A question of standards

One of my more recent posts – on the issue of grade inflation at universities – prompted quite a lively discussion. The argument, if I can call it that, was about whether a trend of higher grades implied a lowering of standards. My own view was that there was no such necessary implication, and that at least some of the evidence pointed the other way; others disagreed.

Without wanting to continue that particular discussion in a new post, I do however want to raise an important issue: if we say that standards have either gone up or down, how can we tell? And what, moreover, do we mean when we talk about ‘standards’? Can these be identified at all in any reliable way? Are the something objective that can be determined scientifically, or are they subjective?

These are important questions, because ultimately our standards determine the quality of what we do. There has been a tendency to measure quality by assessing processes and methodologies, but ultimately that is unsatisfactory. Our quality should be determined by substance, not process. But what substance? As the debate here has shown, examination results and grades alone cannot be sufficient. But if that is not what we would use, what else is there?

I am not in this post going to suggest an answer, though I may do so in a later one. My main purpose in raising this issue here is to see whether the readers here have any views on this. It is probably one of the most important issues the university sector needs to address right now, and some feedback (particularly from current or former students) would be extremely valuable.

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4 Comments on “A question of standards”

  1. Tadhg Leane Says:

    I fully agree with the distinction between process (i.e. the old reliable metrics of academic standards grades and degree classification) and substance. The relevance and currency of grades is confined largely to the academic world and many employers struggle to translate these into relevant graduate skills profiles. Debate has taken place in a number of fora with regard to the need for a more work-place friendly classification of qualifications. One proposal is that the graduate would get a rating under a number of skills headings such as “interpersonal skills”, “management skills”, “technical skills”, etc.

  2. John Says:

    To go some way towards identifying whether standards have depreciated would the obvious answer not to dig out the old exam booklets and compare them with the current exam booklets in sections where comparisons can be made? Obviously only like can be compared with like and I do realise that over the years there has been more emphasis placed on certain aspects such as continuous assessment and also one would have to allow for the re-structuring of exam papers.
    Admittedly I do not know the extent of what remains to be compared but I would assume that quite a good deal can be assessed from comparing how a student achieved an A a B or a C in any given section from years gone by and how a student now achieves comparable scores. This would at least indicate whether the marks awarded in comparable sections have increased because students might now be better conditioned than previously as suggested as a possible reason by Ferdinand von Prondzinski in a previous post.

    I would imagine that this kind of approach is already being adopted and would be interested to hear if there has been a marked improvement in the quality of answers in those courses accused of having inflated results or whether “blame” for the inflation can be attributed to the non-exam elements of particular modules exclusively. This would also be a much needed move towards qualitative research in this area.

  3. Barry Says:

    To me, one very reliable way of measuring standards in a course would be the workload that the course involves. As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently completed an MA. In the first semester of this course, I had just 8 hours of classes per week and in the second semester, a ridicuous 4 hours per week. I estimate that for each hour of class time, there was another hour of independent work/study. For a course that was classed as full-time, this is a joke.

    In addition to that, the credit system in the course made no sense i.e. the credit weighting for all taught modules was the same, even though some modules lasted one semester and some lasted two.

    There was also poor organisation, confusion over allocation of marks within modules etc, etc.

    One thing I noticed during my time in unversity (particularly during my MA) – and maybe this is more of a problem in Arts/humanities courses than others -was the complete lack of objective standards within courses of study. I think that every module and course should have clear aims, i.e. what should a student know or be able to do after he/she has completed this course?, what job prospects are open to graduates?, or more generaly, what function does this course fulfil? If questions like these cannot be answered, a course shouldn’t exist. And I really believe that if Arts type courses were subjected to this kind of basic analysis, most of them would be scrapped.

    As for quality assurance, I don’t have much faith in it. The MA I completed, along with other MA programmes in that university, recently underwent an external quality review procedure. The results were disappointing. Although some of my criticisms were reflected in the comments of the review team, I think they didn’t go nearly far enough. The review team seemed extremely reluctant to honestly address inadequecies within the courses. In such reviews, there is a tendency to over-rely on student feedback, which can be dangerous because it is quite possible that, if pursuing a course where standards are low, students will not complain and will in fact praise the course and their lecturers. Again, as I mentioned above, objective standards are very important here, but are unfortunately completely lacking.

    I often think it would be extremely revealing if students in third-level instsitutions were asked as part of the feedback procedure to estimate the amount of time spent on coursework. But unfortunately, I can’t see this happening because the results might be too shocking!

  4. cormac Says:

    In an interesting experiemnt, a group at Bristol University have been setting the same entrance exam in Maths for three decades – apparently the standard of answers from entrants has been deceasing steadily, year on year…

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