The recent and impressive study on grade inflation in the IoT sector comes at an appropriate time. Exam boards are coming to an end and the various drivers of student grades are fresh in our minds.
There is absolutely no doubt that grade inflation is occurring, i.e. third level students are getting higher grades and doing so even when their second level performance would suggest that their grades should be getting lower.
The usual explanation for grade inflation is that third level has been ‘dumbed down’ and the implication is that the dumbing down has been ‘enforced’ by management.
Just to get the second of these out of the way, I can say with total conviction that never in my 30 years in DCU have I ever felt any pressure from anybody in a managerial position to inflate the grades I give to my students, or to dumb down the material that I teach.
What I have seen over the years is an extremely compassionate body of academics, many if not most of whom are parents themselves and who inevitably want to do their best for students, even if in some cases we are a bit misguided. At exam boards, therefore, student marks are routinely raised for all sorts of quite legitimate reasons. Students are looked at holistically and most reasonable academics recognise that assessing students is an inexact science and there is almost an obligation on us to give students the benefit of the doubt, especially when they are as over-assessed as they are in the modern modular system. In my experience, this whole process is driven by us, the academics: no managers are involved.
So what about the dumbing down? The whole concept of dumbing down is predicated on the idea that there exists some objective third level standard and that this standard was set some time in the relatively distant past. Personally, there has never been any immutable standard for the courses that I teach. I set a ‘standard’ of sorts and it varies from year to year and from class to class. I used to do this unconsciously but now I do it consciously. After a few lectures and tutorials with a class I get a sense of where they are at academically and I adjust my teaching methods accordingly. In general, weaker classes require more ‘spoon feeding’ and so they experience a slightly different ‘me’ than stronger classes. But in both cases the goal is the same. As an aside, I think it is very interesting how group dynamics seem to shape the overall class performance and I think this goes some way towards explaining why CAO points only correlate weakly with third level performance. I have a feeling that a small number of students can set the tone for a class and if the tone-setters are high achievers with a strong work ethic this can rub off on the entire class. The opposite is also the case unfortunately. The important point in all of this is that the ‘standard’, whatever that means, is not constant but is constantly varying, not only downwards but upwards as well.
But even if we were to accept that there is some universal standard ‘out there’ that all autonomous institutions should be aspiring to, are there any reasons why students should be getting higher grades? Of course there are and they are all pretty predictable. Improved teaching is the obvious one and it is worth noting that many of the developments in the whole area of third level T&L (the National Forum, for example) are driven by the IoT sector.
But there is a danger, I admit, that we are becoming ‘lawnmower academics’, cutting a swathe through the third level forest, creating a smooth, predictable path that all students can navigate, albeit a path with lots of academic hurdles of ever increasing number and ever diminishing height. But even that is not quite the same as ‘dumbing down’; it is more a case of creating a system in which it is easier, and more acceptable, to score highly. The old days of having to be a genius to get 70% are long gone, and rightly so. However, within the modern highly-managed and structured system, a system that incorporates large elements of continuous assessment, there is still plenty of scope to challenge students. And challenge them we do.
So I’m not bothered by grade inflation. As readers of this blog will know, however, I am bothered by the extent to which many students do not fully commit to their studies. These are the students who fail repeatedly and scrape through with low H2.2s or H3s when with a bit of focus they should be well capable of getting H2.1s.