I’m just coming to the end of marking for the first semester. What a tedious task it is! I have small classes (20-30 students) so I can’t imagine what it’s like marking a first year module with a couple of hundred students. Marking is often a depressing experience with a lot of us going around questioning ourselves and asking if we (the lecturers) are the problem. Trying to be completely objective, I don’t think so. Personally, I find that I’m putting more and more time into my teaching and getting no sense that I’m achieving anything for an awful lot of students.
One thing that I have noticed is that over the years, the distribution of marks in my modules is becoming increasingly bimodal. There is a peak in the high mark region (>7o) and a much bigger peak in the pass/fail region. The middle seems to be disappearing. I don’t think it’s the fact that my questions are mathematical. The old cliche of a mathematical question being ‘right or wrong’ is way too simplistic. My questions are usually multipart with parts of varying difficulty and anyway there are degrees of ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness’. I often see, for example, solutions where the student stumbles on the right answer – this won’t get full marks like a well structured answer would.
So what’s going on? First, I have to admit that all my teaching has been on one degree program with moderate CAO entry requirements (mainly in the range 365-385 over the last decade but around 420 for our current first years) so my perspective is limited.
Anyway, I think that two things have happened. First, I believe we’ve changed our program, both in terms of its content and how we teach it, so that it is easier for good students to get high marks. This is not necessarily ‘dumbing down’ in my opinion, a subject I might return to on another day. Second, I think students are not working hard enough. This ranges from students who are not engaging at all and simply wasting their time to students who don’t seem to appreciate the level of committment that is required to complete an honours degree. They might think they are studying hard but it is clearly nowhere near hard enough.
Or perhaps their basic skills in mathematics are so poor that they simply can’t penetrate the subject – like trying to make a judgement about certain characters in a novel writtten in a language that you don’t really understand.
Anyway, it’s all over for another few months and I can get back to writing my textbook – a tale for another day perhaps.