Thursday, 19 July 2012

30% Less than Perfect

Inherited protractor (partially polished)
Anyone who follows this blog will know that I am opposed to grading the work of art students for a variety of reasons of which this post is a continuation. On the other hand, attempting to assign numerical equivalents to more concrete subjects like Engineering or Healthcare for instance seems not unreasonable since the achievement of specific outcomes can both be more clearly set and measured. But without a clear example of what constitutes a top performance (ie: 100%) in a subject, there is little of substance for students to aim at or for staff to use as a benchmark by which other evaluations may be made. As a result it becomes almost impossible to agree that any particular work represents all that is required at any given level and therefore the highest marks simply languish unused waiting for that ‘perfect’ student who, of course, is simply an impossible amalgam of all the very best performances we have seen in the past.

Is a First Class Honours degree a sign of perfect achievement? Not in the least. Even a 100% achievement would only be perfect at Honours level, otherwise why have Post Graduate, Masters and Doctoral study? A First Class Honours degree is simply a reflection of attainment somewhere in the top 30% of the Honours degree classification.

So why on earth are there not more First Class Honours degrees being awarded to graduates each year?

In the UK around 10% of graduating students achieve “a first” while around 20% attain the "third" (third Class) category - the lowest category of Honours degree (graded at 40% or above). The other 70% of students achieve either a "two one" (Second Class Upper), a "two two" (Second Class Lower) or an outright fail. Very few students actually fail, and I’ve never heard of an Honours student getting less than 20%, though I’m sure it must happen.

That means that on average only 10% of students achieve anything higher than 69% at their degree assessment. Can it be true that the other 9 out of 10 students are really so ‘unexceptional’ that more of them can’t even reach the low 70s? Or is the education provided so poor that only the very strongest students manage to keep their heads above water? Neither. The reason there are so few firsts, I suggest, is because the general perception amongst staff is that the highest category should be reserved for the very best performances, or, as a colleague once said to me when I began teaching: “We don’t hand out firsts like sweeties here Jim.” Indeed.

There is a contradiction in this though. If honours level is not the very highest level of study and if a first class honours is not an indication of perfect performance (ie: it should logically contain work that is fully 30% less than perfect at that level) then it is quite clear that the expectations of the highest category of the Honours classification are a distortion.

Surely 100% performance on a degree course should be achievable through the production of the highest standard of work expected at that level, not some unachievable notional pinnacle of excellence. In most cases a top ranking student means a graduate who is fully equipped to begin engaging in a professional context - though it is recognised that even there they will still have a lot to learn. Instead it would seem that the very highest grades attainable (90%+) are being reserved for those one or two geniuses that might, by chance, grace our hallowed halls. And of course those individuals never do arrive and we probably wouldn't even recognise them if they did.

An alternative approach is to dispense with percentages as much as possible and to simply assign each component of work to a band and to add everything up at the end. Whilst this is an improvement it ultimately runs into the same difficulties of vagueness since, without a clear understanding of what represents the highest expected performance, it is impossible to accurately situate that all important cutoff between a First Class and a Second Class degree? Furthermore, this does nothing to remedy or highlight the fact that a First Class Honours degree can and should contain work that is in each and every respect 30% less than the top level expected.


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