A remarkable exam statistic

I’ve just finished marking my Semester One scripts. I shared four modules and the total number of scripts was close to one hundred. Remarkably, less than 5% of the marks on these modules, which are mathematical, were in the 60-69% range. There were plenty of marks in the range 70 – 97% however

This is something that I (and colleagues) have noticed before – a bimodal sort of distribution. Now, I’ve taught for over 20 years so I don’t think that I (and the three other colleagues involved) are particularly bad at setting exams. Here’s what I think is going on….

Many students who attend third level simply do not engage and are destined to do badly regardless of the effort we put in. At the same time, the mathematical ability of the population has declined to a level where students who, in the past, could do ok, are now struggling to cope, despite their best efforts. Finally, it has become easier for the intelligent, committed student to get very high marks – a sort of ‘dumbing down’ I suppose. In effect, the 60s of yesterday are the 70+ marks of today. The result of all this is that the ‘middle’ is disappearing.

I wonder if anyone else has noticed this type of distribution?

PS I’ll upload the actual distribution when I return to this topic at the end of the academic year when all results are finalised and there are no issues with confidentiality etc.


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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