Major in the Liberal Arts and You May Be Penalized

How grading systems change and affect you throughout differing faculties.

University students should focus on the quality of their education, rather than the marks they receive for individual assignments. Feedback from a teacher indicating that the student is doing well should be sufficient. Marks are only numbers, and cannot be properly evaluated unless they are compared to those of others students in the same class with the same markers.

This is the idealized view of university. Most students enroll because they want to be educated and they want the skills to be successful in a future career, or to progress in a career already started. But to believe that marks are irrelevant to the lives of students is naive. The very structure of university administration and the scholarship system make marks very important indeed.

Any dedicated student hopes to achieve a notation of “Distinction” or “Great Distinction” on their diploma. The criteria for these honors varies from school to school, as does the actual title of the honor, but all schools have some means of recognizing their finest graduates. Similarly, many scholarships are granted to the students with the highest overall grade averages; either within the entire school population, or on a faculty by faculty basis.

This system would be appropriate if all students had the same opportunity to receive the highest marks. However, there is a great discrepancy in marking practices from faculty to faculty and some students, particularly in the liberal arts, may always be at a disadvantage regardless of their level of skill and how hard they work.

Consider first the technical courses, including basic computer programming, computer software training, math, business, and many of the sciences. In these courses, assignments often require the student to give precise answers to precise questions. There are clearly defined correct and incorrect answers, and the success of the student is determined by the number of correctly responses to these questions. It is usually possible in technical courses to receive a grade of 100% if all questions are answered correctly. Not easy, but possible nonetheless. Marks in the 90s are quite common.

Now look at the liberal arts courses: English, History, Psychology, Philosophy, Communications, and others. In these courses, assignments are usually essay based; there are no clearly defined correct answers, though there is specific information that is expected to be part of a correct response. Marks are based on the markers impression of the work, and how thoroughly the student answers the questions. Now if it were still possible to obtain a perfect score on these papers, the marking scheme would be fair, but this is generally believed to be impossible. Many tutors and professors confirm this.

I have spoken to many students in the Humanities, and have heard a number of strikingly similar stories. Often these students have submitted papers that their professors have praised as “one of the best” that they have seen. In three examples, students have been told that they received the highest mark that the professor has given on that assignment. These marks on these papers have ranged between 78% and 92%. When the professors giving these marks have been asked “What could I have done to improve my mark?” The answer is often: “Nothing.”

The problem is that many liberal arts professors have been educated that there is no such thing as a 100% essay, and instead have been trained to mark papers according to their own scheme and by comparing the papers of students within their classes to determine where each fits in. This is not specifically “marking on a curve,” but it is very similar. What constitutes a top mark varies from professor to professor. Some have stated that they will not give above an eighty percent (which means a mark of A under the AU guidelines is not possible), while others will go as high as 85% or 90%.

Certainly a mark of 80% from a professor who will not grade any higher indicates a very high level of achievement and the student receiving this mark should be very proud. However, determining how a mark should be interpreted can be especially difficult for a distance student who has no idea what marks other students have received.

What is terribly unfair about this, is that an exceptional student in the liberal arts can expect at best to graduate with an average mark of about 87%, assuming that they receive top marks in all of their courses, and that their professors give top grades ranging from about 82% to 92%. If the student has the misfortune to have many tutors who grant top marks lower than these, then their average will be even lower. In my experience, English tutors are particularly low markers. It is not unusual for English students to receive marks of 79% for papers marked “excellent”.

By contrast, an exceptional student in technical courses may obtain an average mark of 95% or above. In the humanities, marks are discretionary, and based on the impression of the marker. In the technical courses, marks start at a hundred percent, and are reduced as the student makes errors. This does not necessarily follow for all technical courses, but is a valid generalization.

What does this mean for liberal arts students? First, I have been unable to locate a single tutor in the liberal arts who says that they will give a mark of 95% for any paper, regardless of how good it is. Many say that 90% would indicate a paper that could not be improved. Given this, no liberal arts student can obtain a mark of “Great Distinction” on their parchment, as this requires an overall average of 95% or higher. A mark of “?Distinction’ (average of 85%) is perhaps obtainable, depending on which tutors the students gets.

Scholarships, however, are generally given to the student, or the few students, with the very highest marks. This means that when you have exceptional students in both the liberal arts and the technical faculties, the tech students will take the awards every time. It is possible that the liberal arts students in this case have worked harder and learned more, but the result will not change. The best these students can hope for is the respect and support of their professors and good recommendations for jobs and program applications. These are valuable benefits, but ones that the technical students will have similar access to.

Another issue that liberal arts students must face is a lack of uniformity in grade. If each tutor may set his or her own grade scheme, then two students with the same skill may be graded very differently in different classes. This discrepancy is inherently unfair, and may leave an exceptional student feeling like a failure if he or she does not realize that they are achieving well within the limits that their professor assigns grades.

Anyone who doubts that these discrepancies exist can study a list of awards recipients at a number of universities that do not grant separate awards by faculty, and see how often those in the technical or business fields are selected.

For the above reasons, I think that all schools should make awards of merit — including scholarships, special notations on the graduation parchment, and monetary awards — should be applied on a faculty by faculty basis, and that the criteria for these awards should be based on a careful study of the average marks achieved in that faculty over a number of years. Anything else penalizes students for choosing to study in a faculty that uses a discretionary marking scheme (although the scheme itself may be valid), instead of one that is more clearly defined.

Tamra lives in Calgary with her husband and two cats. A full-time AU student, she splits her free time between her duties as an AUSU councillor, writing her first novel, and editing written work by other students and friends.