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Rising grades back in the news again

UK politicians wonder how / why the number of 1:1 degrees awarded in the UK has almost doubled in a decade. Read about it here and here. Yesterday’s Observer also carried the story, garnering 250+ comments.  There seems to be suggestion that different institutions require different levels of effort from students to achieve their degree classification. The conclusion seems to be that the watchdog overseeing standards isn’t doing its job right.

I wonder how they could possibly consider that standards are and / or should be the same across the entire gamut of universities. It’s absurd to think that that there can be equality. It would be like comparing the proverbial apples and oranges. Yes, they are both fruit but so vastly different.

The only way equality and direct comparisons across institutions could be made is if marking were centralised ala the leaving certificate in this country, and all students sit the same unseen papers.  That’s not going to happen. The administration nightmare for a start puts a limit on it. Even if that obstacle was overcome, such an approach would merely strait-jacket third-level education, preventing any flexibility and innovation, let alone eating into much-valued (from everyone’s point of view) academic freedom. Third level would become a continuation of the second-level spoon feeding exercise, and that’s not even useful at second-level.

The politicians argue that employers have a right to know whether they should employ person A with a degree from university A or person B with the “same” degree from university B.  I don’t think it is as straight-forward as that.  An employee brings a lot more than their degree parchment to a job. Indeed, that degree parchment is just one indicator of their abilities for the particulars of a given job. I have heard of employers not taking 1:1 students believing that they tend to be one-dimensional and not as rounded personalities as those with lower honours. Consider as another example the most successful graduate of my undergraduate degree. This person is now one of the country’s foremost business people but didn’t come top of the class or achieve a first class honours qualification.  Yet, he achieved the grounding required to proceed to his very impressive achievements.

In Ireland we have a much smaller number of universities and colleges than in the UK. As such it should be easier to ascertain what is a “good” college and what is not. The definition of “good”, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. It differs for everyone.  If a potential student is interested in studying a precise area of engineering then their definition of good is limited down to the few institutions offering this course. If they have a strong location preference then it is likely that their choice is very much reduced, particularly if they live outside of Dublin.  Students need to work out what is important to them, rank and weight those criteria, attending as many open days for different institutions as they can. In this way, they can choose the institution that best fits their definition of “good”.

A problem is that far too many students don’t do this. Their decisions can be made on flimsy criteria such as: “my boy/girlfriend is going to _______ so I’m going there too”, or “my daddy wants me to study ______ at ________ so that’s what I’m doing”, or “that college give too many / few first class honours degrees”, and for older students “I don’t know how I will juggle in studying with the job and family life but I feel obliged to obtain a masters”.  A student’s goal on entering college is likely to effect the award classification they get on leaving. If entry goals are so varied and in some cases, shallow, what can we really expect?

This looks like a debate that will run and run.

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Update: Jobless graduate sues her college

I couldnt even begin to comment.

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Quality control, here and there

The latest UK QAA report on “concerns about academic quality and standards in higher education in England” has asked and attempted to answer the following question types (apologies if my paraphrasing has distorted anything) –

  • Are there enough student-staff contact hours to enable students to reach graduate standards of achievement?
  • Do low rates of contact with staff represents poor ‘value for money’ in a fee-paying environment?
  • Is there an admissions problem of students with insufficient English language skills, the result of which is all students (not just the linguistically challenged) have an impoverished learning experience?
  • Are there sufficient ongoing availability and/or effective support mechanisms in place to deal with deficient language skills?
  • Are international students and their advisers sufficiently knowledgeable about higher education teaching, learning and assessment practices in the UK? Do they know what to expect when they arrive here?
  • Are the intentions, operations and role of external examiners clear?
  • Are the inputs, reports, and recommendations of external examiners appreciated by the institutions they are externing? If not, why not? What does this imply about the concept of external examiners?
  • To what extent is there variation in the way that institutional assessment regulations are applied by individual schools or departments (with potential impacts on parity and fairness)?
  • Is the degree classification system applied consistently across different departments, schools and institutions?
  • What do the terms “academic quality” and “academic standards” actually mean?
  • Do those inside educational institutions and those outside of them (e.g. the media) have the same understanding of subject benchmark statements and other reference tools used by institutions in setting and maintaining academic standards and academic quality

To what extent should the same questions be asked here in Ireland?

What might the answers look like?

What was that last post all about?

What are the problems –

  • Poor literacy – I’m in two minds about this one. See post on language evolution in this blog.  Yes, the proportion on students in our classrooms for whom English is a second or third language is on the rise. To what extent should we hold their lack of English against them? There are several well and widely recognized tests of English language (ielts, toefel) that foreign language students are required to take before entering a course. If they meet these standards we cannot reasonably expect a higher standard from them. Problems arise when they don’t meet these standards but enrol in the course anyhow.
  • Plagiarism and cheating – I see two issues here. Foreign students come from cultures where cheating and plagiarism do not have the same status as they do here. We expect and advise such students along the lines of when-in-Rome……. but habits and cultures of a lifetime don’t disappear quickly. Weaker students who have a strong notion that they will fail can, far too often, resort to cheating. If they are not caught they have got away with it. If they are caught, then what have they lost, they have merely failed through a different route.
  • Inability to think -The cut-and-paste-but-I-referenced-it- approach to learning is an insult to the word “learning”.   Where is the joy of learning, trying things out, experimenting, having a taster just to see, contrasting and debating differing opinions, internalizing a subject to the extent of being able to clearly talk / write about it? The grades / points emphasis of the leaving cert has reduced this considerably. How might it be encouraged in a grades driven environment (if such an environment is not dismantled) is a whole other question
  • A related problem is rote learning. This is not just creeping into higher education, It is permeating it to a great extent.  The problem is this style of “learning” is not worth much.  Coaching and grind schools in second level encourage it so as get the coveted points.  But is there learning there – love of Shakespeare, love of numbers, independent learning, initiative to explore concepts and debate ideas, build up an integrated knowledge base from which to draw intelligently on when required?  Rote memory and regurgitation on an exam paper is not learning. Ask the student the same exam questions a week after the exam and they cannot manage them. Rote memory shows excellent use of shorter term memory but it is not reflective of true learning.

Other bits and pieces that crossed my mind when reading those articles –

  • The bell curve has lost its shape.  Very few are average, most are above average (even if this is mathematically impossible). Students who genuinely score top marks are not being stretched and are in the same category with nothing to distinguish them from their weaker counterparts earning the same grade. The student reaction is along the lines of why should they bother working harder if they’re achieving high marks anyhow.
  • The competition for students among third level educational institutions is larger than ever.  The department of education say they want higher numbers in third level education. This is laudable but correspondingly there is a need to improve the career guidance at second level so that people don’t end up in the wrong courses.   But who knows at 18 what they want to do for the rest of their working life?
  • If more and more second level students are attending third level, then more and more assistance is required to get them through it. Do we have the resources to put into academic support and English language that is needed? Often, one to one support is needed but this is a considerable investment that cannot be justified from a resource perspective.
  • How do genuinely able and motivated students feel about being placed in the same category as their less able / less motivated counterparts?  Unless, they are strong personalities and are intrinsically motivated, it is likely they will risk being worn down by their counterparts who want a free ride or are permanent strugglers.
  • Quality control is a significant part of our education system these days. But what quality is actually being measured. Having done some work in a past life on quality control for software systems, I can see how “Q” can turn into a tick-the-box exercise with little meaning. Ensuring validity and reliability of quality control in educational standards requires much work and effort.
  • Mary Hanafin, the former education minister, has spoken frequently of ”world-class excellence” in the Irish third-level system.  Batt O’Keeffe seems determined to continue this tone.  But the statistics are speaking volumes.  Statistics don’t lie, our interpretation of them might suffer from subjectivity and that’s where the difficulty lies. Unless the Batt O’Keeffes of the world sit up and listen and decide to do some proper investigation, we will continue to talk and muse and wonder but nothing will be done to address the issue.

For better or worse, it’s happening…

Are our students getting smarter? IS teaching and instruction improving? Are we using (or making better use of) the teaching and learning tools are our disposal? Has there been a revolution for the better in education over recent years?

Or… did we mark to harshly in years gone by, did we set the bar far too high back then? Are we now at “realistic” levels of expectation?

Or… are we dumbing down, lowering our requirements for student achievements and performances?  Are we making assessment easier? Are we awarding higher grades for the same level of work now than we used to?

I’ve been spending time over at http://www.stopgradeinflation.ie and have been reading some of the published work linked from the site.

The Facts (taken directly from the sources given) –

“Bringing up grades by dumbing down equals failure” – Sunday Independent, 1 June 2008 –

  • Political correctness taken to extremes – an American example is given of US teachers not allowed to tell students their work needs work or not being able to fail them for shoddy work in case it damages the students’ self esteem.
  • Another example of political correctness, also American – a masters-level dissertation marker is to told by his university authorities that he can’t fail said dissertation in case the student sues for discrimination: she’s black. Yet, the students cannot spell, punctuate, or construct a sentence, much less make a literary case and follow through a literary argument. To obtain her masters she is now following a remedial level English course which, interestingly, was not needed for her under-graduate degree.
  • Closer to home, describing the Irish education system the author (Emer O’Kelly) says the system seems almost to have been designed to ensure illiteracy. It’s satisfaction without effort, a pappy mess digested without the effort and joy of tasting, analysing and swallowing. Spelling and grammar are hardly taught — how can they be, when most of the teachers wouldn’t recognise a well-constructed, properly spelled, classically syntactical sentence if they saw it?
  • We’re still perpetuating the myth that we have the “best-educated young people” in Europe. And how are we doing it? We’re doing it by dumbing down our education standards.
  • The numbers of Leaving Certificate students gaining A and B grades have nearly doubled since 1991. Yet the most recent OECD/PISA study across Europe has found that there has been no detectable improvement in mathematics, English, or science among Irish 15-year-olds between 2000 and 2006.
  • In less than a quarter of a century, we’ve reduced our education standards and requirements by 50 per cent
  • We’re already suffering because of our lack of educational depth. And I suspect we’ll suffer more when we’re found out internationally.

“Degrees are ‘losing their value”, Irish Independent, November 18 2008

  • Degrees are likely to become a “devalued currency” because colleges are awarding too many honours qualifications
  • If “grade inflation” continues at its current level, all graduates from the university sector will have first class honours by 2030.
  • In 1994, 7pc of graduates in the university sector had degrees with a first class honours. In 2005, that jumped to 17pc while between 1994 and 2004, the percentage of “firsts” in the institutes of technology sector increased by 78pc.
  • The percentage of A grades at Leaving Certificate in Higher Level Irish and English has increased threefold between 1991 and 2008, three consecutive OECD reports had shown no real improvement in reading in science and maths.
  • Grade inflation degrades education as a measure of competence and employers will eventually doubt the quality of grades.
  • While it should not necessarily be made tougher to get into college or made harder to obtain top qualifications, there should be a clear differentiation between really good grades, mediocre and poor ones
  • “If you examine the percentage of males in the medical field back in 1963, you find that 70pc of them had less than 300 points. In law 80pc had less than 300 points and in commerce 70pc had under 300 points.” Professor Aine Hyland, emeritus professor of education and former UCC vice president

“Lecturers ‘pressed to boost grade results'” – (UK) Independent – Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Professor Geoffrey Alderman, former chairman of the academic council at the University of London –

  • Degree standards in many British universities are in danger of collapsing because lecturers are under pressure to “mark positively” and turn a blind eye to plagiarism
  • “League table culture” has led to an explosion in the number of firsts awarded. Latest figures show they have gone up by more than 100 per cent over the past decade from 16,708 to 36,645 – at a time when the undergraduate population has risen by just over 40 per cent.
  • Universities have been particularly lenient with overseas students because they rely on them so heavily for fee income – so much so that they turn a blind eye to plagiarism and cheating.
  • Standards of English literacy at UK universities are often poor. To compensate for this, lecturers are pressured to ‘mark positively’
  • “I have heard it seriously argued that international students who plagiarise should be treated more leniently than British students because of ‘differential cultural norms’. It is indeed rare, nowadays, for habitual plagiarists to be expelled from their universities.”
  • A spokesman for Universities UK, the body which represents university vice-chancellors, said: “The UK model for assuring quality and standards in higher education is sound and well-established. It is also well respected internationally and has informed and influenced parallel developments worldwide. All courses are subject to regular internal monitoring and review by the university, including through the external examiner system, and the university’s processes and mechanisms are, in turn, subject to additional external scrutiny by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education.” Professor Alderman – these new inspection systems concentrate on whether lecturers have followed procedures correctly – rather than questioning grade boundaries and the quality of marking.
  • Jonathan Bate, professor of English at Warwick University – “There are universities where instructions go round to staff reminding them [that] awarding more top-class degrees will push their institution up both the national and international league tables.”
  • A Higher Education Academy and Joint Information Systems Committee research found widespread variations in the way plagiarism was tackled by different universities. Plagiarism was twice as common in less-selective universities than the smaller more-popular universities. It was also higher than among members of the Russell Group – which represents the top 20 research institutions in the UK, including Oxford and Cambridge.
  • In the past decade, only one of the UK’s top universities – Cambridge – has reduced the proportion of firsts and 2:1s.

“Failures of the Leaving Cert”, Sunday Business Post, 19/08/2007

  • The Leaving Cert does not work properly, as it is merely a test of memory and learning, and not a proper reflection of a student’s ability or suitability for university.
  • If changes in the leaving cert structure improve the intake to third level, the average degree level at graduation should improve. If the Leaving Cert is not improving the academic potential of the intake, the average quality of degree should fall as the numbers in third level rise (because it is reasonable to assume that, in a competitive system, increasing the intake permits ‘less clever’ people to get in).
  • The average points level and the minimum necessary points level among university entrants rose steadily because university places expanded more slowly than the numbers taking the Leaving Cert.
  • Questions – How come fail rates and drop-out rates have not fallen at our universities?  How come there is a widespread view among university teaching staff that average ability, particularly in the humanities area, has been falling, a view based on literacy and numeracy standards among the students?   If the Leaving Cert is doing such a good job, why does the educational research establishment argue that it needs to be restructured to reduce the importance of exams in favour of increasing the importance of ‘practicals’ or ‘continuous assessment’?
  • The number obtaining over 450 points in the Leaving Cert has increased significantly. However, in critical areas (maths and science) failure rates are high, while the numbers taking honours level courses are down. The implication is that higher points reflect in part a shift to ‘softer’ subjects at the honours level.
  • Mathematical ability – as measured by performance in the Leaving Cert – is the best statistical predictor of performance at third level.  Poor and falling mathematical ability in the third-level entry cohort and simultaneous improvements in the quality of degree being awarded suggest one of two conclusions.  There has been a truly remarkable improvement in the way in which university staff enlighten the Bebo generation.   There has been grade inflation at third level that complements the grade inflation (or dumbing down, if you prefer) of the Leaving Cert.
  • The latter conclusion is supported by the uneven performance of the universities in awarding degrees.
  • The leaving cert – Jumping through mental hoops replaces the ability to demonstrate analytical skills. Rote learning replaces inquiry. Covering the course replaces reading into a subject.
  • Doing well in this particular mode of learning does not equip you per se to do well at university. . . unless, of course, universities start to follow the same structure of learning. This, alas, is exactly what is happening as third level becomes part of mass education.
  • Faced with a decline in the knowledge base of the student population, the response has been a growing emphasis on ‘remediation’ and ‘progression’ rather than encouragement of excellence and a tailoring of degree awards to accommodate the reduced ability of students and the increased demand of students, funders and university administrators for ‘good results’.

“Rise in proportion of firsts to 13% renews inflation debate”, The Times – 17 January 2008

  • One in eight students now obtains a first-class degree
  • In 2006-07, 13 per cent of students who passed received a first, the highest classification possible, representing an increase of one percentage point on the previous year. This compares with 8 per cent of students who achieved a first in 1996-97. Nearly half – 48 per cent – obtained an upper second, up from 47 per cent the previous year.
  • Peter Williams, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, said: “If we leave it long enough, everyone will be getting a first and the degree system will have abolished itself.”
  • In 2006-07, a total of 319,260 degrees were awarded at UK higher education institutions. Of these, 36,645 were firsts, 138,745 upper seconds, 92,795 were lower seconds, 23,195 thirds, and 27,880 candidates failed their degrees with an unclassified result.