Wise up to the naked truth

Poor student attendance and generous exam marking are making a mockery of higher education, reveals a lecturer

February 25, 2010

Rani and John jointly teach an undergraduate course, A, at a new university. Some 150 students are enrolled on the course.

In the first term, there are two lectures each week, and supervised laboratory sessions are timetabled so that every student attends one.

John gives all the lectures. He never gets more than 50 students attending any lecture. In addition, coursework is set, supported by the lab sessions.

Students are given graded exercises for which help is available. Working through these exercises will also aid them in completing the coursework.

The number of students who attend all the lab sessions is about 50 (out of 150, remember). The weaker students who need a lot of support (and there are many) never attend the lab sessions.

An in-class test is devised based on the coursework. A sample test is issued to the students in the lab session the week before, and they are told that the real thing will be very similar. This information is well publicised.

Attendance for the practice test is about the same as usual, but all the students attend the real test and about half of them fail. Many get zero marks.

In the second term, a series of problem-solving classes are held instead of labs. Students are told that the end-of-year examinations will consist of six questions, half of which will be based on the problems addressed in the classes to be held over the next few weeks. The students are advised to look at previous years' exam papers. Average attendance at these classes is still about 50.

The exams are scheduled to take place in June. In May, revision lectures and tutorials are held. These are better attended, sometimes by as many as 60 per cent of the students.

All the students are now starting to panic and show up at reception asking for directions to their tutors' offices.

They all turn up for the exam. This is generously marked so that no more than half the students fail. The chair of the exam board expresses concern that the pass rate is so low and asks Rani and John why it has happened and what they plan to do about it ...

Module B is an option in the second year and only 16 students choose it. The tutor, Jack, has never even seen six of them. Of the remaining ten, never more than eight attend any class. Of the 16 students enrolled, eight fail at the end of the year.

Jack tries hard to blame himself for this, since the alternative feels even worse. He struggles, though, as it's hard for him to accept that he can be blamed for putting off students who have never met him. The exam board chair expresses concern and asks Jack why it has happened and what he plans to do about it ...

Module C runs in the final year. The assessment consists of an end-of-year exam. As this is a new course, Will, the tutor, tells the students where they can find sample exam questions online, similar to the ones they will be confronted with in the actual exam. He also tells them that the sample questions include model answers. He tracks their access to this website. Less than half of the students access the web page and most of those do not open the file containing the sample questions.

It is obvious that the current policy to increase participation in higher education has led to too many students attending who are not suited to studying at university level. And, as a consequence, standards fall.

The crisis in university funding could be solved overnight by reducing participation to 20 per cent (from the current level of 43 per cent). Standards would rise, staff morale would rocket, and engaged students would get the education they deserve.

Languishing further education colleges could be given a new lease of life by reintroducing vocational training and other sub-degree courses. Degrees would regain their value and we could all stop playing the game of the emperor's new clothes forced on us by a regime that cannot afford to acknowledge the fiasco that currently passes for higher education.

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