Consider a student who has completed an undergraduate, three-year degree and has finished with an average grade of 57%. At their university, first-year grades do not count towards the final degree classification, second-year grades count towards 40% of the final award, and third-year grades count towards 60%. Students study eight modules in both the second and third years, with each module being assessed by an essay and exam (each weighted at 50%). This means that, in second-year, each of the 16 elements of assessment contributes 2.5% towards the final degree classification and, at third-year, each element of assessment contributes 3.75%.
Our hypothetical student, with a mean of 57%, will be awarded a 2ii, but what would it have taken to move them up to a 2i? Could more rigorous second-marking and external examination procedures have helped our student by identifying a few marks, here and there, that could have pushed them over the threshold? The answer? Almost certainly not.
Supposing we decided to focus upon a single second-year module: in order to achieve the extra 2.5% needed on their mean grade in order to take them to a 2i, our student would need to have one element of coursework that, subject to moderation, was given an improved re-grading of 100% (i.e. have been awarded 0% by the first-marker, but given 100% by the second-marker or external examiner)!!!, or, they would need to have their score inflated by 6.25% on all 16 pieces of coursework at second-year.
Alternatively, at third-year, they would need to have one piece of coursework re-graded from, for example, 68% to 135%!!!, or, have their grades inflated by over 4% on every single one of the 16 third-year assignments.
Have you ever been involved in a single round of moderation that resulted in anything approaching the magnitude and consistency of changes indicated above?
This is the argument presented by Sue Bloxham in her article ‘Marking and Moderation in the UK: false assumptions and wasted resources’, published in Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education. Vol. 34, No. 2, 2009 (pp.209-220), and which was the chosen text for the latest meeting of our reading group.
Essentially, Bolxham’s argument is that, since second-marking and external examining almost never results in anything like the magnitude of changes that would be required to improve a student’s mean grade by even a couple of percentage points, moderation at the level of individual modules is a waste of time and resources. These resources, she suggests, would be better invested in the practice of teaching rather than in QA procedures that have no benefits to the actual learning of students.
As alternatives to the status-quo, Bloxham has a couple of suggestions:
First, moderation could take place at the level of programmes. This way, the programme team acknowledges that the grades awarded for individual modules are somewhat unreliable so, instead, the professional judgement of a group of tutors is used to assess a student’s grade profile and to come to a decision as to the most appropriate mean grade that should be awarded. More careful moderation would be reserved for only the most borderline of cases, or where marked inconsistency in grading is identified. This would greatly reduce the moderation burden, thus freeing up time for tutors to engage in giving more timely and bespoke feedback to students (which Bloxham states has been proven to be important for improving students’ learning).
The second alternative is that focus could be switched to investigating ‘sets of work where individual tutors’ means and standard deviations fall outside the norms of other modules completed by the same or similar cohorts of students within and outside the subject area’ (p.217).
Bloxham finishes by discussing recent theoretical developments that advocate inducting students into the creation of their own feedback, and also the need for academics to grapple with the epistemological questions relating to how ‘knowledge of what is a good exam answer, essay, project or piece’ in the context of their discipline is created.
What are your thoughts about Bloxham’s arguments?