Their failure is not always your failure

November 23, 2001

If your students do not do as well as expected in exams, don't fret, it's probably not your fault, says Mark Griffiths.

Every year there are debates about the impact that "good teaching" has on exam results at secondary and tertiary level. I passionately believe that inspirational teaching can lead to good exam results in some cases. But when students do not do as well as expected, there are numerous reasons why. Steve Newstead and Karen Findlay from the University of Plymouth have looked at why examination performance should not be taken as a measure of teaching ability. The main reasons they cite are as follows:

  • Examinations are unreliable
    It is well known that markers are not consistent in the marks they award to the same piece of work. It is difficult to argue that high marks can be attributed to good teaching or low marks to poor teaching
  • Markers may be biased
    Research has consistently shown there are many biases in marking, including against gender, age, ethnicity, handwriting and attractiveness of the student. This makes it hard to argue that marks reflect teaching quality
  • Exams may not be valid
    We do not know whether exams are a good measure of student ability. If they are not, we cannot read too much into the quality of teaching
  • Exams may be a reactive measure of teaching ability
    If exams are used as a measure of teaching ability, tutors may introduce methods (for example, giving clues to what is in the exam) that enhance students' chance of degree success
  • Degree awards vary across institutions
    The number of "good" degrees varies from one university to another. The variability is most likely attributable to differences in standards being adopted by the institution rather than to quality of teaching
  • Degree awards vary across disciplines
    The number of "good" degrees varies from discipline to discipline. It cannot be assumed that quality teaching in one discipline is better than in any other
  • Poor teaching does not necessarily lead to poor exam performance
    Poor teaching may lead students to more independent learning because they go away and read things up more thoroughly having not had good teaching
  • Exams may not reward appropriate approaches to learning
    Although "deep" learning is claimed to be more effective in higher education than "surface" learning, there is little difference between deep and surface learners in exam performance
  • Some students cheat
    There is evidence that many students cheat in their assessments. If students are using plagiarism and other dishonest practices to obtain better grades then it is unfair to use exam performance as a measure of a lecturer's teaching ability
  • Marks tell us about students not lecturers
    Marks tell us more about student motivation than they do about the lecturer's teaching ability.

Hopefully, anyone reading this will soon realise that there are many factors that influence what marks students achieve in exams. When our own students do not achieve what we expect, there are lots of additional reasons to suspect that it is not all down to our teaching ability.

Mark Griffiths is a reader in the psychology division, Nottingham Trent University.

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