University degree classifications: saying goodbye to borderline cases?

If you haven’t heard about the degree classification system, ‘grade-point average’ (GPA), then I suspect you are about to. It is used in the United States, Canada, Australia and elsewhere, and represents a different way of determining course outcomes; it is based on a mathematical calculation representing average marks for each grade. For example, if you get an ‘A’ you get 4 points (doing away with the attempt to capture numerically whether you were at the top, middle or lower end of the ‘A’ scale). In this part of the world we are used to differentiating between students getting marks, for example, of 62 and 68, though both are recorded as a 2.1. Our system creates impossibly complex discussions about borderline cases, based in part on the apparently real belief that you can tell the difference between 67 and 68 and can allow that difference to affect a degree classification outcome.

Now a number of English universities have announced that they may adopt the GPA method of determining degree results. According to a report in Times Higher Education, a Vice-Provost of one of these institutions, University College London, has explained the reason behind the proposed change as follows:

‘We’ve got a classification system that essentially divides the world of undergraduates into two tribes – those with a 2:1 and above and those with a 2:2 and below. That’s not helpful.’

It is probably time to look again at how we record learning outcomes in universities. In that sense at least it is useful that some universities have taken the initiative to try something different; their doing so may spark some necessary debate and, perhaps, reform.

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12 Comments on “University degree classifications: saying goodbye to borderline cases?”

  1. James Says:

    A great idea; take the current circumstances at most Scottish universities, AAAABBCC entails a distinction for the year; a GPA of 5.25 (based on RGU average grades), whilst a yearly result of AAABBBBB ( a GPA of 5.375) ends in a result of a ‘normal’ degree, less than the distinction for a greater GPA. Fair? Many don’t think so.

  2. Fred Says:

    I don’t think this will be more helpful. For example with the GPA adoption the 2:1 “cut-off” will be replaced with a 3 (GPA)…

    • brian t Says:

      It’s 3.07, actually – at least, that’s what University College Dublin guidelines say. A student graduating from UCD has both a GPA and a degree classification. The challenge now is to get _employers_ to look at GPA, instead of cutting off applicants on the basis of a 2:1 vs a 2:2. As things stand, all it takes is one bad elective to ruin a potential career, and that is simply bad business for the employer too.

      • jfryar Says:

        Brian, you say that, but many employers specifically ask for subjects taken and results in each subject.

        • brian t Says:

          I don’t have a problem with that – preferable to GPA alone, which is in turn better than the simple degree classification. Every year I see people asking “which are the easy electives?”, the ones that can boost a GPA without requiring much work. I was replying to the point made in the , about the 2:1 / 2:2 divide.

      • Wendymr Says:

        all it takes is one bad elective to ruin a potential career

        That’s precisely my problem with the GPA system. A student could get straight As in every subject but fall to a B in just one… and doesn’t get the top grade as a result. (Okay, there’s an element of sour grapes in there, as my GPA for a postgraduate professional qualification is 3.975 as a result of one course where the instructor and I fundamentally disagreed about the learning content). However, a student with that kind of GPA could easily be an all-round better student – perhaps grades well above 70 in some of those A-grade subjects – than one who did manage to scrape As in all subjects – possibly because of taking ‘easier’ electives. The current degree classification system will reflect that; the GPA system does not because it requires all or nothing.


  3. Whereas GPA is more precise for overall grades, changing from numeric results o grades for individual subjects/modules reduces accuracy. We have generally known that if we gave someone 68% it meant that they were probably worth 68% +/- 3-5%. If we were to take that number and fit it into a grade that spanned between 60 and 70, we would be stating that they were worth 65%+/- 5%, which is similar in precision but has introduced an inaccuracy. This is quite a technical issue and I find that a lot of people have opinions on this who know very little about measurement and statistics.

    • jfryar Says:

      Brian, I completely agree. What I find particularly worrying is grade inflation – it’s well documented that students’ grades have been increasing. If you introduce GPA you not only broaden the marking but, if inflation continues, you also now inflate that problem massively by banding grades together to give a single point.


    • Brian, your comment is predicated on the assumption that it is really possible to distinguish accurately between, say, 63 and 68. I don’t believe that at all, and years of examining (both internally an externally) have convinced me of that. Indeed I think I have spent days of my life, in aggregate, following totally bogus but passionate disputes about grading as a result.

      • jfryar Says:

        Ferdinand, I could very easily set a physics question along the lines of a particle has this mass, this charge, in this magnetic field, now work out the acceleration and force. Therefore with many science and engineering questions it is fully possible to be very precise about the mark you award because there’s no ambiguity or room for interpretation.

  4. Eddie Says:

    Grades like B and B+ should be allowed . Before jumping into import American grading system ( I worked in both sides of the pond), a few changes are necessary-the acaddemic ( professor) must be free to define syllabus as a framework rather than to the details, and not as a central validated stuff, should be allowed freedom to teach topics, and all subjects have exams weighted down in favour of continuous assessments, and exam papers not containing essay type of questions in sciences. Students in US, pick professors who give A grades generously, and the grader is a graduate employed for the purpose, and many professors I know rarely supervise them.
    The system looks sound but can be abused besides having problems of subjectivity. BTW, there is divide there too-straight As ( students will shoot to get As if necessary) and the others. Do we have academic independence here, like they have over in US even in academic matters of defining a syllabus and dlivering it without the Quality Department ( the only growth department in most modern univetsities here!). coming down heavily. .


  5. “I don’t believe that at all, and years of examining (both internally an externally) have convinced me of that. Indeed I think I have spent days of my life, in aggregate, following totally bogus but passionate disputes about grading as a result.”

    That may be your belief, Ferdinand. I believe otherwise. As academics we know that beliefs are of very little use to us. We need some evidence here. I presume that you as an academic do know the difference between precision and accuracy. This is particularly important when we start using rubrics or breaking down an assessment into very small chunks that we believe that we can measure quite accurately.


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