Remaking the grade

November 22, 2002

Plans to abandon classification of degrees should not be rushed through, warns Mantz Yorke

The honours degree classification tries to do two things simultaneously - to attest to students' achievements and (implicitly) to act as an indicator of future performance. With the advent of league tables it has also been pressed into serving inter-institutional comparisons.

The diversity of the UK higher education system makes it impossible to construct a single measure of student achievement that allows valid comparisons between institutions and subject disciplines within an institution. There are simply too many variables. These include: curricular variation; the exam-to-coursework ratio in modules; whether grades or percentages are awarded; the spread of grades in different subject disciplines; and the rules by which a student's compendium of performances is converted into a classification. Institutions have made their choices from the options available. Research by the Student Assessment and Classification Working Group and others has demonstrated how variables such as these can impact on classifications. The external examiner system cannot be expected to smooth out all the variance.

The US grade-point average has been touted as a replacement for the honours degree classification. While it would produce a more detailed assessment, it would reduce variability only inasmuch as a common set of grades would be used across the higher education system (how the grades would be used by markers is a separate issue). It is a mistake to imagine that introducing the GPA would, at a stroke, permit valid inter-institutional comparisons.

The honours degree classification is, in more than one sense, a gross measure. It tells nothing of a graduate's different strengths and weaknesses. This flaw can be mitigated if the classification is accompanied by a transcript showing how well the student has performed in each study unit. But it depends on how this is done.

If a classification's primary purpose is to provide information, are there other ways in which this might be better fulfilled? Do we need classification at first-degree level anyway? Many countries manage without it. We have to bear in mind that some important aspects of learning cannot easily be captured in grades - for example, self-awareness and team-working. It is also difficult to assess within single modules the kinds of learning that develop over a whole programme.

Suppose we were to abandon classification and extend personal development planning and progress files by creating portfolios intended to record students' learning. The award of the degree would still require passes in a predetermined number of curricular components. But the supporting portfolio could include reflective records of other learning not amenable to grading as well as transcript data such as the marks and pass/fail grades achieved in modules.

This approach would increase students' self-awareness and help them in the labour market. We would expect, for example, two physics graduates awarded upper-seconds to make different claims in job applications if one was seeking to become a research physicist and the other was pursuing a career in technical sales.

Discarding the simplistic honours degree classification in this way would force selectors to look more closely at what graduates have to offer. This would improve the match between graduate and job or academic post and would be beneficial in the long run.

Doing away with classification is not, however, to be undertaken lightly. Thoughtful evidence-based inquiry, from an international perspective, should precede any decision. If an alternative were to emerge as preferable, time would be needed for all interested parties to familiarise themselves with it. One way of implementing change would be for a deadline to be agreed for the complete phasing-out of classification with, say, portfolios or transcripts running alongside classification in the interim - an approach similar to the phasing out of fahrenheit temperatures during the transition to the Celsius system in UK weather forecasts.

The A/AS-level fiasco has reminded us again how unwise it is to introduce innovations without giving sufficient thought to possible side-effects. Compelling as the case is for the abandonment of classification, we should not rush to embrace an ill-considered alternative.

Mantz Yorke is professor of higher education at Liverpool John Moores University.

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