Archive for June 14, 2011

The Final Analysis

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on June 14, 2011 by telescoper

It’s that time of year again. The annual meeting of the Board of Examiners of the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University met this afternoon to consider the marks for students due to graduate this year and to draw up recommendations for the final degree classifications.

This year’s meeting was actually quite interesting and, at just over two hours, somewhat shorter than some we’ve had in previous years.  A group of students has already gathered in the foyer waiting for the dreaded list to be posted, and many will no doubt be celebrating or drowning their sorrows in local hostelries shortly after their fate is revealed.

Cardiff is a little old-fashioned in the way the final examiners’ meetings are conducted. For a start we still have a system of viva voce examinations for borderline candidates; they happened yesterday, in fact. Many universities have dispensed with this aspect of the process, but I still think they’re worthwhile. The Board of Examiners, including the two External Examiners,  also still has some discretion in how it arrives at the degree boundaries (which are nominally at 70% for a first, 60% for a 2.1, 50% for a 2.2, and 40% for a 3rd).

The tide is turning against this very traditional approach, however, and there are moves here to dispense with the viva examinations and with academic discretion. I’m not sure when this will happen, but it’s likely to be sooner rather than later. I think the main reason for this is to make the system more automatic so there’s less chance of legal challenge. In any case there doesn’t seem to me that there can be any educational reason for it.

The one thing that strikes me about the system we have is that it’s the whole business of classifying degrees into broad categories which is where the problem lies.  It was suggested some time ago that we should dispense with, e.g., the “Desmond” (2.2) and the “Thora Hird” (3rd) and instead simply give each student a transcript containing details of the entire spectrum of their academic performance. It’s been suggested again just recently too. That would seem to me to make much more sense than the current system of classifying degrees which involves (a) trying to condense a huge amout of information – examination marks, coursework, project assignments and the like – into a single number and then (b) drawing boundaries based on this number precisely where the distribution is most densely peaked. However, years have passed and nothing concrete has happened. The academic world is good at inertia.

Anyway, this isn’t the time or the place for a lengthy diatribe about the ins-and-outs of degree classifications. I’ve got to go back to marking my 1st year examination papers shortly in fact; these are considered by a separate meeting of the Board of Examiners.

It is time, however, for me to congratulate all our graduating students on their success. It’s the first group of Cardiff MPhys students that I’ve seen all the way through from entry  to graduation. I’ll be sad to see them go, but wish them all the best as they venture forth into the real world. At least I hope to see them back next month for graduation.  Until then, however, all I’ll  say is