Posted tagged ‘examining’

Have degree classifications lost their usefulness?

April 19, 2011

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.

Could (or should) we separate teaching and examining?

June 12, 2010

The new British Universities Minister, David Willetts, has suggested in a speech at Oxford Brookes University that there might be advantages in allowing new institutions to enter the higher education market to offer programmes that would then be examined by other (older) universities with ‘an established exam brand with global recognition’.

The major idea behind this suggestion appears to be the desire to admit new institutions into higher education. These would be able to establish themselves more quickly by linking to examinations (and, presumably, the syllabus) of highly reputable existing universities. This would be an extension, presumably, of the franchising of degree programmes that has been a feature of British higher education for the past decade or more. The new model would separate teaching and examining in a way that is similar to the secondary school system.

I confess I don’t find it easy to see the point of such a proposal. Restructuring the higher education sector in such a way that new colleges do service teaching for older universities (who then examine the outputs) does not seem to me to solve any of the various problems facing the sector right now. In any case, a proliferation of higher education providers with a teaching-only agenda may create its own quality assurance issues.

I suspect we all need to think again at how we can re-imagine university teaching to allow it to cope with the new resourcing environment. But I have serious doubts whether this proposal is the answer.

Academic outsourcing

April 12, 2010

As the higher education scene changes ever more, with budget cuts and efficiency drives on the one hand, and increasing numbers on the other, we may start to see new initiatives that will startle at least some people. Here’s one. As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, at the University of Houston they have outsourced some of the grading of student papers to a private company with employees spread across the globe (but mainly in Asia). The company, or its staff, mark and grade the papers and provide the feedback (by email or online) to the student. According to the university and the company, this improves the efficiency of the process, the timeliness and detail of the student feedback, and the appropriate use of resources.

Of course what disappears here – and forgetting for a moment about all the other objections likely to be raised in universities in this part of the world – is the personal interaction between student and tutor on an ongoing basis. The university becomes the procurer of student assessment rather than the owner of it.

I confess that I cannot see how this could be done within any framework of quality and student care with which I am familiar. But I also recognise the issues put forward by the University of Houston and by the company – the over-burdening of staff in these budget-cutting times, and often the inadequacy of feedback given to students. At any rate a measure such as this should prompt us to look again at how well we are still able to provide student support of the kind to which we would like to be committed. Maybe we simply cannot any longer provide higher education in the traditional mode. If so, it is as well to admit it, even if we do not go down this particular road in solving the problem – as I certainly would not.