Over the last decades we have seen a trend in our traditional education system in giving more and more importance to marking. Exams have been introduced to even primary school pupils. Those exams are taken so seriously that teachers feel the pressure of spending a large part of the year to just prepare the kids to do well during the exams. They know that the parents and the regulatory body will use the kids’ performance at exams as a way to mark the school. Yet, preparing the kids for exams is precious time wasted that could have been invested in preparing them better for their future life.
The main objective of marking is to provide feedback to the student. However, this objective has mostly been diverted into a tool to separate the students from each other and give justification for them to pass. For example, the mark distribution in a cohort student from year to year should be similar, not because statistically that makes sense, but because there are some expectations on how many students would get excellent and how many would fail. There is a need to have a spread of marks, just to differentiate the students. An exam with too many highs would be moderated even though it would please all the student to know that they have acquired well all the skills and knowledge required in that module.
Marking has therefore resulted in lowering the esteem of the student. It is now considered not acceptable to have students failing their degree; instead, you let them go but with a bitter taste of a low mark. A ‘good’ student, that is one with a high mark, will only get reaffirmation that she has mastered the subject. However, a ‘bad’ student, that is one with a low mark, will feel undervalued and reinforced in her low self-confidence. This will have tremendous negative impact later on in her personal and professional life as they will start with the prejudice that they are not as good as the others, and they are likely to be unable to acquire a new task, skill or knowledge.
Education should be an infinite game (as developed by Simon Sinek). The process of learning should be enjoyed throughout and less attention should be given to the outcome. Instead, the education system has become a finite game. The students enrol to universities to get a certificate at the end of their study. Learning is not anymore the primary goal; instead the goal is to get a certification as if this was a green pass to access the profession. Somehow, it is forgotten that learning is a life process, and that what we learn at university is how to learn and solve problems so that it will be useful to us for the rest of our life. The education system has been too focused on willing to provide a professional outcome, whereas it should focus on providing the specific skills and attributes that one can master to have a fulfilling life. We cannot prepare our students to a professional job that probably does not exist yet or that will not exist anymore in 20 years’ time.
In addition, a lot of emphasis is given to acquire skills, which are useful to be performant in our first job. However, it is mainly our attributes and inner strengths (as defined in Clifton Strengths) that enable us to navigate successfully in the professional work and to contribute to our personal environment.
At the University of Sheffield, throughout their degree, students develop a portfolio that evidences their skills and capabilities as a Sheffield Graduate. This forces them to think about their professional development and to acquire the skills and attributes that enable them to access more easily to the type of profession they desire to go. I do find that most students have no idea what they will be doing after the university and they don’t even know why they have chosen the discipline that they have enrolled. This is not their fault really, but the whole education system is guilty of not teaching them to think about their motivation and aspiration in life. Personal development should be taught right from primary school, not as a specific module at the University level or as online course that one is interested when they are already engaged in their professional and family life.
Most students do not know what they are good at, when they get motivated or which activities give them a bliss. Developing such aspect of our personality is crucial during the University curriculum but it takes time and effort. The Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Sheffield has a specific module for final year students on “Preparation for Practice”, which basically prepares them for their next professional goal. It is certainly a useful space of reflection for students before they embark on their first professional job. Yet, like all modules, it is marked. The students need to report evidence of their professional skills and how those are aligned with their professional development plans. This is the typical example where marking is useless and counterproductive. How can we expect to differentiate a student for doing a very good or a good job at writing down evidence of their professional skills and reflecting on them when this is a lifetime endeavour? We should only provide feedback on how to improve those professional skills and on the thinking process of the development plans. But marking it from 0 to 10 clearly shows the limitations of the marking system that we have reached today.
I get excited when I see some students who really engage with my course. This is usually the minority unfortunately because most students enrol to get a piece of paper. Those enthusiastic students are not always the best, although more often than not! But sometimes they would not get a great mark at an exam. Is this fair? Why should we not prioritise engagement instead of succeeding at an exam? Should we not reward the experience as long as the minimum skills are acquired? Let’s stop focusing so much on the mark, and instead let’s focus on developing skills and attributes for a clear personal and professional development plan.
Have you experienced situations where marking was counterproductive? How can we change the system to engage better the students in their learning?