Why your mark doesn’t matter (and why it does)

It’s that time of year when students get their marks and the usual protests are made. I say “usual” because these tend to follow a particular pattern – and I want to explore why that happens, because I think students and academics often have very different perceptions of what marks mean.

So here are four reasons why your mark does not matter in the way you think it does – as well as some pointers to making sure things are kept in perspective.

1. Marks are not a high score table

Marks measure a number of things, but primarily they (should) measure whether you can demonstrate that you have learned key principles covered in the course. They do not measure your ability. They are not a measure of you as a person. They measure a very specific thing in very specific ways.

This is often the hardest thing to explain to students – particularly those who are extremely talented, but have received bad marks. I might know you are first class; you know you are first class; but that has to be demonstrable and transparent in a piece of work and accompanying documentation not just to me but to a second marker, a moderator and an external examiner (in the UK at least).

This is particularly important when the skills being taught are not just craft skills but involve issues such as research, law, project management, and analysis.

These are skills that sometimes have to be explicitly demonstrated outside of the project they relate to in an evaluation or report. In the field of online journalism – where things are still in flux and part of your skill is being able to follow those changes – I think they are particularly important (They can also often generate objections on the grounds of being too ‘theoretical’, but the point is that these are not objects of abstract study but are intended make you a better practitioner.)

The key advice here is: read the brief, and make sure any documentation explicitly addresses the areas mentioned.

That said, don’t think that you can blag a pass mark through documentation alone – the project will give the lie to that.

2. Effort does not equal success

You can spend twice as much time as somebody else on a project, and still get lower marks. Some people are naturally good at things, and for others it takes a long time. Life’s a bitch.

But also, often, it’s about a lack of focus and planning: spending 20 hours writing blog posts is not going to be as successful as if you spent half of that time reading other blog posts to get a feel for the medium; researching your subject matter; and re-writing what you have written to make it better.

Put another way: it’s better to do something wrong once, then review it and do it better second time, than do it wrong 10 times without reflection.

3. Success does not mean a good mark

If your article is published in a magazine or newspaper, that’s good – but it doesn’t mean that it’s of professional quality. Some editors have low standards – especially if they aren’t paying and need to fill space at short notice.

Likewise, your blog post may have accumulated 3,000 hits – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it meets the requirements of the brief.

To reiterate point 1: marks measure something very specific. They do not measure you as a person, or even the project as a whole. That’s not to undermine your achievements in getting so many hits or selling an article – those are things you should be rightly proud of (and mention at every interview).

4. Marks don’t matter

I exaggerate, of course. But you shouldn’t take marks too seriously. If you only wanted to pass a module and move on, then move on – it’s quite likely your lack of investment in the subject that was the reason for low marks. If you want a good mark because you want a good degree classification, then you should be using your time effectively and reading feedback from previous assignments – but also be aware of the way that degrees are classified (it’s often more complex than you might assume).

But if you want to be better in the areas that were being measured, then read the feedback – and ask for more if you need to (academics have learned that lengthy written feedback doesn’t tend to be read by students and so keep it short, but are generally happy to talk to you in depth if you want to).

Sometimes the feedback will sound much better than the mark indicates. This quite often comes down to language and style: being ‘sound’ might seem good to you, but in the language of the assessment bands it typically means average or, more often, below average; ‘good’ and ‘excellent’ are equivalents for higher categories. Negative feedback is often sandwiched between positive feedback.

Don’t underestimate how hard it is to get a high mark at undergraduate – and especially postgraduate – level. You may be used to high grades, but the bar is raised at each level. Anything above 60% (in the UK) is actually very good. The average is generally around 58% – anything higher or lower will require explanation for external examiners (who check that marking is consistent across institutions).

To get a first class mark typically means you have to perform at the top level in every category being assessed. That’s in italics for a reason: you might be the greatest writer the world has ever known, but your research isn’t first rate. You might have spent hours scouring official documents for an international scoop (yes, I’m exaggerating again) but your understanding of the legal ramifications was flawed. And so on.

But here’s the thing: given the choice between a great mark and a great story, I think you should go for the latter.

Caveats: this is assuming that your objective is to get a job in journalism, and you are confident of passing. Also, always have a backup plan if the story falls through.

The marks are only a signpost along your journey through education. If you write a blinding blog post, be proud of it regardless of where it ranks against the criteria it was being formally assessed on.

Marks, and the accompanying feedback, are there to focus your attention on blind spots and weak spots in your work. Use them in that way – but don’t use them to rate yourself or to compare yourself with others. Once you start playing a game of high score rankings, you’ve already lost.

7 thoughts on “Why your mark doesn’t matter (and why it does)

  1. Ben Harrow

    This is oh so horribly true, after coming out of my degree.

    Comforting that a 2:1 is actually a great achievement though, so here’s hoping that that can fall through along with the things learnt!

    Thanks for all the help again, by the way. And another great post!

  2. Ed Yong

    Here’s a true story. I have busted my butt for the last seven years to create a well-read blog in my spare time, for little financial gain. I worked for hours on evenings and weekends, while holding down a steady day job. I’ve tried to use this experience to improve my skills, build a community, and raise my profile. I pitched furiously to places I wanted to write for and snagged some commissions. It was all going so swimmingly until one day, all the editors in the world realised that I don’t have a journalism degree and that I got a 2:1 rather than a 1st at university, and now I can’t get a single person to hire me to write for them.

    Oh wait, that last sentence didn’t happen.

    In fact, that has never happened to anyone.

    Because, marks, ultimately, are trivial and slightly puerile things. People hire journalists based on their clips, their work ethic, their skills.

    And there are dozens, if not hundreds, of people who have these things in spades. My beat – science journalism – is awash with folks who are producing all sorts of awesome writing and reporting in their spare time for no reward.

    If you aren’t doing that… if you had to be press-ganged into writing a couple of posts with a few paltry interviews and then complain that your incredible widget-adding skills or RSS-reading skills were not fully recognised… that’s going to hurt you a lot more than any low mark will do.

    In short: marks are marks. Suck it up. Then do stuff.

  3. Robyn Bateman

    Great post Paul – particularly as I’m soon to hand an assignment in to you and you haven’t mentioned taking bribes. Damn, I will have to do some work.

    I’ve worked in journalism for over a decade and no one has ever asked me about marks – good job because my A Level results spelled DEAD but without the A! And I don’t have a degree at all. (Rectifying that last bit with an MA though, and just because I can, not because I have to).

  4. K

    This is all true if you have a decent lecturer, but I just don’t think that can be assumed.

    I’m just about ready to drop out of law precisely because none of the behaviours you described for lecturers are reliable. Lecturers mark inconsistently, they don’t actually explain what they want, they get angry or are rude, unwelcoming, angry, or even sexist, then it’s my fault I get poor marks because I never approached them for additional feedback. I recently completed an assessment and received a 68. My level of research and number of sources was ‘good’. A (male) friend completed the same assessment and got 90. His research was ‘excellent – deep and broad’. I used every source he did plus an additional 25% of sources he didn’t.

    My experiences are by no means atypical. I’ve heard similar stories from many students, including those from different universities, and I’m just sick of it.

  5. Colin Campbell

    Such an important topic this, thanks for sharing. Overall marks or grades are just feedback – nothing less, nothing more. Most systems of assessment that still use terms like ‘overall marks’ and ‘grades’ in my view, tend to be the ones that don’t provide very useful feedback to the students or if they do – the feedback is lost with the distracting focus on the summary of that feedback that is an overall grade. What do we need overall grades for? Alfie Kohn has been a source of wisdom on this topic for many years, http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/fdtd-g.htm a good place to start if you are not familiar with his position.

  6. richard lutz

    Yes, you hit the mark.
    I teach three modules at Bham University Business School. One is in webcast marketing.

    One of the best videos made by a pair of students was given a poor mark- the worst in the cohort.

    That was because the two students made a great dvd which didn’t follow the brief.

    They appealed and I said the next time just read specifically what you have to do- not what you want to do.
    They received poor grades- but learned a lesson

    Richard Lutz

  7. Matt Grimes

    Great post Paul. A topic that it’s as old as academia itself. Your points are the same ones I constantly repeat to students as if it was some kind of mantra. Now I can refer them to your blog post.Thanks.


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