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.