Have degree classifications lost their usefulness?

Some years ago I was an external examiner at another university. At the examiners’ meeting for the programmes I was reviewing, I noticed (and commented upon) the extraordinarily narrow range in which results were being recorded. Nearly three-quarters of the students were being awarded a mark between 56 and 63 (out of 100), which suggested that the overwhelming majority of the students were of almost equal ability. But actually, this was not so, and the meeting included fierce debates and disagreements about whether students should come above or below the dividing line of 60 per cent (where a 2.1 begins), with the suggestion being that there was a major difference in terms of intellectual ability and analytical achievement between 58 and 60. But then again, whether a student had reached 60 initially was determined not by a careful assessment of their intellectual performance, but purely by mathematics: the result of averaging out the overall marks recorded, first within papers and then between papers.

This seemed to me to be a bizarre way of recording the results, and a less than robust method of sending the students on their way with a certificate that, to most (and employers in particular), seemed to be an objective and considered statement of their ability, but which in reality was something rather short of that. I said as much.

In fact, in pretty well every university in which I have been involved in examining, internally or externally, similar doubts presented themselves. I should emphasise straight away that every academic I have known takes examining and grading really seriously, and all are aware of the impact their assessment can make. But as a profession we have had to tread uneasily in a system that suggests we have an objective and exact way of measuring performance but also knows well enough that almost everything we decide, at least on the borderlines, is highly arguable.

So should we abandon the whole thing? That’s what has been suggested in an article in the Guardian by Professor Nigel Seaton of the University of Surrey. He points out how the numbers game in exam marking has produced all sorts of distortions that are applied by examiners (largely so as not to damage students in their careers), and argues that it would make much more sense to abandon the marks and grades and instead provide students with a proper transcript that contains a reasoned assessment of their abilities and performance.

Doing this would have the added benefit of removing the charge of grade inflation; if there are no grades, they cannot be inflated. It seems to me that the time is right for this reform.

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10 Comments on “Have degree classifications lost their usefulness?”


  1. […] “Some years ago I was an external examiner at another university. At the examiners’ meeting for the programmes I was reviewing, I noticed (and commented upon) the extraordinarily narrow range in which results were being recorded …” (more) […]

  2. Vincent Says:

    At the end of my first year at UCG the highest mark I got was 68 in Philosophy. I happened to be speaking to the then Dean of Arts -mature students were encouraged to do that- mentioning that it seemed pointless progressing to 2nd year as obviously I wasn’t up to it. When I gave him the numbers together with my reasoning he released a guffaw.
    You see the marking system isn’t in the student info pack. And as first in family mature students neither school or family is there to provide it either.
    All in all, you have to wonder if the system in Ireland, Scotland or Wales provide instruction to get from 80 on.

  3. kevin denny Says:

    A unilateral decision to abandon grades (by a university or even a country’s universities) could put their graduates, particularly the good ones, at a disadvantage. Employers might think “Well I can judge UK graduates easily but these Irish guys, I don’t know”.
    But I am not convinced that it is a good idea anyway and its similar to the arguments about any rating system: they are not perfect but they contain useful information. Somebody with a 1st is generally better than someone with a 2.1, very likely better than a 2.2 etc.

  4. Jilly Says:

    “…it would make much more sense to abandon the marks and grades and instead provide students with a proper transcript that contains a reasoned assessment of their abilities and performance.”

    The problem with this is that it would require at least one (preferably more than that) lecturer in the department to know the student and their intellectual abilities really well by graduation, which they are not in a position to do.

    I’m not being facetious here – it’s already a long time since staff/student ratios have allowed lecturers to truly know their students, and this is only going to get worse, not better. As it is, in most cases lecturers only know the very best and very worst students who they teach. That great mass in the middle (the 2:1 and 2:2 brigade, in fact) are a blur. As small-group teaching/seminars become a forgotten luxury, they’ll be even more of a blur.

    I don’t know Professor Seaton, and I’m sure he’s a model of dedication and commitment, but I’d still be intrigued to hear how many of his students he’s able to discuss in detail, in terms of their abilities and achievements?

  5. Al Says:

    “Jonnie has been a committed student and will make a fine engineer. I know him through his rugby where he was a our star player. As manager of the university rugby team I have seen his commitment and knowing his parents…”
    Etc.

  6. Jacco Says:

    If I read the article correctly it does not recommend getting rid of numerical grades for individual modules. Rather, the summary of all those marks into one single class should be abolished. There seems to be a lot of merit in that (in fact, the British Isles seem rather unique in having such a system). If one really wants a summary without looking at the transcript why not simple
    y compute the grade-point average and the standard deviation? Or the grade-point average and the quantile in which the student’s score falls?

  7. cormac Says:

    I object to the word reform! How do you know the suggested system will be better, not worse? Why do educationalists always assume this? Where is the evidence?

  8. Mary B Says:

    You don’t exactly get a grade with postgrad qualifications although you can have pass with merit/distinction. WhY not adopt that sysyem for undergrad: pass/ pass with merit/pass with distinction? I’ve never seen the point of 2:1/2.2 distinction anyway and years ago some unis didn’t have it – it was just 3,2 or 1 or pass/merit/distinction. I’m not sure that all employers take it terribly seriously anyway – I suspect they are concerned about other attainments which might not be academically measurable..


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