Time for GPA, says John Raftery

Add grade point averages to honours classification for a better snapshot of student achievement, says John Raftery

March 7, 2013

GPA is arguably the dominant international currency for undergraduate awards, easily recognised and understood by international employers

A decision by Oxford Brookes University to introduce a grade point average (GPA) system alongside the established honours degree classification system was recently reported in these pages - so why the change?

The British honours degree classification system has been around in various forms for 200 years. Although it still has strengths, it has also become the subject of criticism. For example, the Burgess Group, which was set up to examine the measurement and recording of student achievement, has described it as no longer fit for purpose; and in a global economy, degree classifications are not as well known or as easily understood by employers outside the UK as transcripts based on a GPA. Another issue is that modular programmes of study as we know them today did not exist when the degree classification system was designed.

As those of us who work in the sector are well aware, the essence of the honours degree classification is that it is a terminal, summative judgement that seeks to capture, and band, the student’s ability in a single scale, with five possible outcomes or classes. Grades achieved in the first few semesters are usually disregarded and the result is weighted heavily in favour of those achieved in the last year or so of study. One of the many arguments in favour of this approach is that it allows experimentation and learning to take place over an entire, and coherent, programme of study, assessing the student towards the end of the programme.

The GPA scheme is fundamentally different. It is, in effect, the by- product of the primary unit of assessment, namely the module. Under GPA, everything counts. The student receives a grade for each subject or module. If the modules have been assessed in percentages, then grades, and subsequently grade points, are derived automatically for each module from a set of rules based on ranges of percentages.

GPA usually refers to a student’s average performance on all the modules taken as part of their programme. It is therefore a mean with each module counting equally according to its credit value. Thus the GPA is a measure of the student’s performance over the whole programme.

GPA is arguably the dominant international currency for undergraduate awards, easily recognised and understood by international employers. It could be argued that UK students without a GPA are therefore at a disadvantage when applying for jobs overseas.

GPA also gives greater granularity to definitions of high achievement: 21 points are available between 2.0 and 4.0, compared with just five possible classes of honours degree.

The system also avoids the “cliff edge” of the British 2:1. Under the degree classification system, a student who gains 59 per cent overall will be awarded the same 2:2 degree classification as a student who gains 50 per cent overall, for example: yet the first student is just 1 per cent away from the student who gains 60 per cent overall and is awarded a 2:1.

Another argument in favour of GPA is that it increases student motivation, particularly in the first year.

On the other hand, some critics think that students’ motivation to experiment in the early semesters of degree programmes may be decreased, because “everything counts”.

There are other shortcomings which GPA shares with the honours degree classification system. These include the dubious validity of the assignment marking scales; the institutionally specific regulations for award calculations; and the inability of a single index to explain what students have learned. And employers can still create their own “cliff edges” using the GPA: for example, they may use 3.1 as a cut-off point when considering job applications.

So does the GPA have weaknesses? Arguably, yes. Does using the GPA in addition to an honours degree classification provide an enriched picture of student achievement? Definitely.

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