500 Words, News

My Retirement from Competitive Baking

Yesterday, after an excruciating three-week wait, it was the Education Services Charity Bake Off Final. I had made it through to the final after winning my heat (cheese and rosemary scones, if you must know) and I had been practising for my chance at winning the title ever since.

I was as happy with my cake as a novice baker could be, having opted for a chocolate and passionfruit cake, and eagerly awaited the results as the morning went on. By the time it came to 1pm, when colleagues from across the office gathered around waiting our Director to announce the winner, I was actually nervous.

I didn’t win. I didn’t expect to win – there were some amazing cakes on offer from some equally amazing bakers – but no one likes to lose do they? I spend the afternoon texting my husband about how I was never going to bake again and fanaticising about throwing my rolling pin away when I got home.

And I don’t plan on entering another baking competition; I didn’t like the waiting around for weeks not knowing what the result is going to be – yet this is exactly what so many 17 and 18-year olds are going through today.

Having sat their exams months ago, they have spent their summer nervously awaiting the results that will determine their future. Whether they go to university or not, and whether, if they do choose on university, that university is their ‘first choice’, or whether they have to go though ‘clearing’ (an awful process and even more awful word to use for it – surely there is a better way it can be done?*).

But there is no option for a university student to ‘never bake again’ – doing a degree is like a three-year baking competition. For the few students who do well in all of their assessments this is fine (read: smash the soufflé), but for the majority of students who struggle though at least some of their degree, the process of endlessly awaiting the next result is hugely detrimental for their wellbeing – and yet we continue to assess in this way.

As an adult, we don’t experience this same kind of stress. The wait to hear if you’ve been accepted for a mortgage, or if your latest paper has been accepted in to journal, is about as close as we come. But these are annual occurrences at best and, as adults, we have the experience of know we can always resubmit a paper or apply for a different mortgage. I wonder if we experienced the continual insecurity and nerves that students face around assessment that we would still choose to assess in this way?

One way to reduce this insecurity could be a move towards more formative assessments and less summative assessment may be one approach, or a move away from numerical grading may be another, but it is difficult to know what balance could be reached between keeping students motivated while still removing the carrot of a grade they are happy with.  

So, while I’ll be hanging up my apron for the foreseeable future, I’ll be thinking of all the students starting in September (and coming back) who will be facing another year of blind bakes and wondering what we can do to help reduce the anxiety around results and assessments this causes.  

*If this area interests you, I highly recommend this WonkHE piece on making university admissions truly inclusive – including two very viable recommendations.  

Amy Palmer

500 Words

What’s in a grade?

Surely a 2:1 by any other name would be as sweet?

Numerical grading of assessments is something that has bothered me for a long time. I’ve had many conversations with colleagues and students over the past couple of years and I’ve realised I’m not alone in this feeling. Of course, I’ve been met with many protests of how we ‘need’ to have these numbers, but no argument has ever really convinced me. There are a number of reasons why I’ve come to realise that numbers are useless in grading – a bold claim, I know – and I’ll try and convince you, too, over the next few paragraphs.

The main and overriding reasons for my distaste in numbers is the very fact that it makes students focus on the number. Whether you’ve been given a 62, 63 or 64 in an essay means absolutely nothing when it comes to what you can do to improve. If you’re happy with the number that has been assigned to your essay, you don’t think much more about it. A lot of students won’t even bother reading the feedback (if there is any). A student doesn’t sit back and think ‘what did I do right this time?’; they are content with their number. Similarly, if a student doesn’t get the number they feel they ‘deserved’ – whether it be for the effort they put in or their perceived understanding of the topic, they feel upset, frustrated and sometimes angry. They may read the feedback but only a small proportion of these students would go away and specifically work on the points for improvement, with the majority believing that they had been hard done by in some way.  

I’m not alone in my belief – both Chris Rust and Dylan William, two prominent scholars in the field of assessment, have argued against the use of numbers in assessment marking. In a recent interview with BILT, Christ Rust said that the one thing he would change about higher education would be the use of numbers in assessment[1], and Dylan William advocates students only being given written feedback[2] (though with teachers recording grades for their own use).

I can already hear the main arguments to this point, and they are loudest from the courses that need accreditation; courses like Engineering, Medicine and Dentistry, who already have very high-achieving cohorts of students. Student who, I imagine, would argue for these numbers. It ranks them against others in the course and they use it as a measure of how well they are doing – not whether they have the sufficient knowledge to become a successful engineer or doctor. Why do we need any more than a pass/ fail in these subjects? Surely you have the knowledge, or you don’t? For any other assessment, one that assesses how well a student interacts with a patient or how an engineer approaches a problem, can be better ‘graded’ using a written statement about their performance, rather than a number?

All programmes in all universities in the UK boil down to five ‘grades’ anyway. You either leave university with a 1st, 2:1, 2:2, 3rd or a pass (or you fail, but we won’t go into that here). Essentially, you spend £27k on one of those five classifications. In the vast majority of graduate situations, all that matters is what their overall grade (or classification) is – and arguably, that doesn’t really matter at all[3]. Almost three quarters of students across UK universities get a 2:1 or above – what does that really tell you about the student?

I’ve come up with a solution; an approach in which students, instead of ever getting a grade, would just get a report. A paragraph or two (or three) about what they did well and where they could improve. For courses where they need get have a certain level of understanding or knowledge, this could include a pass/fail option too. This feedback would accumulate over the three/ four years of their programme to create a picture of a student who had progressed and grown, who had worked on areas that needed improvement and who had developed academically.

Additionally, students would have the same personal tutor throughout their degree who understood their progress not only academically, but also socially and in their day-to-day lives. From taking all their washing home at the weekend to being a regular at the launderette. From rarely exercising to being President of the running society. It would highlight students who had overcome struggles in their personal, social or academic life and come out the other side. Students who had persevered and were determined. Personal tutors could then share this as part of a running report throughout their programme, which would be given to employers as part of a university portfolio, rather than a degree classification.

This approach to grading (i.e. not grading) would also encourage assessments to be more authentic. There’s not much you can write about a student that has successfully crammed three months of learning about quantum physics to regurgitate in an exam, but you can talk about how they interacted as part of a laboratory environment and contributed to discussions and debate on the subject. A student who has produced a print advert would better show their marketing prowess than an essay written on it.

A bigger emphasis on written feedback may translate to a bigger marking load for academics, but we could change assessments to reduce summative assessment in favour for a more programme- focussed approach. Feedback on these assessments would tie into the overall learning outcomes for the degree and therefore ensure students are always working towards the programme as a whole, rather than taking individual modules that don’t add up to a whole.

The implications for the removal of numerical grading are huge and would have major impacts on nearly all areas of the University. It is a radical concept and I’m not even sure where you would or could start. But it is something to think about in a time when student and staff mental health is being pushed to its limit and in an educational climate that increasingly focuses on results rather than on an individual’s improvement.

Amy Palmer


[1] http://bilt.online/an-interview-with-chris-rust

[2] https://blog.learningsciences.com/2019/03/19/10-feedback-techniques/

[3] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-45939993