The all-work and no-play way to a degree

November 27, 1998

Students nowadays are more mature, resourceful and realistic, but is over-assessment pushing them too hard, asks Jim Parry

When we moan about workloads, it is the growing demands on academics that command our attention. But who is looking at student workloads?

While the modularisation of courses has brought many benefits, not least greater student choice, it is at a price.

To start with, modularisation has brought with it two assessment points in the year (one at the end of each semester) instead of a single end-of-year point in June; and this has often resulted in a rise in the number of "modules" taken.

The obvious danger is that the number of assessments may thereby be doubled, the exam system will have to crank up twice instead of once, external examiners will need to be called out twice, and so on.

Module leaders may not be required to communicate or cooperate with each other, either within departments or programmes, or across them. Such mechanisms are difficult to design.

The result is too often a bunching of assessment elements at mid- and end-semester periods, with poor spreading of the workoad, all planned without reference to the overall student workload perspective.

Claire Vogeli, welfare officer at Leeds University student union, says of her joint honours degree in English and Russian civilisation: "My main problem stemmed from the fact that my essay deadlines always landed all on the same day, because of the lack of communication between departments. In my final year my dissertation and two 3,000 word essays, all on completely unrelated subjects, were due in on exactly the same day, which made it really hard to get all my research done properly."

It is difficult to prioritise when everything seems equally important, especially when the marks are so vital to your degree classification.

There is also the question of whether the total assessment load over the degree period is too high, anyway. Two thousand words per ten-credit course, at 120 credits per year, works out at 72,000 words over three years - which is more than that required for a PhD over the same period.

Do undergraduates really have to produce so much written work? To what purpose? Since most people see the role of written work as determining degree classification, we should address the question of whether such a load is unnecessarily high for that purpose. At the moment, since some modules require multiple assessment elements, as many as 50 assessments might be represented in final-degree classifications.

This is surely over-assessment on a grand scale, which must carry with it a high degree of redundancy. Studies show that the results of only a small fraction of those elements would produce identical degree classifications - so why do we continue to inflict so many pieces of work on students?

There are those who would argue anyway that the primary function of assessment ought to be educational, and not simply summative; but the present emphasis seems designed to increase everyone's workload and anxiety levels to no good purpose.

Let's notice, too, that staff workloads are to a large extent determined by student workloads. If we can find ways of classifying students with less summative assessment, maybe we can find ways of introducing more educative assessment, while still reducing the overall amount.

We would then be fufilling our obligation to classify, while also improving our commitment to the intrinsic aims of our teaching, and making everyone's life more tolerable along the way.

All of the above, of course, takes no account of the recent expansion of nominally full-time students who are in part-time jobs.

Anna Richards, communications officer at Leeds University student union, says: "The academic pressure, coupled with the increasing number of students doing part-time paid work to make ends meet, frequently leads to damaging levels of stress. Notice that nowadays one in five students is dropping out."

How times have changed. In my day during the 1960s, a degree was roughly four lectures a week, a couple of tutorials, the odd essay if you felt like it, a few exams at the end of the year, and the rest of the time spent between the union, the sports field and the boozer. And on a full grant. I am not saying, of course, that it has suddenly become impossible to doss your way through a degree, but it has become much more difficult.

In my day the only important outcome was degree classification. These days, there is a much greater expectation that students will have engaged in some kind of extra-curricular involvement, to demonstrate additional "transferable skills" .

Laudable though this undoubtedly is, it assumes the willingness of students to submit themselves to much higher levels of committed activity than previous generations did.

The same applies to the greater contribution expected of students towards the quality auditing process. No one ever asked me to comment on my undergraduate course in three years. If I had offered feedback it would have been regarded as an impertinence. It is worth remembering this when we now rely so much on student cooperation in our quality procedures.

To be honest, the present crop of students are better than we were. They are better qualified, more mature, more resourceful, better prepared for higher education, and more realistic about what their degree will do for them. They work harder, expect better service, and contribute more to their departments. They are a rich resource, and a strong department will use their talents - but we must make sure that we do not expect too much of them.

Jim Parry is dean for students at the University of Leeds.

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