Grading practices are fundamental to the university as an institution. After multiple interviews with UCD tutors citing a strong possibility of malpractice occurring within the UCD grading structure, the Tribune conducted an investigation into the matter. Grade moderation was highlighted as an area of high interest due to the uncertainty surrounding specific moderation methods, minimum standards and the outlined role of the Extern Examiner.
Robert ‘Bob’ Smith, a UCD tutor at the School of Philosophy, had much to say regarding grading guidelines. In his view, assignment grading can be ‘very time-consuming’ but relatively straightforward. According to UCD’s academic regulations, each school retains the responsibility for the assessment of each module, meaning there may be space for a disparity between the quality of grade guidelines depending on the school. Smith believes there is no way for grade moderators to check for best grading practice outside of looking at the grade distribution: ‘whether is fits the bell curve or not.’ A more general criticism from Smith centres on grading guidelines. He believes students within the arts such be rewarded for ‘creative thinking’ and ‘engagement.’ Smith confirms widespread suspicions that ‘there could easily be malpractice within the confines of this system.’
A former UCD tutor at the School of Politics and International Relations (SPIRe), who wished to remain anonymous, called for the introduction of minimum standards for student feedback on assignments and examinations. She says that some tutors may give detailed and useful feedback to their students, while others do not. To the source’s understanding, tutors are not involved in any part of the grade moderation process. She also believes that some tutors may ‘spend very little time’ on the grading of assignments and exams, resulting in students receiving grades that ‘do not reflect their academic ability.’ The source also believes that there is a need for a change in policy, starting with more training for UCD tutors. The current policy delegates this element of grading and teaching to each school individually. Returning to her point on the importance of grade feedback: ‘I think feedback is highly important … they [the students] need to know how to structure their answers … it’s not a bad system but a sufficient amount of improvement needs to be done.’
According to the current UCD academic regulations, of which is currently under a review process, the ‘Schools retain the responsibility for the overall design, delivery, assessment, quality assurance and enhancement of individual modules, and the academic welfare of students enrolled to those modules.’ Specifically, the Module Co-ordinator is responsible for the assessment design. However, grade moderation is managed externally from the school. The first port of call with moderation falls to the Internal Examiner. Appointed formally by the Academic Council Committee on Examinations, the Internal Examiner supports the Head of School in assuring assessment standards within that school. The next step in ensuring a high standard of assessment and grading falls to the Extern Examiners. It is the job of the Extern Examiner to ensure that the grades awarded by examination markers, accurately reflect the standard of work presented. The current version of UCD’s academic regulations provides remarkably little explanation into the specific role of the Extern Examiner, leaving NUI to determine the overall function and guidelines for the Extern Examiner, but not specific practices employed.
To find out more on the role of the Extern Examiner and investigate the potentiality of malpractice occurring within the grade moderation structure in UCD, I spoke to Graduate Officer Niall Torris of the UCD Student’s Union on the matter. Torris says that ‘UCDSU is largely satisfied with the practices around assignments grading and end of semester grading,’ but there are ‘certain measures that could be added to improve students’ confidence in end of semester grading.’ He also said that the SU is always looking for improvements to current grading practices as it is a large part of the Union’s role. Torris admits that the current system is ‘not bad but of a very high standard,’ and that UCD regularly talks about ‘wanting to be a leader and define best practice. Quality enhancement is a big part of that.’
It is clear that both UCDSU and UCD are committed to maintaining a high standard of grading practices, but it remains unclear how effective the current methods of grade moderation really are. Torris suggests ‘the introduction of certain minimum standards in relation to [grade] moderation,’ most of which consists of Extern Examiners ‘batch-checking’ or double checking the grades awarded by the marker. The grading oversight of UCDSU is limited to policy-making and according to Torris, the Extern Examiner policy is ‘currently under review’ in order to better define the role’s responsibilities and practices.
With Extern Examiners reviewing graded papers individually, isolated to other students’ exams, it would suggest that examinations are not moderated on the basis of the ‘Bell Curve.’ Also known as Norm-referenced measurement, Bell-Curve Grading examines the quality of work comparatively to their peers. The alternative method of Criterion-referenced measurement, in which exams are assessed based on the absolute quality of work presented, not in relation to their peers, seems like a more likely method employed within grade moderation techniques in UCD. One major shortfall of the current system remains the lack of clarity surrounding current grade moderation techniques.
Torris announced that there is an ongoing project that is investigating feedback practices in UCD and that ‘minimum standards’ and ‘guidelines for staff and students on feedback’ are to be introduced next year. One point that Torris cites as an important factor in the initial standard of grading on the part of UCD tutors, centres on their pay rates. He believes there ‘needs to be an increase in the pay rates’ for marking of exams, and ‘if you are going to ensure that a grader spends sufficient time with a piece of assessment in order to give it the review time it deserves, they [UCD] need to look at the pay rates that people [examination markers] are getting.’
From the Tribune’s investigation, it can be concluded that the current guidelines surrounding assignment and assessment grading require updating, clarification and improvement. Calls for minimum standards on practices remain loud and clear. The role of the Extern Examiner proves uncertain and undefined, with UCDSU working towards remedying the shortfalls of the current academic regulations. The current system is certainly not failing loud enough for alarms bells to sound, but there is undoubtedly enough evidence and testimony to state that this leaking ship is just about staying afloat.
By Conor Capplis – Features Editor