Does the trend in higher grades mean improved learning?

This time the focus is on grades and on teaching content design in academic courses.

Has it become easier to get better grades? Is this a good thing? Or not?

What do you think of grading with a bell curve? Does your university’s marking system need to have a certain percentage of students who fail? If you are a student, would you even know if this was the case? How would a student find this out? As a lecturer or tutor, at what point in your first teaching semester do you get this information?

Anecdotally, I did not benefit from the bell curve practice before I stopped studying in intensively delivered qualifications. While I failed the first course, they accepted me into its more advanced version after I taught English in Argentina and Brazil for a couple of years (and did not pass that either). Later I learned that the organisation insisted on the bell curve approach to grading and everyone I met who had failed was not of the main student nationality. I ended up studying a Master of Education specialising in teaching second languages, by distance over two years. This was only possible because, after the quick fix that didn’t work, I had worked through a Graduate Diploma of Education.

Leaving aside the perils of condensed courses, a continuing conversation exists about standards and what they may or may not mean.  

Are standards in university courses falling? What is the evidence?

In the UK there has been some concern about how grades have improved over recent years and whether this is an indicator of better learning and teaching or not. Stuart Tannock, an associate professor in the sociology of education at the UCL Institute of Education, asks questions about what grading should mean, if anything. Are grades a way or sorting students for job recruitment or is assessment about giving feedback to encourage learning? Do consistently higher grades in particular courses mean there is something less than rigorous in those courses’ assessment models? Or are students actually learning better in these courses?

Interestingly, in Australia the standards of teaching are offered on one particular website in two forms, standards for course design and standards for the promotional level of lecturers, which are two separate accreditation processes. This website represents the views of five universities based in Western Australia and similar frameworks are applied in other parts of the country. It is known as the Australian University Teaching Criteria and Standards Framework (AUTCSF).

What happens when you design courses to develop practical skills?

Assessment design can be quite complex as there has been a move for many years now for assignment tasks to mirror real life activities in the profession for which the course is preparing students. This has arisen in Australia from the vocationally oriented competency based approach to education favoured by the Tertiary Education and Quality Standards Agency. My experience in teaching across undergraduate and postgraduate teacher preparation courses has shown that these vocationally oriented standards, while well intentioned, can mean 15 to 20 pages of documentation about the assignment task, which might only be 1500 words long or less. In wading through this, students often miss the significance of the stated learning objectives. This means some students rely too much on diving into theoretical research rather than showing practical knowledge about how to apply some of this theory (and their own ideas) to the task at hand.

In online teaching, we at Swinburne have tended to offer recorded Collaborate sessions to introduce each assignment. In these, we have seen the difference when we remind students at the beginning or the end of any session (or even both) about the learning objectives they are meant to demonstrate in the accomplishing their assignment, however behaviourist this approach may be. Sometimes there are so many components that it feels like we are expecting them to jump through various hoops. Dr Ross Galloway, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Physics and Astronomy, at the University of Edinburgh, agrees this can produce problematic responses.

Whatever educational model you use (or have to use), there will be pluses and minuses.