At St. John’s, the primary virtue is intellectual: an engagement with
the community of learning and individual progress throughout the
course of the program. To evaluate academic standing, then, the
college attempts to assess students based on their actual progress—not
in terms, for instance, of their test-taking proficiency. Tests, there-
fore, are kept to aminimumand consist mostly of occasional quizzes
inmusic, languages, andmathematics, where it is especially impor-
tant to build a foundation for later work. Grades, too, are considered a
distraction from the important work at hand; although tutors record
themand students have access to them for graduate school or transfer
purposes, they are reported to a student only upon request.
Instead of facing the pressure of tests and grades, students
work daily to craft their own education through the details of
demonstrating and translating as well as the give and take
of discussion. Each student is responsible for the teaching and
learning of each class—and because classes are small, tutors
observe each student’s participation and progress on a continual
basis. In all of their classes, students write essays on the works
they are studying. For essays submitted in seminar, oral examina-
tions are conducted by the seminar leaders.
Also at the end of each semester as freshmen, sophomores,
and juniors, each student’s progress is assessed by the student’s
tutors in what is known as a Don Rag, a meeting in which the
student receives assessment of previous work, advice about how to
improve, and an opportunity to discuss what has been said. At the
end of each student’s sophomore year, the college’s Instruction
Committee reviews the first two years of work and decides if the
student is prepared to do the work of the junior and senior years.
The culmination of a student’s undergraduate years is
the senior essay, which leads—after a public oral examination in
which the student and a three-tutor committee discuss the essay—
to the Bachelor of Arts degree.
What is the senior essay?
A work of critical thinking ranging from 20 to 40 pages, the senior essay explores a
question or topic of particular interest to each student, provided it is approved by the
dean. Senior essays draw upon many of the skills acquired at St. John’s—from careful
reading and writing to detailed analysis and persuasive argument.