Monday, 5 August 2013


Hello. My name is Kostas Economides and I am a lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of the South of England (USE for short). Well, actually that is not true really as the names of individuals and institutions in this blog have been changed to protect the innocent - and the guilty!

Gus came back from a meeting at Surrey University with news of something that has all the staff there wondering about what their Vice Chancellor is up to.

Apparently he put forward plans a while ago to assess academics 'performance on the basis of how many of their students achieved at least an Upper Second Class mark on their modules.

The plan, initially released in June 2012, which included a foreward by the VC Sir Christopher Snowden, was only shelved after long discussions with the unions.

The university commented that "The intention of this target is not to inflate grades unjustifiably but to ensure that the levels of good degrees sit comfortably within subject benchmarks and against competitor institutions." They later said that staff were recommended to provide a normal distribution of marks.

Julie Hall, Vice Chair of the Staff and Educational Development Association at Surrey was quoted in the THE of 18th July as saying that any sort of grade target risked compromising academics' abilities to award marks impartially.

Gus said that he fully agreed with this comment. Indeed he criticised the notion that the distribution of marks on each module should be the same, let alone conforming to a normal distribution.

He said that he would expect a different pattern of marks on compulsory core modules such as intermediate microeconomics, maths, stats and econometrics that some students found challenging. Indeed it might even be the case that one found a bi-modal distribution. Conversely self-selected options that students really liked might give rise to a highly skewed distribution with a high percentage of Upper Seconds and Firsts.

The idea that the distribution of marks on any module should be normal is based on a misunderstandng of statistics. Where it might have some relevance is on a module with a very large number of students with lots of seminar groups where students had been allocated to the groups randomly. In that case the mean marks for the groups might start to approximate a normal distribution (according to the Central Limit Theorem). However in some universities instead of taking these marks as given, attempts may be made to adjust the marks to provide consistency across groups, on the basis that one has to correct for differences between the inputs from different seminar leaders.

Gus said that in his view it was appropriate for very wayward marks to be referred for further scrutiny but that formulaic references based on average marks or the percentage of marks above or below particular targets were statistical and educational nonsense.

What next, he wondered? League tables ranking lecturers by the average marks awarded?

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