This morning I bumped into the University of Winchester Student Union’s incoming International Students Officer. We talked about marks and how grades are measured and perceived differently in different educational contexts. This made me think about a question that comes up time and again; “how do you know when something is good; can you tell if it is good enough?”
The first assignment I got back at my first UK University was a bit of a disappointment, 62% both my prior Universities 60% was a pass. I was happy I didn’t have to resubmit, but I had thought the work was better than only just passing. I was learning a lot from the course and that was my main motivation but I felt I’d applied my learning better than that.
In the UK at undergraduate levels 40% is the standard pass mark. I found this out while about 2 weeks after my first assignment came back. In Canada my average was normally somewhere around (or approaching) 80%, not the highest in most of my classes but respectably good. In the UK 80% is almost unheard of. In four years at The University of Winchester, (working across 2 faculties), I’ve heard of only two or three assignments getting over 80, usually when the student had produced something that completely exceeded the requirements while meeting the specifications exactly. Something that might earn an 83% at Winchester might earn a 98% under the marking guidelines at North American Universities. Exchange students need not worry, (or celebrate) there are recognised equations for working out how marks earned under one system transfer to another.
However, this can still gloss over what constitutes good work. For that you need to go to the grade descriptors and advice for that assignment and follow the style guide set out for your subject. For example, and in very general terms, in the UK, the internet can supplement your research but most of your sources should be published academic sources.
One of the interesting parallels is that in both systems the (overwhelmingly vast majority of) marks fell in a 40% window, (60%-100% in North America and 40%-80% in the UK).
There has been some discussion here about shifting to a banded system. A 1st (currently 70-80% 80%+ being a “higher first”) would be broken into bands perhaps top/middle/lower, meaning that there would be about 15 possible marks for a piece of work (as opposed to 100). It has been suggested that this might speed up marking allowing students to get feedback faster. It also brings in a second system of marking. At British universities the best marks are called “firsts”, then “2.1” (say two-one), “2.2”, “3rd” and of course fail. The argument to use percentages is that they provide more detail. If Paula wants to get a 2.1 in her degree, it might help her to know if her work is almost 2.1, just 2.1 or comfortably 2.1.
In many countries letters are used for marks. A B C (D) (E) and F for failure Sometimes adding I for incomplete, meaning that the student has not submitted enough work to fail. But, as the comic shows the meaning of these grades can be subjective. What is an A? One of my teachers would only give one A on any one assignment, (usually to the same 2-3 people, or so it seemed). What if everybody in the class did brilliantly? I’ve seen other situations where between 1/3 and half the class had an A, as a matter of policy. So the letters are no less arbitrary, probably why D and E had to be in brackets above, the letters are so arbitrary because nobody has really decided how many to use. Some systems use numbers to group grades 1-7 seems common in parts of Europe, but wait is 1 or 7 the top? Does a 2 (or a 6) fail just not as badly?
That brings me to the “bell-curve” model of marking. This comes out of the observation that statistically grades, along with almost everything else follow a fairly standard distribution. This by itself is fine, but when the best 5% of a class get an A even if the work is only OK and the worst 5% fail even if the work is OK. This I feel is taking the science of statistics too far. A practice that is closely related to this is to place students and work within centile bands. This makes a certain sense when trying to compare performance against national standards based tests. However, within classes or even schools this practice can obscure what is important.
Is it good?
Is it good enough?
Every year a few students have to rewrite one of their assignments for me, sometimes it is technical things that stop them from passing; sometimes they are bad; and sometimes its good work but not answering the question as set. (My first year at Winchester I got a really good poetry paper, well it was a really good paper and it was analysing the poetic elements of the set text, the problem is I teach linguistics.) Every year somebody tries to fix one or two little things and resubmit the essentially flawed piece of work again, to fail again. The issue is they have stopped trying for “good” and are only trying for “good enough”. This is an issue across many education systems. As the gate keepers to “good” jobs, universities are seen more as a thing to get past and less as an opportunity to learn.
If you try for “good” you will almost certainly go past “good enough”. If however you aim for “good enough” you need to remember that marks are arbitrary, the whole system is. You need to be careful, and understand the marking process and assignment requirements very well, or you might find trying for “good enough” is not “good enough”. If you submit the best work you can produce, you are living up to your potential; if you submit something just to get past the course you are treating University like the passport queue at the airport.