Is the progression lottery a fair game?

The Northern Universities Consortium (NUCCAT) and the Student and Assessment Classification Working Group (SACWG) have joined forces to investigate how recovery mechanisms – things like re-assessment, compensation and “trailing” courses – support student success.

Many students are subject to such mechanisms following an initial failure – in order to progress between levels and to complete awards, but the associated costs and benefits to students and institutions are rarely if ever calculated.  

We conducted an analysis of students who progressed from Level 4 to Level 5 (first to the second year of an undergraduate course) in nine universities in order to question whether variations in institutional regulations governing student progression are fair and reasonable. A full project report is available.

To what extent do recovery mechanisms support student success?

Over three-quarters of the nearly 20,000 students, we investigated passed all their modules the first time. The remainder failed at least one module and either had to;

  • re-take one or more failed assessments before progressing, or
  • had their failure compensated or condoned (marks adjusted or a permitted failure), or
  • had to take the failed assessment(s) alongside their Level 5 studies.  

Unsurprisingly, students who passed all Level 4 summative assessments at the first attempt did better (attaining higher ‘good honours’ and lower ‘no honours’ award outcomes) and were significantly more likely to complete their studies “in time” than students who progressed to Level 5 following some failure at Level 4.

If reassessment reinforces learning, allows students to achieve mastery of subject matter, and underpins pedagogic development at higher levels, then it follows that ‘re-assessed’ students in this study should have done better than the ‘compensated’ students, who are not required to redeem initial failure as a condition of progression.

However, there was little difference in outcome between students progressing following re-assessment and ‘compensated’ students (whose Level 4 failure did not need to be redeemed).  Re-assessed students were more likely (31% versus 27%) to graduate with a ‘good degree’ than compensated students, but were also less likely to graduate ‘in time’ with honours than compensated students (30.9% to 30.6% respectively).  

Over half of the students trailing failed modules into Level 5 (to be subsequently completed alongside new material) failed to complete with honours ‘in time’.  Only 1 in 5 ‘trailing’ students completed ‘in time’ with ‘good honours’.

So re-assessment, as a means of facilitating student progression, may be less cost-effective and less beneficial to students than ‘compensation’ of narrow failure in light of good performance elsewhere (therefore, a more appropriate strategy for the ‘near-misses’ if not for those students who ‘fail hard’).  It is also evident that whilst permitting a student to progress ‘trailing failure’ may be seen as an immediate benefit, the likely outcome for that student seeking to complete ‘in time’ with a ‘good degree’ is bleak.

Playing the progression lottery, consequences for students of regulatory variation

Variations in academic regulation are undoubtedly the product of individual institutional histories and cultures.  However, the relationship between those histories and their underpinning pedagogic principles may become lost over time as regulations experience modification to satisfy ad hoc needs.  The universities that contributed data to our study also provided commentary on their academic regulations.  Each had unique regulations governing ‘compensation’ and ‘trailing’ whilst there were evident variations between universities in their rules governing eligibility (or the number of opportunities) for re-assessment.

In terms of natural justice, can it be right that some students should automatically be able to progress the following compensation after failure because they serendipitously study at one institution and others at another university with exactly the same results profile must either undertake reassessment or wait on the discretionary decision of an examination board?

Is academic progression, therefore, inevitably little more than a lottery in which the rules may be obscured from the players?  Or should we create frameworks that promote both fair and equitable assessment outcomes by recasting regulations to remove ambiguity, inconsistency, and (often unfettered) discretion?

Harmonising academic regulation

Academic regulations are increasingly subject to debate.  In their 2017 report ‘Understanding degree algorithms’, UniversitiesUK and GuildHE concluded:

“The report finds that improved transparency would help to improve confidence in the design of degree algorithms… [and] consistency of design is necessary to maintain the confidence of students and employers”.

If the words ‘academic regulation’ were substituted for ‘degree algorithms’ that point would hold equally true.

Harmonising regulations across the sector would encourage institutions to compare their regulations systematically with other universities and help institutions to identify the obscurities, complexities, inequities, and inequalities in their regulations.  The process might stimulate institutional regulations makers to:

  • consider introducing more absolute entitlements so that their rules are essentially binary statements, or
  • reduce the complexity of the criteria that students must satisfy to earn eligibilities, or
  • eliminate ‘capricious gifting’ in order to increase consistency of decision-making.

Difficult though this will be, we believe that bringing greater consistency in regulatory practices within and across institutions is an enterprise worth undertaking, to eliminate the regulatory lottery that students are unwittingly playing.  

Although amending academic regulations will not by itself produce a socially-just assessment system in higher education, it can provide a context in which assessment processes are fairer and more equitable.  It was Dr Martin Luther King Jr. who declared that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. Who could disagree?

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