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

It’s that time of year when students get their marks and with them, sometimes, disappointment, frustration or outright confusion. These emotions tend to arise, I think, because 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.

2a. Group work sucks – but if you’re the person carrying you’re the person learning

Many people dislike working in groups, and resent being marked on that basis, because it allows some members to benefit from the work of others, or creates the fear that your work will be undone by an incompetent colleague.

They are right to hate this: it’s not fair. But here’s the thing: working life is not fair either. And pretending otherwise would be a dereliction of our duty as educators. One of the things we want students to learn is how to manage that inequity.

As a result, there is always a tension between teaching and assessment – between the need to give an individual credit, and the need to give people experience of working in teams and learning from each other.

Likewise, group work helps facilitate learning between individuals, which is just as important as learning from a tutor, or from learning resources. Think of how much you have learned from colleagues over the years – both the good things that they do, and the bad things you’ve had to sort out.

In a nutshell, purely individual assessment is not always educationally optimal. And if your mark suffers because of a dodgy group member it’s because that mark doesn’t matter as much as the ability to apply for a job and go into an interview and be able to answer the question “Tell me about a situation where you’ve had to deal with being let down/poor work from a colleague/and so on”.

Employers look for experience of working in a team – and of dealing with issues such as members who don’t pull their wait and ride on others’ coat tails. My experience is that the people who carry their groups do very well when it comes to finding employment, while the hangers-on flounder without someone’s coat-tails to ride.

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.

If you are presented with an opportunity that conflicts with your studies never assume that your tutor is going to advise you against taking it, and definitely don’t avoid telling them.

Tutorsare generally happy to give you the benefit of their experience (and inside knowledge) to advise on the value of the experience, and how best to exploit it. They are also best placed to advise on managing that conflict.

And if you made mistakes and got some great experience, draw on it, talk about it, learn from it, and see the value in that, rather than focusing on the mistakes.

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.

Finally, here’s a letter that one school sent to its students alongside their test results. “There are many ways of being smart” says it all:

barrowford_letter

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