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Grade-inflation deniers

42 replies

GCandproud · 14/05/2022 10:15

I’ve seen the latest article doing the rounds, saying that 38% of students now get first class degrees. A decade ago it was about 15%. Lots of academics are shouting that there is no such thing - students are getting clever, teaching is getting better. Here for example:

Now I know that there are people who only really find their feet at university and excel despite not doing so before. But to assume that people falling into this category (as well as ‘improvement in teaching’, ahem) make up all the people with poor entry grades doing surprisingly well seems so misguided. Of course grades are being inflated. I’ve been at the exam boards where we are told to raise all marks by 10%, meaning that people who haven’t done any reading beyond the textbook are getting 2.1 grades. I’ve been told to give marks in the 80s and 90s, I’ve seen work that would have been a low 2.1 when I was at Uni (only in the mid 00s so not the dark ages) get given top marks.

As for better teaching? While I was taught largely by profs, readers, SLs and lecturers at my RG Uni, nowadays most of the teaching in our dept is by hourly paid GTAs and overstretched teaching fellows. I can’t accept that it’s better than in the past. I suspect the complete opposite. In some places, over recruitment has led to seminar groups of 30+ students. My students certainly don’t work harder than in the past either (it’s a miracle if they’ve done any reading), although for some of them that’s because they have to also work alongside their studies.

Why is there such a drive to deny that marketisation has led to inflated grades? Is it ego (I’m such a great teacher that all my students get brilliant marks)? Or something else? It just annoys me.

OP posts:

xxuserxx · 30/05/2022 11:30

@poetryandwine My experience with the current generation of students is fairly similar to yours. The very best students are extremely impressive, with a really wide range of skills. Although in my experience (RG, physical sciences) the size of that group is pretty small (~1%). My best undergraduate project students this year have been a pair with pretty weak grades. They struggled a bit with technical things, but were willing to 'roll their sleeves up', learn from their mistakes, listen to my advice, and get stuff done. While much better (on paper) students couldn't cope with not being able to do everything easily immediately, paniced, ran around like headless chickens, ignored advice and lurched from one silly mistake to another.


xxuserxx · 30/05/2022 11:34

Kathleen Stock's substack has an interesting post which touches on some of the things discussed on this and other threads.


Stroopwaffels · 30/05/2022 11:36

I'm very old - I graduated for the first time in 1995. On the day I graduated it was all Arts/Business graduates, lots of courses like Geography and Spanish, or History and French, or just German, or similar.

Out of the entre 500 odd of us who graduated that day I could count on one hand the number of firsts. It was so rare that it was remarkable - as it it would be remarked upon, "Did you hear Fiona got a first!?" I would say it was about 60% 2:1, 40% 22. Firsts were more common in Engineering/Science, but still v v unusual.

Almost 40% getting first class degrees is so alien to me. But grade inflation has happened in school subjects too, when I applied to get into Uni (in Scotland) the minimum required grades at Higher were BBBB. I got in with AABB. The same course now demands a minimum of AAAA.


jevoudrais · 30/05/2022 11:39

I swear this was being said in 2014 when I graduated with a First, that numbers were overinflated. Made me feel like people wanted to knock down my degree.


poetryandwine · 30/05/2022 12:20

Thank you @xxuserxx for the link to Kathleen Stock’s post of 26 May. I disagree with her on the specifics of the Natasha A case, but that is because the degree of the disability was so great and I think Bristol’s previous track record with NA was so dire.

On the larger question, I am hugely for inclusiveness and reasonable accommodation ( my record on Mit Circs panels confirms this). But I found the post fascinating and valid. I thought KS quite reasonable when she said, if I am not allowed to call on certain students in a philosophy seminar, they are missing a crucial aspect of disciplinary education as it has been understood for centuries. I found myself thinking, if your social anxiety is so bad that you cannot participate in seminar, perhaps you should not be studying philosophy? I am waiting for the student who wants to become a consultant radiologist or psychiatrist but has a blood phobia, hence finds the medical curriculum and the requirements for licensure discriminatory.

On a happier note I should concur that I have also had several weak students do exceptionally strong projects and I have a sense that their positive approach may have been conditioned by a determination to get their money’s worth. A false dichotomy but perhaps more prevalent than we realise.


poetryandwine · 30/05/2022 12:26

PS it is relatively easy for me to support inclusiveness because one thing — one of the few things — my School does well is that the Student Support Office organises all the kerfuffle around the special needs for students with disabilities. Eg they will say, ‘Please email us a copy of your coursework test three days ahead’ and from that you can deduce that some number of your students will be taking the test in various formats in various locations. Then they deliver the tests back to you.

I know we are very lucky and it can much more of a burden for others.


QuebecBagnet · 30/05/2022 14:25

I think that Kathleen Stock’s article is interesting, particularly the bit about bunched assessments. My uni has a fear of it and consequently we have assessments at odd points in the year which don’t always make sense particularly for year 1 and 2.

year 3 is slightly more bunched. So they had a presentation, then 2 weeks later an osce and a 3000 word essay in the same week, and three weeks after that essay and osce they had a 3000 report on the same subject as their presentation. So 4 assessments in 6 weeks. Blimey half the cohort had extensions for at least one of the assessments just saying they didn’t have time to do everything and it was causing them anxiety. We’ve been really relaxed since covid and don’t ask for evidence and just grant extensions at the magic word of “anxiety”.

But I agree that we’re not helping the students to learn time management skills.

with regards to the Bristol student who sadly killed herself what is a university supposed to do with a student with documented mental health issues who says they find exams stressful? Looks like they will have to be given an alternative assignment to do such as an essay? 🤷‍♀️ We will soon have modules where half the students are undertaking the original assessment, half refusing to so, some of those happy with alternative assessment A, some still saying that’s too much and they want an alternative assessment B instead.


Darhon · 30/05/2022 16:42

consultant radiologist or psychiatrist but has a blood phobia, hence finds the medical curriculum and the requirements for licensure discriminatory.

The competence requirements - which include venepuncture and cannulation etc - are legally enshrined so they cannot be adjusted. So that will offer some protection to professionally regulated courses.


poetryandwine · 30/05/2022 16:47

I agree with you about the potential mess that alternative assessments may bring, @QuebecBagnet. In STEM, students wrongly think that the type of alternative written assessments you refer to (projects, open book exams, etc) will be easier. Anyone sensible would rather be examined on material they ought to know (meaning truly understand) than asked to develop new concepts in a high level maths, physics or CS module on an exam, even if it is open book. The latter, being more difficult, will end up causing more anxiety.

Then what? Essays with no problem solving component? I am a soft touch but that would be revoltingly unfair to the other students.


burnoutbabe · 30/05/2022 17:09

I'm stunned by the number of extensions my fellow masters students manage to get.

And also lack of appreciation for THE SYSTEM - we had a half semester module - first 5 weeks, and an essay due from that at end of the semester (plus easter break)

Topic to be agreed by the professor before end of our teaching. And yet, we had people whinging 1 WEEK before essat due that they'd send the professor their topic a few days ago (so during easter break) and they'd not approved it yet so how were they supposed to write it??

I just suggested that they just got on and wrote it at this point. the professor was on holiday (and actually was out the country). But i expect they will moan that it wasn't fair, they didn't have an agreed topic so not their fault if what they wrote wasn't on topic (or too broad/too narrow)

(and 1st undergrad for me back in 1990s, i think 4 people got a first out of 200 - finance degree, this one - 20-25% got a first)


Oystercatchers · 30/05/2022 18:36

GCandproud · 30/05/2022 08:07

That sounds fairly horrendous and I’m guessing Oxbridge? I’m not convinced that that sort of thing doesn’t still happen there and it’s quite different to what I am discussing here. I also did my degree nearly 20 years ago and what you describe would not have happened at my large red brick RG institution. Definitely no lecturers sitting on our beds and any talk about black people being inferior would have generated a huge complaint.
I am talking about a gradual inflation in the number of top grades which has coincided precisely with the marketisation of HE and the competition to gain as many students as possible. On many courses, even if entry requirements are high on paper, this doesn’t mean all students on that course meet these. There are hundreds of courses where students are accepted, sometimes with significantly lower grades than the official entry, because they bring in money to the university.
I agree that there is more explicit direction now, how to write an essay etc but I still don’t think it accounts for the dramatic rise in grades. I have also encountered plenty of students who have very very poor writing and research skills yet still expect high grades. Preparation for seminars is also pretty dire and a huge contrast to what I used to do as a student. There is also a belief by many students that they are working extremely hard, when that is evidently not the case. On one module I teach, I had more people with extensions than without this year. I refuse to believe these were all genuine. Throughout my entire time at university, I never once applied for an extension.
I appreciate that it’s probably different depending on where you work. I’m at a mid ranking pre-92, not RG.

I do know what you mean - I'm sure the sitting on beds is someone exploiting a quirk of Oxbridge to be a pervert. But, perverts gonna pervert. If he'd been at Bristol I imagine he'd have found his way. And I have plenty of contemporaries from a diverse range of institutions who, unfortunately, acknowledge that open racism/sexism/homophobia/general bigotry wasn't unusual across the board.

I think I was rambling a bit (sorry!), but my original point was that when people complain that students are taught by grad students or ECRs it gets me down a bit. A lot of grad student/ECR teachers are actually quite well-trained compared to the average SL/reader/prof in my day, who might have been great or might have been absolutely awful, but who'd usually had virtually no training in teaching at all.

I'm at a newish RG (and very part-time/casual atm), but I know you're right about extensions. How much of that is to do with covid I'm not sure - to me it seems dramatically worse this year than pre-covid (and a bit worse than last year). But, again ... I do find it difficult to judge, because yes, probably some extensions are granted that aren't really merited, but when you compare that to the earlier situation where getting proper accommodations for disabled students was nigh-on impossible, I am not sure it's clear the current situation is worse. Not perfect, sure: but not necessarily worse.


Oystercatchers · 30/05/2022 18:37

Oh, sorry, and this is SarahAndQuack - I just forgot to NC, and also quoted a monster post there because I've had a long day and my brain has started to melt.


GCandproud · 31/05/2022 08:01

None of the comments should be seen as a slight on PGR students but it is a fact that they are hugely underpaid and often have to take multiple jobs just to stay afloat. At my institution, hourly paid lecturers get paid half an hour prep for each hour of teaching. For some of the seminars, you’d need to spend about a day preparing if the material is new to you. In my department, PGRs are allocated teaching based on need, meaning that often they are teaching things that are unfamiliar to them. Yes, they do the uni’s teaching qualification which all staff have to do but having done that myself, it doesn’t offer great training for teaching. I know there are more senior staff who are rubbish teachers but overall, given the huge deterioration in conditions for teaching staff, I am not convinced that “higher teaching standards” is the explanation for an exponential rise in grades over the past decade. I mean, half of my students don’t even attend seminars or lectures on a regular basis so wouldn’t even be able to benefit from it.

The extension situation is ludicrous. Pandemic or no, I absolutely refuse to believe that 60% of the cohort has been struck down by illness or other issues all at the same time. For an assignment they have had months to write. It’s pathetic that most of them can’t even turn in a piece of work on time (and to clarify, I am not counting people who have an official disability support plan here). Many of them get extensions across multiple assignments and apply several times over the year. Apparently the Uni is trying to crack down on this but without success. Obviously staff don’t get an extension for marking….

OP posts:

AtomicBlondeRose · 31/05/2022 08:13

I teach sixth form and recognise many of these issues in my own students, and it’s definitely got worse recently. Our current lower sixth have no concept of deadlines at all - it’s the first year in my teaching career that I’ve looked in a group’s folders after deadline and literally found 90% had stuff just…not there. Not badly done or incomplete, they’d handed in folders with half the work simply not done! I’ve actually never had this before - I’m used to the mad scramble two days before deadline when every computer in the department has a frazzled student sitting at it all day typing madly, not a “oh, I haven’t done it” attitude. I actually had to write out cover slips for them all with FAIL in big letters on the front in the hope this might actually shock them into doing the work. I keep saying “covid isn’t going to bail you out this year, you know!”.

I’ve also had the student which such anxiety that they would email me about every single step of an assignment. And when I either didn’t reply (10’o’clock on Saturday night when I knew full well their work is already at distinction level anyway) or just told them to read the copious handouts, PowerPoints etc I’d already provided, they complained about me and my lack of support. I doubt this will stop at university! Students regularly now skive lessons to get out of handing homework in, doing presentations etc. It’s considered completely normal and reasonable. And yes they certainly consider having “worked hard” on something good enough and therefore find any criticism hard to bear. Even when I know they didn’t work hard by my standards in any sense.

However I do also have bright, motivated young people who love their subject, read up on it outside college, participate fully and take advantage of every opportunity available to them. So I’m happy that I’ll be sending some of those of to university as they’ll have an outstanding time and be rewarding to teach!


Hathertonhariden · 31/05/2022 08:30

As an employer, university grades have become meaningless as a way of assessing applicants. Rightly or wrongly, the public perception that most young adults go to university and get 1sts or 2.1s devalues the qualifications.


RubyRoss · 31/05/2022 12:33

The extension and no submission issue is very difficult because they often only reference ‘stress’, ‘anxiety’, or ‘difficulties’ so it’s hard to identify genuine cases without putting in effort to tease out their problems, which is draining and time consuming.

I tend to be lenient because I once had a student told anyone at the university that his parents had died. I was shocked when he told me what he’d being going through so I worry that some of the vague requests are students who are in a bad way and struggling to articulate it.

Requests for extensions reached absurd levels this year and I found myself very pissed off with the arrogant and rude attitude some students. I've heard similar from employers who are now slow to hire under 25s because their work ethic and attitude is so bad.


RubyRoss · 31/05/2022 12:34

a student who told no one [an edit option would be nice]

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