Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Degree classifications

There has been much debate over standards at UK universities. The worry is that now 60% achieve the two highest degree classifications: a first and a "2:1" degree. This has led to accusations that universities must be "dumbing down" because more students achiveve higher marks. In response, university leaders investigated the situation and claimed that we should stick with what we have because there is no clear superior degree classification system.

I am surprised the report does not endorse switching to a system like that found in the United States. In the US, students earn marks such as A, B, C, D, F with additional distinctions made within each mark (such as B+, B, and B-) and where each specific mark is worth x grade points (e.g., A = 4.0, B = 3.0). The scale for marks is commonly:

A = 94-100%
A- = 90-93%
B+ = 87-89%
B = 84-86%
B- = 80-81%
C+ = 77-79%
C = 74-76%
C- = 70-71%
D = 65-69%
F = 1-64%

Contrast this with the UK. Marks are as follows:

1st class honours (1st) = 70-100%
2nd class honours, upper division (2:1) = 60-69%
2nd class honours, lower division (2:2) = 50-59%
3rd class honours (3rd) = 40-49%
Fail = 0-39%

Note the wide differences between marks, for example that 1st class honours contains a range of 30 percentage points while others are ten points. Next note that a 2:1 is not as discriminating amongst the full range of marks as a B- or B+. (For this reason, many British employers ask for final averages and particular exam results.)

Finally, note that different subjects use different ranges. This is the major problem. In the sciences, it is not uncommon for students to earn 88% or higher. In all other subjects, marks above 75% are a rarity and virtually no marks are given above 80%. This means that there is non-standardization across subjects with regards to the full range of marks (e.g., as a medical student has the full range of 70-100% available for a first class degree and the philosophy student only about 70-75 or 70-80%).

One solution to this problem is to mark all students on a 0-100% scale as in the United States. The argument against is that non-science subjects are "inexact" subjects where such precision is impossible. I do not accept this. First, a 100 point scale is used in the US, Canada, and elsewhere for such subjects without problems. Second, is inexactness a worry when discriminating whether to award a mark of 72 or 73% that does not exist between a 93 and 94%? The inexactness worry suggests a difference which does not exist. Finally, if "exact" subjects (i.e., the sciences) we can achieve greater precision, then why not change the full scale for these subjects? A science exam can be 28% incorrect and be awarded a first class for its exactly correct 72%. However, a philosophy or music examination that was more than a quarter wrong would earn no more than (80 - 20 = 60) 60%, bordering on a 2:2. Why should there be such disparity?

The solution to degree classification worries is to introduce a system that is standardized across all subjects and that properly discriminates between similarly situated results. The A, A-, B+, etc. grade point system used in the US and Canada does this job far better than the UK degree classification system. If we want a better system, then we should seriously consider adopting this system.

This is not to say that I am against the current UK degree classification system. Rather, I am simply trying to present a case for moving to an alternative that might be an improvement over what is in place at present and contra the report noted above.

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