Balancing the formative and summative in narrative evaluations.

Inclusive Teaching Tip | Fall 2020

Narrative evaluations are one of the unique elements of studying at Evergreen. Narrative evaluations provide a summative evaluation of student learning at the end of a quarter or program. They also provide formative assessment of a student’s work. The formative aspect of this assessment is a critical part of a feedback loop that provides the recipient with some actionable information about their performance they can use in the future. Drafting effective narratives that balance summative evaluation with formative feedback can be tricky. The following advice can help.

Anchor to shared goals

The inherent value of a narrative evaluation is the flexibility to speak directly to an individual’s growth and performance. This flexibility can present challenges. If the narrative is too wide ranging, it can be difficult for the learner to interpret and thus limit their ability to take action to continue learning. Analyzing growth and performance according to a set of established learning goals (e.g., your program goals or the six expectations) helps the student anchor the feedback in a framework that is familiar to them.

Critique compassionately with examples

The value of a narrative evaluation is to identify for the learner where they have been successful and where they can improve. Strive to balance these in your narrative. Only speaking to the successes, leaves the student without clarity about how they can take their learning to the next level or may communicate that there is nothing left for them to explore or develop. On the other hand, an evaluation that over-emphasises lack of progress can communicate that there isn’t much they can do to succeed and can be demotivating. Show the student what success looks like by including examples of when they’ve been successful. Motivate the learner by concretely describing steps they can make to improve when they weren’t.

Shift evaluation from comparison to growth

When writing narrative evaluations for a group of students, you are likely going to want to lean on some adjectives that help you compare work or skills across the students in your course or program. The comparison is natural and unavoidable. Knowing how they compare to others can be motivating to individuals with a performance orientation to goal achievement. For others, however, this feedback can lead to performance avoidance to escape being judged in comparison to others. In both cases, the feedback rarely helps a learner understand how to achieve the learning goals. Instead of using descriptors that comparatively describe performance (e.g., poor, good, excellent), shift to descriptors (e.g., emergent, developing, mastery) that help students understand where they are developmentally in terms of knowledge attainment or skill development. (The example rubric below demonstrates one example)

Create a legend

Save yourself time and provide clarity to your students by creating a legend that explains the meaning behind the adjectives you use to make judgements about students’ learning or work.For example, consider the following rubric. This rubric was developed for students in a general chemistry course but could be adapted to many learning contexts.

MasteryYou have shown that you can critically adapt application of concept or skill to novel or unpredictable contexts. Continue to challenge yourself by considering how this concept or skill could help you understand other aspects of the world around you.
AccomplishedYou have shown the ability to reliably apply concept or skill in known contexts, Seek to explore new approaches to improve your understanding and challenge yourself.
DevelopingYou have demonstrated inconsistent use of the application of the concept or skill. Continue practicing and checking your understanding with peers and expert sources.
EmergingEvidence from your work or performance shows you have made effort towards the learning goals, however, your demonstrated understanding of the concept or skill is insufficient or contains inaccuracies. Return to the readings and assignments to expand your understanding.Seek support from your instructor or a tutor.
ShapelessI am not able to judge your ability from observation or analysis of your work. We need a conversation to determine your next steps.

Write to the context

The narrative evaluation serves many roles for you and the student. Your written evaluation is an important summary of the students progress of the learning and a justification of the credit earned. It is also a piece of the students’ transcript that will be read by external audiences as a chapter in their undergraduate journey that lives long beyond their time in your course or program. Remember both of these contexts when you make choices about detail and language.

Communicate in more than one modality

The written evaluation is important but it is all too easy for the student to ignore it – especially if it comes at the end of a stressful quarter. Building in an opportunity for them to read and respond to it (i.e., the evaluation conference) is a valuable opportunity to process the feedback. It is also a unique opportunity to clarify the action steps the learner can make.Do you have valuable resources for writing narrative evaluations? The Learning and Teaching Commons is building a library of resources to support all aspects of the narrative transcript: narrative evaluations of students, student self-evaluations, the academic statement, and student evaluations of faculty. If you have an advice guide you use with students or another resource you’ve found helpful, please send it to

The Inclusive Teaching Tips are a series of simple, equitable teaching practices published in the Learning and Teaching Commons Newsletter. The tips are archived here.

For many, many more inclusive teaching resources and to add your own, visit ALL LEARNERS WELCOME: Resources for Designing Inclusive Learning Experiences.

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