Posted tagged ‘grades’

HEAR, HEAR?

October 9, 2012

One innovation about to appear in the British higher education scene is the ‘Higher Education Achievement Report’, or HEAR. Essentially, this will be an end-of-year report for each student setting out what the student has covered in her or his degree course and what they have achieved. This will then be handed to the student, who can use it for a variety of purposes, probably in particular when applying for jobs.

While it is inevitable that this document will replace the existing system of degree classifications, some have speculated that, over time, it might eclipse grades. Indeed, in the original report that first proposed the HEAR concept, exactly this outcome was sought:

‘We have designed a development process intentionally so that, as the work progresses, and the HEAR becomes established, the benefits in terms of the richness of information it yields about each individual student will increasingly come to be acknowledged and understood. As a consequence, we intend that the existing degree classification system will decline in importance until it should no longer be considered necessary…’

The expectation that students, employers and others will abandon grades in favour of a general report is probably naive. Grades are too much part of the culture of higher education and recruitment for employment, to mention nothing else, for that to happen. I suspect they will be with us for some time yet. Whether the HEAR concept will however add some colour to the marks is something we may want to observe with interest.

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Not making the grade?

July 17, 2012

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.

Whose grade is it anyway?

November 23, 2010

One of the key performance indicators of higher education is the grade given to a student as part of the examination or assessment process. In order to ensure that the grade is appropriate and merited and is not influenced by improper considerations, various safeguards are built in. These include the consideration of grading by external examiners and boards of examiners, where marks can be reconsidered and adjusted.

However, such processes can become controversial, and indeed can raise accusations of inappropriate decision-making. In one Irish institute of technology recently some lecturers boycotted graduation ceremonies because they were unhappy about the adjustment of marks by appeal boards. One Canadian university has recently been in the spotlight for allegedly forcing a professor to lower his marks.

As the debate over the past year about ‘grade inflation’ has shown, the way in which student performance is assessed is one of the most critical issues in higher education. In order to ensure that grades are seen as appropriate and are respected, the system used needs to be impartial, transparent and intellectually demanding. In this context however, groups and boards can get it wrong just as easily as an individual, particularly if they pay excessive attention to institutional interests.

Occasionally it is suggested that the answer is to make this an administrative process, subject to bureaucratic procedures that will kick in particularly if the pattern of grades arouses suspicion, and more particularly still if grades are coming out too high. On the other hand, academic achievement is not a matter of administrative judgement, and should not become one. Equally however, the grades awarded are not necessarily an expression of ‘academic freedom’: I cannot insist that my marking standards should be applied even where they deviate from those of others.

There is no perfect way of dealing with this, but the one most likely to address problems is the system of external examiners, under which grades are checked by senior academics from other institutions to ensure that the system has integrity. However, this system, which relies heavily on personal and institutional goodwill, is coming under stress, in part because external examiners (now considered ’employes’ for revenue purposes) cannot be properly rewarded for what they do, and in part because the bureaucracy of assessment is threatening to overwhelm the system. Confidence in higher education depends strongly on assessment working well; we should be aware of that and, therefore, we should be willing to restate support for external examining as a vital element in maintaining a high quality system.