Grade Point Averages: what the fuss should be about…

gpa image_resizeIn a blog post for Teaching Matters in February 2016, Antony Maciocia recognises local and national concern over the implementation of Grade Point Averages (GPA) in UK higher education. At Edinburgh we will be piloting GPA parallel with our usual Honours Degree Classification system (HDC). Although we can calculate GPA to be compatible with our current system, the wider University is sceptical about implementing GPA and discarding HDC.

I’m also sceptical. I think there are big underlying problems in our current assessment system and that these would become even more serious if we introduced GPA. Both systems treat assessments based on judgement as if they were measurements and this becomes more troublesome in relation to the extra ‘precision’ implied by GPA.

GPA offers a more fine-grained expression of student attainment than the broad categories of the HDC system. It appears to give a precise measurement (to two decimal places) that enables employers to make better recruitment decisions and could be more motivating for students, making them stand out more clearly in the job market. With more and more graduates obtaining 2:1 classifications this could be a win-win situation.

There is a problem, however. In order to be meaningful these measures need to actually be accurate, not merely taking on the appearance of precision. As Professor Mantz Yorke (2011) observes: when we mark we tend to judge, rather than measure. Our use of numbers on a percentage scale adds to the illusion of measurement. A measurement to two decimal points goes beyond any ‘objective’ consensus we’re capable of reaching.  Essentially this is ‘precise inaccuracy’.

Evidence suggests that marking practices vary across disciplines and between universities. Both HDC and GPA can be calculated in different ways at programme level. This in itself suggests that any national systems (HDC or GPA) will be flawed, providing a sense of compatibility that is unlikely to actually exist if we scratch the surface.

A second issue is the reduction of student attainment to a single number (or, for that matter, a single degree classification). It tells us very little about what a student can do, how they can think and what experience they have accumulated during their time at university. A number gives employers very little information on what they can expect. It can give the message to students, that it is the mark that counts rather than what they know and can do.

So what should we do? While more acute for GPA these criticisms can be applied to HDC, although I argue that HDC is ‘less bad’. We won’t be adopting a whole new way of thinking any time soon but we can take steps away from trying to achieve precision through ‘averaging the unaverageable’ (Yorke, 2011). What we can do is allow space within programmes for students to develop and articulate their judgements and make this part of the assessment experience.

References

Mantz Yorke (2011): Summative assessment: dealing with the ‘measurement fallacy’, Studies in Higher Education, 36:3, 251-273.

 

Find out more:

Consult the GPA FAQ on the HEA website.
Read details of the GPA pilot project on the HEA website.

Neil Lent

Dr Neil Lent is a lecturer in University Learning and Teaching at the Institute for Academic Development. He is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. His remit in the IAD is enhancing assessment and feedback practices within the University of Edinburgh. He has interests in the enhancement of learning and teaching, employability, and understanding and evaluating cultural change in higher education.

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