Not making the grade?
It is possible to argue that, whatever those of us in the lecturing profession might think or might like to think, from a student point of view the purpose of participating in a university degree programme is to get the degree – the unit of currency for initial career advancement. In fact, it is not just the degree, but the grade recorded. So for many jobs now, the assumption is that students really need to get a First Class degree if they are to stand any chance of employment in the more sought after jobs.
It is often suggested – and this has been discussed in this blog – that over recent years there has been noticeable grade inflation, with students receiving objectively unmerited marks and with ever larger numbers bunched up near the top of the grade heap. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I am not convinced that this ‘inflation’ is unrelated to performance or merit, but even so it is clear that the spread of marks is not as extensive as it used to be, whatever the reasons. This may prejudice the utility of marks or grades as a tool of differentiation between graduates of different levels of ability.
So is the system of grading no longer useful? Some think so, and most recently Professor Jonathan Wolff of University College London has suggested in the Guardian newspaper that we should give all that up:
‘I’m coming to the conclusion that we should simply issue students with transcripts to record their study, and leave it at that. ‘
Of course there is a whole school of thought that competitive grading of achievement is wrong anyway, and that nobody should be encouraged to think of themselves as more able than anyone else. This is how the issue has been considered in school education:
‘Here are two concrete things teachers can do. First, even if they’re forced to give students a grade at the end of the term, they should avoid putting a number or letter on individual assignments. This helps to make grades as invisible as possible for as long as possible – and therefore minimizes the harm they do when students are thinking about them. Second, teachers can help neutralize the destructive effects of grades – and support students’ autonomy at the time same — by allowing students to participate in deciding what grade they’ll get at the end.’
Seen this way, degrees would become certificates of attendance rather than performance. And as we are moving speedily away from concepts of physical attendance, given the technological alternatives or more generally lower levels of inclination to turn up, they may not be much more than the confirmation that the period of registration for a course has come to an end without the student deliberately dropping out in between. What we need to consider is whether that is sufficient. I’m afraid I don’t think so.