Students earn degrees without grades

BadGradeswebBy Carrie Garrison | Student Columnist

Colleges without letter grades? Some innovative colleges believe students learn more when they’re motivated to learn knowledge for the sake of learning, rather than for a letter grade. According to the Huffington Post, seven colleges in the United States don’t record grades; including Hampshire College and Evergreen State College. This innovative education is quite the change because the grading system has been engrained in students since middle school. That looming black ink in the shape of the “A”, “B”, “C”, or that dreaded “D”, or “F” determined your future. However, this system created a level of incentive for students. How can a college with no grades, and therefore no incentive to work hard, create the successful college leaders of tomorrow?

Hampshire College, in Amherst, Mass., has embraced the no-numbers system of innovative education. According to Hampshire’s website, the college was founded to “reexamine the assumptions and practices of liberal arts education.” Hampshire places an emphasis on multidisciplinary learning and students’ curiosity and self-motivation. The school’s unique approach has landed it a spot on the list of “Colleges That Change Lives,” published in 1998 in the NY Times.

Melanie Chitwood, a sophomore at Hampshire College, explained the college’s unique evaluation system.

“At Hampshire, instead of getting grades we get narrative written evaluations,” she said. Semesters at Hampshire consist of the normal course work such as worksheets, reading and homework.

“Typically in your courses you have a thesis, long paper, or long term project you’re working on and do that instead of an exam.” Hampshire doesn’t believe in tests or numbers of any kind. “There are no tests at Hampshire . . . when you get a worksheet back they mark what you got wrong . . . If you got nine out of ten questions right it doesn’t transfer to a grade.” The narrative evaluation at the end of the course is a culmination of a student’s self-evaluation, the course work assigned for the class and the final assignment.

“At the end of each semester you write a self-evaluation. . . and he writes a paragraph or two about your performance,” Chitwood said. This system is extremely helpful to the student, as shown by Hampshire’s notable alumni. These include successful playwrights, like Naomi Wallace, who just won the Donald Windham-Sandy M. Campbell Literature Prize.

Hampshire’s unique multidisciplinary education allows their students time to design their concentration course of study. Students propose their plan their second year and decide which courses to take to best accomplish their goals. By designing their concentration, students take control of their education and their future. At the end of their four years, Hampshire students complete an independent project that encompasses all four years of study. In this way, no course is a waste and all classes have been working towards this end project.

Hampshire undoubtedly allows their students to learn differently.

Chitwood explains how Hampshire’s system has helped her think about education differently, “I don’t think education should be about being better than your peers, it should be about becoming a better person and becoming a more intelligent person.” Sometimes in the sea of numbers and letters, students get too caught up in the competition among peers.

At Hampshire, they create a non-competitive environment, free from numbers and full of room to flourish, where each student can grow as a scholar, “It’s not about being smarter than your class; it’s about working as hard as you can and proving to your professors that you really did learn and that you are able to apply what you learned.” Instead of cramming for one test, Hampshire gives their students room to learn at their own pace and to really understand the information.

Melanie loves Hampshire and their progressive education: “What’s great about having the evaluation is that it’s more informative than getting a letter grade . . . it’s better to hear ‘this is what you did really well at’ and ‘this is what you need to work on.’” The professors at Hampshire know each student very well because of their small class sizes. Chitwood’s professor gave her advice for her future in her narrative evaluation, “He talked about me as a writer and where I was heading and told me what I could read and study to help me get there.” Instead of just receiving a letter or a number at the end of the course, Chitwood was able to learn from her course, and her professor was able to promote her future learning.

Since leaving high school, and letter grades, behind, Melanie has seen a flaw in the grading system of other schools. While learning for a grade didn’t inhibit Melanie from learning, she says that Hampshire “promotes a different kind of learning.”

Some students, even at Duquesne, believe that general education courses, or courses outside of their major, are not applicable to their future. At Hampshire, because of the self-evaluation and no-numbers system “It makes everything you learn applicable to what you’re doing.” No education is a waste, and Hampshire students understand that every course they take can prepare them for their future.

Hampshire College isn’t the only college that supports innovative education. Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington, believes in a conscientious, no-numbers liberal arts education that supports learning for the sake of learning.

Gustavo Sampaio, a student at Evergreen State College feels that innovative education has benefitted his learning. “This kind of learning gives the student the opportunity to find intrinsic ways to reward himself for his work — it is about learning for the sake of learning.” Similar to Hampshire, students at Evergreen State College chose an “area of emphasis” and are not required to take any general education courses. Sampaio compiles Evergreen’s philosophy flawlessly, “The result is pretty simple: you make what you want of your undergraduate experience. The resources are all there, you can choose to take them or not.”

Innovative education is a new idea that may seem radical, at first, but after further investigation becomes appealing. In a school with numbers, letters and a competitive environment between students, education can quickly become about a score and not about the love of learning.

Comic by Courtney Downing/ the Duquesne Duke

Carrie Garrison is a sophomore Violin performance major and can be reached at