Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on the SRQMagazine.com’s Saturday Perspectives Edition on Saturday Oct. 12, 2019
By Miriam Wallace
Written performance evaluations are what you get everywhere except school — so why are we so in love with letter grades? We’ve introduced grades for restaurants (A equals no health code violations, and who wants to eat at a “C”?!) and candidates for Congress (who regularly boast about their “A” rating from lobbying groups that showcase their political credentials).
But would you really want to use grades in any place you work to evaluate your own or your colleagues’ work? As a manager would you prefer a flat grading system over one that requires consideration of multiple factors in evaluating an employee? How about as an employee?
Imagine, you have one coworker who is a great leader, but who sometimes struggles to work as a team member under a different leadership style. Another co-worker is a great collaborator and fun to work with, but much better if someone else sets the agenda and defines the goals. Which one gets the A? What if one is a real self-starter, seeing things that need to happen and good at getting attention to those problems. The other is great at taking a problem off to a corner, working it over and coming back with a great solution, but not particularly facile around a meeting table. Is one of these a C? Or do you put your project teams together to draw on their different strengths or to try to help each improve weak spots?
New College of Florida was one of several institutions of higher education that tried out a “narrative evaluation” system back in the heady days of educational reform that were the 1960s, when “relevance” and “process, not product” became watch words. Other institutions that began with narrative evaluations have moved to a hybrid form (a written evaluation with either an optional or an additional letter grade), or have given up all together on the time-consuming work of writing evaluations. Grade Point Average may matter for the small subset of graduates who plan to apply to doctoral or premed programs, but not so much for most kinds of employment. And of course, GPA is prone to inflation, parental pressure, and peer pressure—and it focuses on the end result, not on the improvement and growth along the way. And it doesn’t address weaker areas that the student is still developing.
There are other arguments for the value of a written or face-to-face evaluation, which can better incorporate constructive criticism and targets for improvement. Grades can lead to some troubling behaviors. Colleagues at schools with letter grades share stories every exam period about the student who demanded a chance for extra credit to improve a low grade, who wept in their office because a “B” wasn’t acceptable, or whose parent called the teacher’s supervisor because their child was always an “A” student. With over 25 years of teaching under a narrative evaluation system, I can count on my fingers the number of times students have wept in my office, and it has never been over an evaluation of their work.
But perhaps most relevantly, written and face-to-face performance evaluations are what most employees, particularly white-collar managerial employees, will encounter after graduation. And it is those kinds of careers for which we are preparing our students. I want them to be resilient, flexible, capable of focusing on solving new problems, and responding to a changing world.
So why would we not want our college-age students to move into adulthood with an adult-style evaluation—one that can recognize what someone does well and where improvement is possible? One strong argument then for written “performance evaluations” isn’t simply that they are much better pedagogically if your goal is formative (improvement and reflection) than summative (a definitive score), but also that they foster the kind of self-critical reflection that we all want not only in co-workers, but in colleagues, teammates and friends.
I know I would rather have an honest evaluation of my work — warts and all — than a single letter or number grade. And in fact, that’s what I get as a professor or administrator — a letter from my supervisor and sometimes a face-to-face meeting — not a grade.
— Miriam Wallace is chair of the Humanities division and professor of English and gender studies at New College of Florida.