Traditional Models of Learning
There is an ongoing debate within many universities about the role and purpose of the Degree Classification process. That is, the way that different institutions award their degrees, and the proportion of students who graduate with First Class or Second Class Honours. De Montfort University is no different, and the university keeps a vigilant eye on the mechanisms that the university uses to award final degrees, both for the purpose of keeping the university aligned with standard practice in the HE sector, and also to ensure that students have confidence in the classification process and the way that it is administrated. Discussion is always ongoing within the university about the need to adapt and change the existing arrangements, and as a contribution to that discussion, I want to outline some brief thoughts that might help to contextualise some issues.
With the introduction of fees there is enormous pressure on all universities to ensure that their graduates are perceived to be ‘optimally’ employable, by meeting the expectations of both the customers who undertake the degree programmes (for that is what students and learners will now be conceived as, especially as they are being asked to pay up to £9000 each year in fees); and also, in relation to the potential employers who will be scouring each university looking for talent, expertise and inventiveness. So, there is considerable pressure on Vice-Chancellors to show that each university has a classification and degree awarding process that reflects best practice in the sector, and which gives an appropriate proportion of awards that will help to lead graduates to meaningful and sustained employment. Employers, so the argument seems to go, make choices on the basis of the final outcomes of courses, that is the final degree classification award. Therefore, if we follow this line of thinking, universities must be able to award the full range of classifications in a due proportion that fits with the rest of the Higher Education sector and identifies that graduates from each institution have met a tangible and thorough quality thresholds.
Therefore, it is not uncommon that from time to time, changes to the classification and degree awarding process are proposed at different institutions that have the aim of both widening the range of degrees awarded, and also to lift the range of degrees that are awarded. Some institutions run the risk of clustering their awards around a mid-point average, say 2:2 awards, while others, instead, can point to the fact that they make a wide variety of awards – from third-class to first class. The pressure on Vice-Chancellors is to maintain an attractive market picture of their respective award profiles, as viewed against competitor institutions. At the same time, Vice Chancellors are also expected to maintain the fundamental integrity of their degree awarding processes in order to ensure that they are worth what they says they are. It is increasingly likely that the under-awarding of a due proportion of first-class and second-class honours degrees will be read as a signal of market failure, suggesting that the quality of the learning experience at any individual institution is either deficient or sub-optimal (or even in extreme cases ‘sub-prime’ to use an analogy with the busted American home loans markets).
The final classification that a student achieves, therefore, has to be open to interrogation and examination. In an ever competitive market for higher education awards, Vice-Chancellors will be working hard to ensure that the degree awards that they deliver will be comparable with other institutions in the sector. At the same time, students and their parents will be increasingly likely to question the outcomes of the decision-making process that culminated in the awarding of a degree. Almost everyone working in the sector is expecting a significant rise in the number of appeals and complaints about the degree awarding decisions as a consequence. So, I don’t envy Vice-Chancellors as they struggle with this problem. If it was me making these decisions I would be nervous about the way in which each respective institutions seeks to maintain the integrity of the degree classification process, I would be cautious about the balance of the risks involved if this process is deficient, and particularly, I would be worried about the resulting consequences to the reputation of the awarding institution if these processes are out of step with the majority opinion of the sector and it’s customers. It is fair to say that there is a lot resting on the integrity of the awards system.
Now, let’s consider two factors that pull these issues in the opposite direction and away from the comfort of a centrally managed, well-balanced and systematic classification system. The first, which in my view will come to be seen as of greater importance than the questions raised about the classification process, but which is less likely to be challenged by a modification of a set of regulations or changes to an algorithm. Namely, the issue of feedback. In all of the surveys that are undertaken of learners at each level of their studies, there is a satisfaction deficiency with the way that feedback is offered, managed and undertaken across the Higher Education sector as a whole. Feedback, it seems, is the great rock of negative energy that the expectations and experiences of learners is continually bashed against, and on which seemingly sound teaching and learning strategies continually run aground. Across all universities in the sector there is a continually expressed dissatisfaction with the purpose, format and role that feedback plays in the learning process. All attempts to change learners perceptions of feedback are hard-won and are not easily rewarded with shifts in attitude by learners, as expressed in surveys like the National Student Survey.
Course teams and individual academics, therefore, can put in place a wide range of strategies and action plans that will improve the level satisfaction in the feedback process, but ultimately they seem to falter and disperse as expectations are primed, only for them to be let down by occasional and often isolated poor experiences that taint the views of learners about feedback that would otherwise be satisfactory. Is there any hope of improving this situation? Yes of course there is. Unfortunately significant changes will not be achieved while universities are wedded to the present – some would say anachronistic – form of classification and assessment that dominates thinking about what constitutes success on a degree course.
Consider this. There is a fundamental tension between the outcomes of degree courses as represented in the classification systems and the desire and need for individual learners to experience a meaningful programme of self-improvement and development. The majority degree classification system is designed to be summative, that is it is based on a mark at the end, and is therefore unlikely to give a sense of satisfaction to individuals that they have personally developed and improved. Merely that they have been able to rise above an often ill-defined threshold or hurdle for which they have little comprehension of or meaningful connection with. The extreme of this situation is typified by courses that focus the weighting of their assessment outcomes on final examinations. A student may cram and regurgitate sufficiently for them to pass and indeed do well in an examination, but it is clearly doubtful that they are able to take the concepts that they are working with and meaningfully adopt them, prove them and ensure that they work in practice as well as in theory.
The model represented here gives a somewhat simplified overview of the traditional learning experience as practiced by the vast majority of undergraduate courses. Firstly, each level of learning is marked by an attainment threshold that is managed – often – by a complex set of regulations that express what progress is ‘normally’ likely to take the form of. These regulations often become increasingly complex and require expert interpretation, almost in a quasi-judicial manner. Then in order to assist the individual learner each level of progress is weighted so that the vast bulk of the degree classification is awarded at the end of the process. Sometimes there is a trading process that is applied so that a student may ‘discount’ a number of their module marks and select the best from a range of applicable modules. Likewise, in order to meet the minimum threshold at each level there is a set number of credits that must be achieved before a learner becomes entitled to progress to the next level. If they fail to do this they may often re-sit a set number of credits, before trading down to a lower level degree outcome if they are unable to attain this threshold. I hope you are following this, because the complexity of regulations of this kind seems to be becoming an ever-more detailed, cumbersome and detached process which doesn’t seem to relate to learning. By and large most universities are using their classification systems to ‘manage’ the outcomes of their degree courses in an attempt to give parity between each programme, and thus to manage the range of expectations that learners have about what they can expect to be a satisfactory award, even if it is on the basis that they get the award just because they have turned-up to attend their course.
In this linear model the administration of the regulations becomes ever-more complex. With more appeals, more systematic checking, and many more ‘exceptions’ that a cumbersome system must put in place in order to keep operating. The poor-old learner is something of a bystander in this process. All they can hope for is to get through to their final year where the vast majority of their work will be credited. Ironically, it is all too often too late at this point to make any real improvements to the learning patterns and expectations of each student. Thinking about how we learn and how we develop and manage knowledge in the final year of a degree programme is like shutting the door after the horse has bolted. The chance has gone for most undergraduates to show any real improvement or developmental change in their attitudes or capabilities at that point. And they certainly don’t get any reward for it. So, instead, the metric that is used to measure performance becomes flexible and malleable. It allows for wide variations in the performance of students to be given a similar reckoning. A learner who shows consistent improvement in their performance across the early years of their learning, is no more or less likely to be rewarded with a successful degree award than a student who does nothing for nearly three years, and then who throws everything at the final assessments – usually exams – in the hope that they will land successfully on their feet. In this way students who work progressively gain little reward and students who display the potential for higher levels of achievement are allowed to coast.
Formative Feedback Classification Model
But there is an alternative. Degree courses, their learning and teaching strategies, and their award strategies, should be focussed, instead, exclusively on a ‘feedback priority’ model of learning and knowledge development. Where a traditionally linear programmes will have an ad-hoc and indeterminate approach to feedback, it is instead more than possible to build a programme of study (that is achievement and assessment), that is based on individual performance, feedback and improvement. At each stage of their studies a learner ought to be given a balanced reward-card for the improvements that they have made during their previous period of study and activity. What is it that we most value from our graduates? Their ability to work independently to a required standard is our chief priority. Helping learners to acquire the intellectual tools for the job in each respective discipline, so that they can move forward and work without direction or restriction – in other words to think for themselves – is the greatest gift that an educator can bestow. But rather than thinking that competence can only be achieved and demonstrated through summative assessment processes, it is my belief that more can be achieved through formative assessment and through properly mapped and tested individual assessment strategies.
It is often assumed in universities that learning and teaching takes care of itself. That there is no need to interrogate the practices and the techniques of academics as they engage learners in their areas of study. In the new fees-based environment the demand from learners for academic tutors that are capable and who understand the learning process is going to intensify. We can see this in the NSS results for each course and each institution. The quality of teaching staff will be measured, not simply in the number of research publications that an academic has, but equally in the level of satisfaction that is expressed by learners. If learning programmes cannot be developed that satisfy the performance improvement expectations of learners, then it will not matter what form of research excellence an academic or a department has, it will founder on the rock of student feedback.
Degree Classification Systems SWOT Analysis
There is an additional benefit that the feedback model of assessment mapping brings, and that is a major simplification of the system of classification. Because it is an aggregate system, it becomes simpler to administer, and it becomes more transparent and easier to understand. With the principle of equal weighting, aggregate marking and achievement benchmarking, learners will be able to manage their own strategies for improvement against a metric that is designed to be stable and simply the expression of the collected outcomes of many pieces of work. The trade-off will be that course teams will be forced to examine their respective programmes of study and map-out in greater detail the expectations that they have for success or failure at each level of study. Surely it has to be anomalous that you can pass a course with an aggregate mark that indicates that you know less than fifty percent of the expected learning outcomes associated with that subject?
Finally, I would hope that Vice-Chancellors look carefully at adopting the schemes of Grade-Point Averages more widely. Administration costs of the traditional classification system alone are unsustainable, but taking the challenge and becoming leaders in the field of employability by adopting a ‘feedback-centric’ approach will see a marked rise in quality and capability of our learners.