Old debate needs new consideration 1

July 31, 2008

While I applaud any attempt to put a new spin on an old debate ("Beyond classification", 24 July), I think Kevin Sharpe is wrong.

The idea that "without traditional examinations ... students rightly see little need to think outside this particular exercise" is fundamentally flawed. Traditional examinations, which are still heavily weighted in many universities, tend to reward rote learning, not critical thinking.

The likelihood that many students in the past were critical thinkers was not the result of examinations or lack of modularisation, but arose from the fact that the university system was highly selective, catering only to a small percentage of the relevant age cohort. It is not surprising that extending that system to a larger percentage of that cohort has required different assessment strategies and outcomes.

The problem with the degree classification system is not that it tends towards a clustering of outcomes: that was always the case, although the clustering was at the 2:2-2:1 range rather than 2:1-first. This may or may not mean grade inflation. But it is surely more meaningful in any system, especially one that is open to a wider percentage of the relevant age cohort, to have some differentiation, which entails additional information for students and their potential employers.

Transcripts will help. But removing the clumsy degree classification altogether would be infinitely more effective. Grade point averages, for instance, are a far more subtle and useful way of classifying outcomes.

Degrees are no longer what they were. But that does not mean they are meaningless, nor that we should yearn for bygone days that had their own problems.

Ray Stokes, Professor of business history, University of Glasgow.

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