Of marking, bell curves, and what we are trying to achieve

I threw a hand grenade into the tutorial discussion today to see how students would react and to get them thinking about what the goal of learning actually is or might be: “what do you think of the idea of giving students a flat HD (85/100) at the start of the semester (or some other arbitrary mark above 50%) so we get the messy, partially subjective evaluation of their assignments out of the road? It would of course come at a price: you would have to sign a ‘learning contract’ with me which obliges you to attend every tutorial. If you miss a tutorial for any reason (illness, laziness, other priorities) and do not want to lose 5 marks and thus drop below a HD, you need to make up the lost tutorial somehow and to my satisfaction: for example, arrange to spend an hour with me in my office going over the tutorial information for the missed week and demonstrate what you have learned in absentia; or submit an extra small assignment based on that week’s pre-class learning materials and tutorial discussions. In addition, you also need to do the set assignments and demonstrate that you have sufficiently understood and achieved the key learning goals”. Sub-standard work could be critiqued and sent back to students to re-consider and re-work leading to re-submission. If students do not meet the minimum standards of engagement and demonstrated learning outcomes, their marks could be progressively reduced from a HD. Since UTS claims it does not apply a bell curve (Gaussian Distribution) for marking (a predetermined percentage of students will obtain each grade), the experiment would not upset anyone except traditionalists.

In the end, WHAT ARE WE TRYING TO ACHIEVE? Make students leap through a flaming hoop and then mark them up or down accordingly? Or are we testing to see if growth in self-learning behaviours (self-reflection, self-assessment) have occurred? I realise this idea would probably not translate across from Humanities/Social Science disciplines to other disciplines, especially ones that require exact replication of teaching materials (nursing principles on which people’s lives depend, engineering principles which determine if bridges stay up or fall down, etc), but the idea is to move away from producing parrots and instead allowing much more creative, independent learners to blossom. Is the goal to differentiate between students based on mark, or bring them all to a level of self-understanding and development which enables them for employment and life-long learning? Outstanding students will differentiate themselves, so we don’t need to fetishize marks.  When students go for jobs, the interview process focuses on way more than just the grades they got at university (which may only indicate the ability to parrot back and to cram for exams). I admit that competition for marks using a bell curve creates incentives, but not for everyone, and what kind of incentive in the end? Competition does not necessarily foster team work, communication and solidarity with peers, which seem to be part of our ideal our graduate attributes. How did students respond to this idea?

The first group was initially shocked, then warmed to the idea, but still were non-committal, though some thought it would be an interesting experiment. Students (as with teachers) have been conditioned their whole lives to work with the individual, competitive, bell curve model. The second tutorial group was also intrigued, though there was one visceral and vociferous negative reaction: “it devalues high grades!”. To which I responded: “But what do high grades really represent? The ability to parrot back and to cram for exams and tests? Is that a satisfactory learning outcome within what UTS is trying to achieve with student-centred learning?” Another student thought it was a good idea, but with a lower starting point: “start at a mid-credit – 70% – then work up or down depending on performance”. Yet another asked: “what about pushing the starting mark up to higher than 85/100 if it is deserved?” “Sure”, I responded. Anyway, just an idea.

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