Students get marks just for turning up

Universities accused of "bribing" undergraduates. Rebecca Attwood reports

September 10, 2009

Universities have been accused of "bribing" students with marks simply for attending seminars, a move critics say encourages them to adopt casual and cynical attitudes to academic work.

Writing in Times Higher Education this week, Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, criticises institutions that reward students with marks for turning up.

He argues that the practice is modelled on secondary education and "implicitly devalues the work and effort made by students who are genuinely interested in regarding the seminar room as a place of intellectual engagement rather than as a drop-in centre".

Marks are awarded for attendance at a range of institutions across the sector.

At the University of Northampton, a guide to the module Personality and Conceptual and Historical Issues in Psychology for 2008-09 states that 10 per cent of a student's final grade is "based on seminar attendance", while a document from Kent's English Language Unit says that students can expect 10 per cent of their grades to stem from seminar and workshop performance, half of it for attendance alone.

Laurence Goldstein, head of the School of European Culture and Languages at Kent, said that in his discipline, philosophy, those who stayed away from seminars put other students at a disadvantage by depriving them of the opportunity for debate.

"While I really dislike ticking attendance sheets for seminars because it treats students as school kids, I take the view that a lot of 18- or 19-year-olds don't necessarily have a clear idea of the benefits to be had from engaging in intellectual pursuits," he said. "So, if a bit of coercion awakens them to the joys of learning, then it is probably justified.

"As for the serious students, they won't restrict themselves to formal seminars, but will enjoy lively conversations in pubs or coffee bars. I'm not so much worried about them as of doing a disservice to the others."

Simon Kirchin, the school's director of learning and teaching, said that the marking scheme was an "experiment" introduced for 2007-08 and withdrawn in 2008-09 after consultations with teaching staff and students.

"Some, but by no means all, modules still have a 10 per cent performance mark, but only very few of these now reward attendance directly," he said.

'You have to incentivise students'

The method has also been employed by the University of Glasgow, where details of a course in English literature read: "The final mark will be weighted as follows: essay (30 per cent), examination (60 per cent) and an attendance mark (10 per cent)."

A 2008-09 guide to a corporate-finance module at Heriot-Watt University says that 5 per cent of the module mark relates to tutorial attendance, with 100 per cent of this figure being awarded for attending at least eight tutorials.

Gillian Hogg, head of the School of Management and Languages at Heriot-Watt, said that awarding marks for attendance was not the norm for the school. In this case, however, students were giving presentations, and it was likely that the measure was introduced to ensure that they had an audience to present to each week, she added.

"We try to encourage students to prepare for seminars and to make a contribution in class, for which I think it is perfectly fair to reward them. I am more ambivalent about marks for just turning up," she said.

"Unfortunately, nowadays you have to incentivise students. Most of them have got jobs, and they are very time-pressured. They like to see that there is value in the preparation and time they spend."

A spokeswoman for Northampton said that while the guidance said "attendance" would be marked, this in fact related to students' engagement rather than their physical presence.

A spokesman for Glasgow said a 10 per cent mark for attending tutorials was introduced in two first-year English literature courses more than ten years ago "to encourage a culture of attendance among new students unaccustomed to the amount of responsibility for their studies that university places on them".

It had proved successful in boosting numbers, he added.

In an online forum on the topic of awarding marks for attendance, one academic says: "To my knowledge, no marks are deducted here for poor attendance; part of the thinking is that students are customers, many need to work to get through college, and it would be almost an attack on their human rights to do so."

Another commentator questions whether poor attendance correlates with poor performance, saying: "I would not favour giving marks just for attendance - this seems like a counsel of despair."

A third argues that attendance "is not, nor should it ever be, a learning outcome within higher education", while a fourth suggests that such a measure could be "legally questionable" when students have paid for their courses.

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