GPA system could lead to lower marks for women in STEM

Use of American system involving first-year marks may have ‘depressive effect’ on student grades

October 30, 2014

Source: Kobal

Many female scientists would leave university with lower marks if universities were to adopt the degree classification system used in the US, analysis suggests.

Some 19 universities are currently taking part in a Higher Education Academy pilot to see if a grade point average system could replace – or run alongside – the honours degree classification system.

The two-year pilot, the results of which will be published by July 2015, follows criticisms that the existing system is “broken” because it fails to distinguish between different levels of achievement (68 per cent of graduates received a 2:1 or better in 2012-13) and that it creates unfair “cliff edges” for those who narrowly miss out on a classification.

But the HEA’s proposed GPA model, which would provide a numerical score based on the average of all marks achieved over three years, may mean that some students graduate with lower grades because their first-year marks would be included, critics have warned.

Speaking at a Westminster Higher Education Forum in London on 23 October, Vivien Jones, pro vice-chancellor (student education) at the University of Leeds, said that women studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses would be hardest hit by moving to a GPA system.

Based on an analysis in which GPA was applied to almost 5,000 undergraduates in Leeds’ 2012-13 cohort, the university found that 16.5 per cent of female STEM students would get lower grades under GPA than the existing classification system, which is based largely on marks achieved in the final year.

“We do not want depressive effects [on] our students’ results,” said Professor Jones, who warned that the number of equivalent first-class degrees awarded under GPA (which would equate to 3.75 or higher, in effect an A) would fall by 8 per cent across the university.

Academics at Leeds who teach modern languages had also expressed concerns about including first-year marks in degree classifications because their students “take longer to get going”, she added.

Her concerns were echoed by Laura Jackson, president of York St John University’s students’ union, who said that the first year of university is “a huge learning curve as students adapt to a new learning experience”.

Students who had taken a gap year, as she had, could also suffer if first-year marks are included, Ms Jackson said. “My first-year grades were abysmal compared to those I achieved in the second and third years as I had to re-settle myself into learning,” she said.

Students may also avoid taking risks in their studies if first-year marks are counted, she said, adding: “People learn the most when they make mistakes.”

However, Matthew Andrews, academic registrar at Oxford Brookes University, which introduced a parallel GPA system last year, said it had motivated students who had thought that “the first year doesn’t count”.

Student achievement had risen by just under 1 percentage point among first-year students last year once results were adjusted for students’ gender and socio-economic status, said Mr Andrews. A quarter of students actually did better under GPA than they did in the current honours system, in which Oxford Brookes counts marks from the best 14 modules (out of 16) achieved in the final two years, he added.

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Reader's comments (3)

The current system may be 'broken', but the 3-year GPA scheme means that student have to hit the floor running. A number of HEI's I know are considering, even in the present system, to move to a straight Pass/Fail in the first year....admittedly, in some cases, because first year grades 'don't matter' as long as you pass. The main argument against GPA in the first year, particularly in the arts (though it's interesting that it's a scientist who is criticising it), is that it militates against 'journeys of discovery' and risk-taking.
Going to a GPA system with a first year contribution to final grades also runs contrary to the well-established, if informal, notion of a '1st year to adjust to University life and to being away from home'. The first year traditionally offered a levelling and catch-up opportunity for many students, and a chance for those from non-native English speaking countries to work on their language skills.
I agree that making the actual marks public may be a good thing, but I do thank that leaving the first year out is better, for all the reasons cited already - it gives students chance to 'get 'going', to catch-up, to learn the way that work needs to be approached at an advanced level and to allow time for curiosity, risk-taking and experimentation. Personally, I would have lost out considerably with the GPA, as I gained my 2:1 mostly in my final year, after maturing (academically speaking) during my year abroad. I have then completed a PhD (unlikely with a 2:2) and now work in the HE sector.