It doesn’t matter what the system is

Universities should consider changing the system of traditional degree classifications in order to ease mental pressure on students, psychologists have suggested.

The expectation to achieve at least a 2.1 is driving up anxiety levels and deprives most students of the opportunity to differentiate their achievement from those of their peers, according to preliminary research.

Psychologists at King’s College London said the American system of degree transcripts may be less stressful for undergraduates because it provides a more personal and nuanced account of how a student performed.

Dr Nicola Byrom, who has conducted consultations with students, said there was a “particular issue” with the ubiquity of 2.1s.

“The way our UK grading system at universities is structured does potentially create stress,” she said “Most people get a 2.1, therefore getting a 2.2 is seen by the majority of students as absolutely terrible and yet that’s a fantastic achievement for many students.

“And there’s a huge pressure on students to feel they have to get a first otherwise they’ve just got a 2.1.”

Only that we all understand what the system is.

34 thoughts on “It doesn’t matter what the system is”

  1. Students need to experience stress and pressure to prepare them for the real world.

    Dr Nicola Byrom is good example of the feminization of our culture, in which ‘caring’ women compete to mollycoddle children and young people.

  2. “Most people get a 2.1, therefore getting a 2.2 is seen by the majority of students as absolutely terrible and yet that’s a fantastic achievement for many students.

    “And there’s a huge pressure on students to feel they have to get a first otherwise they’ve just got a 2.1.”

    Hang on. So there’s huge pressure to get a first so you haven’t just got a 2.1 and also huge pressure to get a 2.1 so you haven’t just got a 2.2?

    What about the poor sods with a 3rd?

  3. AndrewC – I think it’s jolly hard to get a third nowadays, especially if you’re a woman or have exotic coloured skin.

    Probably only white blokes who really really don’t give a shit and spend the entire time in a state of inebriation might have a sporting chance.

  4. It varies significantly by subject. Essay based subjects like English and History are nearly impossible to get anything but a 2.1 in. Problem based subjects (STEM and most Economics courses) have a much greater spread of results as you can be right or wrong and there is no waffle. And yet from what I recall from my time at uni 5 years ago it was the students from the essay based subjects who stressed the most. Maybe STEM students are just made of sterner stuff

  5. Bloke no Longer in Austria

    Mal is right.
    A lecturer explained to me that no matter how much they tinkered with the evaluation method ( I stiudied History ) they couldn’t shift the preponderence of 2:1s and achieve a spread across the grades.
    And this was in the 1980s. We had 8 papers on which i scored 2 firsts and 6 2:1s
    Is this just a British Empire thing ? I’m pretty certain that they don’t have grades on the continent or the USA, it is just pass or fail.

  6. In the 70s, out of my class of about 130 in Scots Law, we had one guy who got a first. No more than one first was ever awarded each year and it was not awarded every year. 2.1s were more common of course, but 2.2s were the most numerous, followed by 3rds.

    Now, it seems that unless you write “the marker is a cvnt”, on all your papers you’re odds on to get a first.

    Weimar level grade inflation.

  7. My first degree was in history, and I still occasionally get nightmares about my finals. And I don’t think I’m much of a snowflake: I’ve never had nightmares about having been violently assaulted.

  8. I’m with BraveFart on this… My LLB course (at a Russell Group uni) in the early 1970s had a few over 150 students. There was precisely one First awarded (and not even that in the previous year!), a handful of 2:1s and the remainder spread fairly evenly between 2:2s and thirds – with a couple of plain passes.

    Nowadays “everyone must have prizes” and firsts and upper seconds appear to be showered around like confetti.

  9. Interesting.

    Not only have we now got up to 50% (from 5-10%) going on to university, but once there the 2.2 (the average of yesteryear) has inflated to a 2.1.

    Which suggests that a current first may be no more valuable than “any” old degree? And a current 2.1 is basically a fail in old money? No wonder the poor snowflakes are stressed…

    Tim, it’s under the wrong tag – you need one labelled “toilet paper”.

  10. And hence not really any surprise either that when they come out of university, they still do jobs that don’t need degrees.

  11. Class of 1999 BSc (hons) Biology, 2:2. Just missed out on a 2:1, (not helped by an unfounded accusation of plagiarism in my second year). Even then it was considered necessary to get a 2:1 to get a decent job, which my scientific career could either confirm or disprove depending on your point of view…

  12. Actually it’s probably worse (for some) than I’ve suggested above.

    Grade the universities into those that are and those that used to be bus shelters or worse, and 2.1s from the former are probably still degrees (comparably), whereas even firsts from the latter…

  13. Um, the root of the stress is companies and other post-grad options favouring 2.1 and up. Isn’t this just price-fixing by another name?

  14. Why does the writer feel that obsessing over a grade point average like Americans do is any improvement over obsessing about a British grading?

  15. ” a 2.2 is seen by the majority of students as absolutely terrible and yet that’s a fantastic achievement for many students.”

    Well of course it is, they are the 40% or more of the population who should never have got to university.

  16. The proportion of Firsts is incredibly high these days at many universities – on average 1 in 4 degrees is a First. Though it may also be true students are working harder given the fees they are paying, or that attracting high-quality overseas students at top institutions means the average standard has gone up.

    I’ve studied at several universities and done both calculation-heavy and essay-heavy subjects. The “2:1 trap” is certainly a bigger issue in the essay subjects because it’s harder to write an exceptional essay than it is to not bugger up the maths in a calculation. Also the standard expected in exams differs enormously between universities – this is probably more obvious in the more technical subjects, because in the essay-based ones, two unis could set precisely the same question but have very different expectations of the standard at which it gets answered. Whereas with e.g. a maths-heavy exam, it may be obvious that the “tough” questions in one uni’s exam are only in line with the “warm-up” questions at a tougher uni’s equivalent exam.

    But as Tim says, change the grading system and you’d just change the stress points. Grade everyone A to E instead? Well then employers will start demanding a C or B, and you’ll stress over getting that. Grade on a 1-5 scale? Top employers and graduate schools will set a cut-point.

    I appreciate the argument that a finer scale can mean worrying less about getting lumped one side or the other into a particular category – but the flip side of that is for someone who is a high-performer and perfectionist, it would bring far more stress. Getting a first-class degree at a typical uni, even quite a prestigious one, is partly a matter of talent but mostly a matter of putting in a consistent effort and having a good sense of time-management. Chasing a 5.0 would demand far more.

    I think in the past, merely “working hard” wasn’t good enough. But now, largely, it is. Be smart with your module selections – some are easier than others. Set yourself sensible targets and play smart with your time vs the degree grading criteria. If a First requires 70% then maybe once you’re getting 75-80% comfortably on past papers in one subject, you should now consider switching effort to your other ones. If a university gives a First overall based on getting Firsts in a certain number of papers, then it may make sense to concentrate effort on e.g. 3 papers that year in an effort to pick up 3 Firsts, rather than spread it over more papers. Whatever the system is, it’ll be gameable. I’m writing from the perspective of nailing a First, but the same basic strategy applies to someone trying to secure a 2:1.

    Now take someone with that attitude and stick them on a course where grades are numeric, for example 1 to 5 and measured to one decimal place. It would be much harder to game because you can no longer walk into an exam with the attitude of “anything over 70% will be fine”. I think for people who know in the traditional grading system that they’re on pretty securely for a First or a 2:1, they don’t need to worry about those minutiae quite so much, just getting their general strategy sorted out. For people who are chasing that decimal place, though, then every mark counts in every exam. That’s pressure. In fact all I think this achieves is a net transfer of stress away from people sitting precariously on a 2:2/2:1 borderline, or a 2:1/1st borderline, and spreading it to people who would previously have been relatively secure and unstressed…

  17. I don’t have a degree. But may I suggest that to differentiate between these students we could adopt a multiplr choice system. Do you want
    A) A first
    B) a 2.1
    C) a 2.2
    D) a fail.

    Problem solved.

  18. “Only that we all understand what the system is.”

    Buggered if I know what the system is any more. Once upon a time a First (in a respectable subject) required an exceptional performance – either by being very clever or extraordinarily hard working. You demonstrated these characteristics by your performance on a testing examination on the most difficult material in the course i.e. in your final year.

    Nobody gave a hoot about how you did as a fresher, as long as you did well enough to advance. Your performance as a fresher might have reflected your schooling, or your coping with being away from home for the first time, or other irrelevant matters. And anyway it involve elementary beginner’s stuff. (Cambridge was rather an exception on this – Cambridge was wrong.)

    Which universities still defend the standard of a First? A decade ago Oxford did. Now? Dunno.

  19. I ended up with a 2.2 in 1970 (Hons Electronics), probably because I messed up on the final year project. Nevertheless I ended up with a good job. My employer used to recruit graduates to 2 grade levels, and I was offered the upper grade. I remember that at least one PhD got offered the lower grade as I found out at the initial training courses!

  20. As an Oxford physics lecturer explained to me:
    “20 years ago, a reasonable finals question in quantum physics might be: Prove the Byers-Yang theorem. Today it would be: The Byers-Yang theorem states that […], given [results A, B & C] show how this theorem can be derived. In 20 years’ time the question will read: Colour in the Byers-Yang theorem.”

  21. @Chris M

    In fairness, any final-year undergrad exam question that says “Prove the X theorem”, where the X theorem and its proof has been covered in class, is pretty much just regurgitation anyway. It’s when you get told to apply the theorem in a scenario you haven’t encountered before that things get tricky…

    (At weaker unis the application seems to be to a scenario like one you’ve seen before but with different numbers. At stronger unis it can be rather tougher…)

  22. ‘Switch to the American system’?

    So instead of pressure to get a ‘2.1’ you’ll be faced with pressure to ‘beat 3.5 out of 4.0’?

    The US system doesn’t really afford an employer a better look into a candidate’s academic record because they’re not going to spend the time checking your transcript. They’re going to want to know if you have a degree or not and, for the really competitive places, what your *cumulative GPA* was.

    So, in the end, the US system boils your academic performance down to a single number also.

    “Most people get a 2.1, therefore getting a 2.2 is seen by the majority of students as absolutely terrible and yet that’s a fantastic achievement for many students.”

    And no one gives a shit in the world of work. “Yeah! You got a 2.2!” Say your parents. “Way to overcome your handicaps.”

    ‘This guy got a 2.2 and these other 50 people got 2.1 or better – toss his resume in the discard pile’ says your prospective employer.

  23. @MBE
    A majority of finals questions are regurgitation of standard results. If you’re good at this, you should walk a 2:1. It used not be enough to get you a first, but these days I’m not so sure.

  24. I was at Imperial 1989–1992, which tended to hand out a larger proportion of firsts than other universities. To forestall criticism that they were being lenient, they had exam papers marked and vetted by outside, independent bodies. The spread back then was about 15% firsts, 40% 2:1, 35% 2:2, 10% 3rd. I think one guy got a pass because he discovered pot end of the first year and never really came back, mentally. I got a 2:1 which at that point was necessary to continue to Master’s level. Master’s genuinely was a doss.

  25. @Chris Miller

    Interesting, thanks.

    Do suspect it varies between universities.

    Very interesting series of blogposts here by Timothy Gowers on how some of the Cambridge maths degree questions are structured; the rough idea for the “simple” questions is one part recall, then a standard application; however, the “hard” questions may have a recall and application but it will be followed by something you won’t have seen before and need to problem-solve for.

    Those are all for a first-year analysis course.

  26. @Chris Miller

    Hah, post got eaten by spam filter so will try again.

    That was interesting and I suspect it varies from university to university.

    There is an interesting set of notes by Timothy Gowers on the structure of the Cambridge maths exams; the rough idea is that “simple” questions are a recall (eg of a definition or proof) followed by a standard application, while a “hard” question might start with a recall and/or standard application, but it will be followed by something you haven’t seen before and need to problem-solve.

    To try to avoid the spam trap, this was his first post about a first-year analysis paper.

  27. Some last ones on modular arithmetic, inclusion-exclusion and group theory.

    Interesting to see the thoughts of a Fields medallist on a university exam intended for (mostly) nineteen year olds – how his mind works is definitely going to be different to how theirs does, but he is partly writing from an exam-setter’s perspective, so it’s quite insightful on how the questions are designed in the first place, and what balance is being struck on memory-work versus standard application versus having to think something new through for yourself.

  28. Allthegoodnamesaretaken

    The results sheet should be annotated with any additional time / allowance. That would stop the snowflakes claiming ‘mental health issues’ in an instant

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