A fairy tale or a horror story: the curious proposal to remove capped marks

In April, a Wonkhe article unpacked the unintended consequences of mitigating circumstances. The case was made that the time was right to review and rationalise this complex area of policy.

However, could it be that there is another way to relieve the pressure on students and university staff? Rather than trying to address the symptom of “mitigating circumstances effect”, could we address the root cause instead?

This is the tale of a university with a dilemma. The University of the West of England, like many other institutions, caps students’ marks if they don’t pass at their first opportunity. For those students who are able to prove to us that their performance was adversely affected by circumstances beyond their control, we then invest a lot of academic and professional services’ time in processes which uncap their marks at the next assessment opportunity. Anyone who does not fit our criteria, retains a capped mark. Recently, we have started to ask ourselves why we have created an environment that punishes students if they don’t get something right the first time. Is it time to change our approach?

Regulations that induce anxiety

The mental wellbeing of students is one of our key strategic priorities. We want them to thrive, yet we have academic regulations that penalise them by capping their marks if they do not submit or pass at their very first go. At a time when students may already be anxious or feeling under pressure in regard to their work, we compound this by telling them if they do not pass or are unable to submit, their marks at resit will be capped at 40% if they are undergraduates or 50% if they are postgraduates. This stance can have a particularly negative impact on students already distressed by adverse circumstances at the time.

In the article referenced above, Wonkhe’s Minto Felix raised some very timely points about the bewildering world of mitigating circumstances policies. Coincidently, we had recently come to the conclusion that most of the approximately 3,700 applications we process each year arise because we cap student marks for resits. If we didn’t cap marks, we asked ourselves, could we focus our efforts on proactive and preventative support, rather than administering a reactive mitigating circumstances process?

No easy answer

As with all good tales, there are twists and turns. We consulted on the removal of capping with staff and students. Views were polarised. For those who supported the proposal, it promised a bright new world. Students would be encouraged to have a positive approach to managing their workload. They would have the chance to prove what they can really do, without their achievements being obscured by an arbitrary mark. Sources of anxiety, such as having a resit which is capped at a bare pass or trying to satisfy the requirements of a mitigating circumstances process, would be banished.

But those who disagreed with the proposal saw peril ahead. Some predicted that students would casually not engage at the first opportunity if there was no penalty, while others warned that these same students might not fully appreciate the consequences of their actions, or would feel overwhelmed by the responsibility of having to decide whether to complete an assessment or not.

Finally, those students that did pass at the first opportunity might feel aggrieved that others had had more time or had benefited from more feedback. And what of staff: how might less predictable patterns of student engagement in assessment impact upon their wellbeing? Then, one last plot twist, the fear that removing capping would cause grade inflation…. But we already uncap hundreds of marks as an outcome of our mitigating circumstances process, so would it really make a difference to degree classification profiles? In summary: dare we be so bold as to remove capping in order to reach the same end without the all the layers of complexity?

A different world order

So here we sit, dear reader, contemplating writing a new chapter for our institution, and perhaps for the sector. We have an opportunity to turn the narrative on its head and do something really different. By removing the capping of marks, is it possible to provide a happy ending for everyone?

5 responses to “A fairy tale or a horror story: the curious proposal to remove capped marks

  1. Well said, you have captured the impasse that many of us are at. You are right to link it to the strategic priorities. Do let us know where you go with it all?

  2. The challenge is what outcomes and expectations do we want to set.

    Will graduates be given this opportunity in the work place? How do we support our students to achieve the best they can? Is it time to remove Extenuating Circumstances and move to Exceptional Circumstances?

    I would suggest that an holistic regulatory approach is needed that supports students on an academic journey of support through to resilience. Changing one jigsaw piece doesn’t necessarily create a better picture.

  3. This is very timely and reminds me of a past process I was aware of from students expectations joining HE on BTech where students could rewrite ( it may still be current) up until a final deadline and also a university where I was once an EE that discouraged late work by expecting reassessment in the forthcoming academic year. One issue is that of an elastic deadline which is against the employment-ready ethos of working to deadlines and of course it challenges equal opps potentially ( but not if there is a final ultimate cutoff to get the mark to an exam board). But surely this would reduce workload on providers . I recognise the ‘cons’ summarised here but they do read a bit like “we’ve always done this, why should we change it?” You suggest why we need review – very thoughtfully.

  4. Correct this if it is wrong, but UEA may already be half-way to Shangri La after introducing a get out of jail card scheme. Students can self-certify a set number of times before facing capped marks. At which point they can certify and join the 3,700. This idea was pitched as mirroring the approach to managing sickness absence in the workplace and as such ideal preparation for entry into any career.

  5. Thank you very much everyone for your replies. They are much appreciated and will feed into our ongoing review.

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