Posted tagged ‘grading’

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.


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.