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?