‘Discretion’ should have no place in determining degree classifications

Universities need to establish clear and transparent criteria for assessing those with borderline results, argues Andy Grayson

June 10, 2021
Contestants line up for judging panel who are holding up scores on boards as a metaphor for Discretion’ has no place in determining degree classifications
Source: Getty

After more than a year of studying in what social scientists might call “zones of uncertainty” during the pandemic, thousands of final-year UK undergraduates will – unbeknownst to them – also find themselves within so-called zones of consideration this summer.

That is, they will have qualified by right for a degree in one classification, but, since their results are at the high end of that range, they will be eligible for an upgrade at the examiners’ discretion.

These zones of consideration are commonplace in UK universities and typically lie between one and three percentage points below each of the degree classification borderlines. They have come under recent scrutiny because of concerns that they contribute to grade inflation. But they deserve further consideration for a more fundamental reason: they are either unnecessary or unfair.

Let’s take a typical example, using the traditional 0-100 marking scale. In any given university, there will be a proportion of students who have final weighted averages between 68 and 69.99 per cent. The regulations of the hypothetical university in question specify that its examination boards should use discretion to determine whether these students should receive the upper-second-class honours degree for which they have automatically qualified or be “moved” to a first-class degree.

Over three decades in UK higher education I have heard the full range of arguments either way. “Exit velocity” is one line of argument used by promoters. This states that if a student performs particularly well in their final year but falls just short of the 70 per cent threshold because of poorer earlier performance, their degree classification should reflect the fact that they are “exiting” university at a first-class standard.

“Long-term consistency” is the complementary argument. A student who, throughout their studies, has been working on or around the upper-second/first-class threshold but has ultimately fallen just short may be argued to be so close, over such a sustained period, that the benefit of the doubt should go in their favour.

My juxtaposition of these two arguments is deliberate because it illustrates the ways in which examination boards, charged with using their discretion, can narrate the patterns of data before them in various contrasting ways. And some of those narrations distort the effects of the algorithm that has been used to calculate the overall average in the first place. For example, it is frequently the case that final-year performance is already more heavily weighted than performance in earlier years. The exit velocity argument quite simply adds even greater weight to the final-year marks. It’s a kind of double counting and it raises the question of why even greater weight has not simply been built into the degree algorithm in the first place if that is to be the basis on which awards are made.

Another factor that an examination board might consider is “engagement”. This is often measured by a student’s attendance record. But why should this be a matter for discretion? If engagement is deemed relevant to degree classification, why should we not simply make it unambiguously clear to students that a certain attendance level will qualify them for a higher award should they fall within the zone of consideration?

If the criteria that are being used to determine outcomes for students are deployed systematically, they can just as easily be built into degree regulations. Discretion is, therefore, unnecessary.

If, on the other hand, these criteria are not deployed systematically, that raises the question of whether those students who are not moved up have been treated fairly. On what basis, other than clear, transparent criteria, have the discretionary awards not been made?

One familiar defence of zones of consideration is that they enable sensitivity to specific local circumstances. I remain unconvinced that this is anything more than post hoc justification of custom and practice. Another is that some students will “just miss out” because of extenuating circumstances, such as hardship. But extenuating circumstances should be dealt with by enabling students to produce their best work, not by adjusting outcomes.

Besides, hardship or no hardship, there will always be someone just below the line, wherever you draw it: what about all those who fall just below 68 per cent, for instance? Fairness is about being absolutely clear where that line is and the criteria that will be employed to determine whether or not a student has crossed it.

My concern is that students at the same university and even on the same course with identical profiles on relevant criteria will sometimes be awarded different degree outcomes. When that happens, it is not fair. And if that does not happen, what has been the role of discretion?

Andy Grayson is an associate professor of psychology at Nottingham Trent University.

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Reader's comments (6)

Blatant use of grade inflation - if measurement error is the argument, then you should also use 'discretion' to downgrade borderline marks to a LOWER degree classification. Engaging in only upward adjustment by discretion is a grade inflation practice, plain and simple.
As well as avoiding discretion, it's also important that degree algorithms are simple, understandable and transparent. Too often they are so complex that it's hard for students to understand - and difficult for academics too. I've seen systems that can (occasionally) give rise to anomalies whereby a lower grade in a course actually improves the overall outcome. If discretion is allowed then there need to be well-defined principles by which it is exercised. However it's difficult for these to be implemented consistently across a whole university. But why not be straightforward and avoid discretion altogether?
Exit velocity should be taken into account, I believe. For many state school pupils, it takes a good year and a half to get their head round a subject and what is required to secure good grades. Generally, private school pupils enter university at a higher level but things level out as the course continues. My sister, for example, was regularly banging out 73+ essays in her final year but a slow start in year two (classification was based on average of marks over final two years), not helped by some hopeless tutors that year, meant it was too late to make up the ground required for a First. You wouldn't, for instance, discriminate against a Grade 8 violinist because they happened to be at grade 5 a year earlier.
What a depressing article that makes me glad that I am near retirement. Much of life is about factors that may not be reduced purely to numbers. If academic discretion and the benefit of experience are removed, students may as well stay online and be taught by robots.
I largely agree with the author here: although retaining academic discretion is generally desirable, most sensible board chairs will avoid using these powers if at all possible. There is one additional point hinted at in the article but not fully brought out: if any of these principles end up being used as overt criteria for board members (as I have experience of seeing), there is no excuse for not informing students that these are criteria in advance. I imagine that any appeal that obtains board minutes and sees this happening would necessarily be successful, and might invalidate all the results decided within that board.
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I agree with the sentiment of the article and would suggest that potential reasons for justifying a higher grade through discretionary judgments, such as exit velocity or consistency of performance, are possible to incorporate into the algorithm. Many universities already have these concepts detailed within their regulations. It's completely transparent (although we could do more to help students understand the permutations) and far less open to obvious pitfalls such as bias. The author will also be aware that there is substantial sector discussion on degree algorithms as a guard against potential grade inflation, with a trend working against any form of borderline range.

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