ASCD Whole Child Bloggers

How Narrative Feedback Can Crush the ABCs

Post written by Mark Barnes, a veteran teacher and national presenter. His new book on what he calls a Results Only Learning Environment will be published by ASCD in 2013. Connect with Barnes by e-mail at This post was originally featured in ASCD Express.

The argument about the value of grades is one that continually vexes many teachers and administrators. Once educators agree that grades do more harm than good, the debate typically turns to a discussion about what is an appropriate replacement for them. "Study after study has found that students—from elementary school to graduate school, and across cultures—demonstrate less interest in learning as a result of being graded" (Kohn, 1999). How, then, does assessment exist without numbers and letters?

The answer is a simple tool that teachers have used for decades: narrative feedback. Providing students with both verbal and written feedback is an underused strategy for formally evaluating mastery learning. When educators use feedback, it typically accompanies grades when it should replace them.

Some educators understand the value of feedback as a tool for learning—not just for assessment. Hattie and Timperly (2007), write "Feedback is among the most critical influences on student learning. A major aim of the educative process is to assist in identifying these gaps ('How am I going?' relative to 'Where am I going?') and to provide remediation in the form of alternative or other steps ('Where to next?')." This connection between where students are headed in learning and how to get there is where meaningful narrative feedback plays a paramount role.

Feedback Versus Points

To thoroughly understand the effect of feedback in place of number or letter grades, let's begin by considering one large activity or project a teacher assigns. A traditional classroom might have 1,000 points in a grading period; the large project may comprise 200 of these points, or 20 percent of the final grade. Assume that a student completes the project and scores 70, which is good for a C, and the teacher moves to the next unit of study.

Not so fast. What if the points and letter are eliminated? Instead, the teacher gets feedback from students throughout the project, and the teacher responds with detailed narrative feedback during the work and after its completion. Each time a student receives oral or written feedback, she returns to a prior lesson and makes changes or additions to the project to meet any learning outcomes she may have missed. Feedback provides a legitimate opportunity for mastery learning.

Feedback in Action

Two-way narrative feedback leads to real learning, while eliminating the punitive effect of number and letter grades. Hattie and Timperly (2007), say that "If feedback is directed at the right level, it can assist students to comprehend, engage, or develop effective strategies to process the information intended to be learned." In the following example, I've given a student written feedback after a two-minute oral presentation about a book he read. Note how this simple feedback indicates which outcomes he meets and those that he still needs to master:

"I like the reading selection because it's suspenseful, but you need to practice it and read it with more enthusiasm. You provided good summary information, but I'm still not sure how much you've read, based on the details you provide. I like the endorsement, especially how you mention the movie scenes."

This student added the additional detail to the summary of his next "book commercial," which indicated his improved reading comprehension. A short conversation prior to his second presentation reminded him of what he needed to do based on my earlier written feedback. His next presentation was nearly perfect, and no points, percentages, or letters were necessary.

Narrative feedback creates mastery learning and is a powerful tool that can easily replace grades and their punitive effect on student learning.



Hattie, J., & Timperly, H. (2011). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81–112. DOI: 10.3102/003465430298487

Kohn, A. (1999, March). From degrading to de-grading. High School Magazine, 6(5), 38–43.

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