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February 21, 2000

Debate on NES continues at Convocation on Teaching

By Karin Wanless

The February 14 Convocation on Teaching was centered on the discussion of UCSC's Narrative Evaluation System (NES), with supporters arguing that it promotes "durable understanding" and critics charging that the system has devolved to the point that many narratives are simply "thinly veiled grades."

See article on the upcoming Academic Senate meeting:
Academic Senate asked to consider adopting UC's conventional grading system
The convocation was the final public discussion prior to the February 23 meeting of the Academic Senate, during which the senate will consider adopting a conventional mandatory grading system.

The topic of the sixth annual convocation was "NES and Pedagogy: Are Narrative Evaluations Important to Teaching and Learning at UCSC?" The Center for Teaching Excellence and the Academic Senate's Committee on Teaching cosponsored the convocation.

More than 70 people attended the session, during which five panelists spoke and audience members contributed to the discussion.

"Narratives allow me to evaluate the student's journey through the course rather than as a final outcome," said Carolyn Dean, associate professor of art history, who characterized grades as one-dimensional.

The student representative on the panel, Juan Caballero, said that grades put a barrier between him and his teachers and didn't reward challenging, original approaches to assignments.

Barbara Rogoff, UC Santa Cruz Foundation Professor of Psychology and author of a proposal to streamline the NES, asserted that grades encouraged short-term compliance and rote memorization over depth of understanding. "Our NES promotes deep and durable understanding," she said. With the NES, students see teachers as resources rather than as obstacles, said Rogoff, adding that the NES "fosters students learning from each other and learning to learn."

Rogoff maintained that the NES would greatly benefit the increasing number of students who are the first in their family to go to college. "To pay attention to their strengths and weaknesses in a multidimensional way is important," Rogoff said.

Many students, like undergraduate and Regents Scholar Caballero, said they came to UCSC in part because of the opportunity to learn under the narrative system. He said his experience with traditional grading encumbered his learning process. "The grade hovers over you and gets in the way between you and learning," Caballero said.

But critics of the NES said that narratives have outlived their usefulness at UCSC. The current way narratives are put into practice, they have essentially become "thinly veiled grades" with their use of key words like "very good" and "excellent," said Daniel Guevara, associate professor of philosophy.

Guevara acknowledged that narratives had some positive impacts on student learning, such as students coming into office hours to talk about material rather than the grades they received. But students now demand that their narratives contain key words like "excellent" that are translatable into grades. "We may have something called a NES, but the practice and culture have changed," said Guevara. He said he can provide students with more precise written and verbal feedback throughout the quarter than he can in a narrative.

Anthony Tromba, professor of mathematics, spoke strongly against mandatory evaluations, citing several reasons, including the increasing number of students choosing grades and negative media portrayals of UCSC as "flaky."

"Even if narratives do provide a detailed, clear assessment of student performance, do they give our students a competitive edge in finding employment?" asked Tromba, whose own research into federal hiring practices found that UCSC students are at a serious disadvantage because the federal government will not look at narrative evaluations.

"For narratives to be successful, they must be optional," Tromba said. Indeed, many speakers, even those who support the NES, called for compromises. One suggestion was "shadow" grades in which students would receive a grade-point average but would not have to have it on their transcript--or even see it--unless they chose to do so.

Previous stories on the NES:

Annual Convocation on Teaching will focus on NES (Feb. 14, 2000)

NES forums continue; decision expected at senate meeting
(Jan. 31, 2000)

First 'narratives' forum produces two quite different perspectives (Jan. 24, 2000)

Continuing the discussion of the NES (Jan. 10, 2000)

Senate narrowly postpones vote on narrative evaluations (Dec. 6, 1999)

Proposal to eliminate 'narratives' goes before Academic Senate (Nov. 22, 1999)

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