letter grades was to understand the narrative evaluation by comparing their performance to grades that they are familiar.4 

Very few studies have analyzed the impact of NES on future success.  One study examined whether graduates from a program that used NES remained competitive when it came to admissions into graduate and professional programs.3 When comparing students who graduated from the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC) — which uses a narrative grading system — with other University of California campuses which assign traditional grades, the investigators found that UCSC students generally performed as well if not better in terms of acceptance rates into graduate and professional schools.3 

In another study, a survey of UCSC students and alumni explored their attitudes towards NES.  The survey respondents indicated they preferred NES because it pointed out strengths and weaknesses, and helped them grow personally and professionally.  They appreciated how NES promoted cooperation, scholarship, and creativity. 4 However, 62% of undergraduate students surveyed and 54% of alumni surveyed reported some quibbles with NES.4 The problems included the length of time it took to receive the narrative, failure to receive a constructive narrative, or evaluations that were similar to and provided little addition information beyond letter grades. 4 Despite these challenges, 82% of undergraduate students and 78% of alumni favored NES over a traditional letter grade.4 

Figure 1. This table summarizes a surveyed undergraduate and alumni opinions of NES.4

Survey Questions
Undergraduate (%)
Alumni (%)
NES influenced decision to attend the school
Favored NES over letter grades
Requested letter grades
Believed NES worked in their favor
Experienced a problem with NES

Another study compared the effect of NES and a conventional grade system on learning and motivation.5  During the study students were asked to perform certain learning tasks during 3 distinct teaching sessions.  Students were randomized to receive either narrative or numerical grades when completing the learning tasks in sessions 1 and 2, and then took a post-test after session 3.5 Results showed that students who received narrative evaluations had the highest post-test performance.  Moreover, traditional grades depressed creativity and weakened student interests in the subject matter.5 

Currently, at least seventeen colleges and universities in United States and Canada use narrative evaluation (NES).  Some have used this system for over fifty years.  NES can guide students in their learning and help them improve on their weaknesses.  The NES model provides a more complete picture of the student and helps students to distinguish themselves as individuals.  Although it may be time-consuming, educators should consider implementing NES – perhaps in conjunction with traditional grades — to enhance the learning process. 

  1. Hanson J, Rosenber A, Lane L.Narrative Descriptions should Replace Grades and NumericalRatings for Clinical Performance in Medical Education in the United States. Frontiers in Psychology.  Nov 2013; 4: 1-10.
  2. Fisher W. The Narrative Paradigm: In the Beginning. Journal of Communication. Dec 1985;35(4): 74-89.
  3. Affirmation of Accreditation Self-Study Report. University of California at Santa Cruz. [Internet].  1994 Nov: 22-29. [cited 2015 Mar 8].
  4. Wong M. Assessment and Evaluation of Past and Present Student Attitudes toward the UC Santa Cruz Narrative Evaluation System. University of California at Santa Cruz. [Internet]. 1992 Jun. [cited 2015 Mar 9]
  5. Butler R,Nisan M. Effects of no Feedback, Task-related Comments, and Grades on Intrinsic Motivation and Performance. Journal of Educational Psychology. Jun 1986; 78(3): 210-216.

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