When 70% is good enough

4 February 2020, 2342 EST

When I was a grad student, I had the privilege of student teaching with political theorist Eric MacGilvray. Eric was—and I’m sure still is—a brilliant teacher. He was always in motion, but in a way that felt deliberate. He often perched on an elevated windowsill while listening to students debate amongst themselves. He made even the most archaic and dense texts accessible. (The class was Classics of Social and Political Thought.) He also had a unique approach to grading. Rather than marking on a scale of 100, where 94 is an A, he introduced a seven-point scale. Actually, it was a ten-point scale, but when he introduced it to students, he explained that seven was what they should aim for. A ten on this scale was publishable work. At their level, students weren’t meant to be doing publishable work. They were meant to be learning. Seven was good enough. 

At an elite American university where too many of the students aimed for perfection, the idea that you didn’t have to be perfect was liberating. It allowed students to take up and internalize feedback. Even though we translated the seven-point scale back into US-based grades at the end of the semester, it opened a space for learning. I found Eric’s system brilliant. Only it turns out that it wasn’t Eric’s system.

It’s how they grade in the United Kingdom.

In the UK they grade on what amounts to a seven-point scale. 70% or above is the top band of marks. It is still relatively rare for a student to receive higher than an 80%, though it does happen. Anything in the 60% range—what is known as a 2:1—is considered a “good” grade. Half of all UK university students graduate with a 2:1. Here’s a simplified breakdown of the grading scale:

  • First-class honours – typically 70% or higher (called a 1st)
  • Upper second-class honours, – typically 60 – 69% (called a 2:1)
  • Lower second-class honours, – typically 50 – 59% (called a 2:2)
  • Third-class honours – typically 40 – 49% (called a 3rd)
  • Fail (39% and below)

The chart that Eric handed out in class looked remarkably similar to the one below (minus the multiple, highly specific, and potentially soul crushing gradations of failure). I have reproduced this one from my department’s guidance to staff on examinations and assessments:

  Academic quality Range & relevance of content Style, length & presentation References and bibliography 
90%+   Exceptional First Class Evidence of outstanding academic rigour and insight, publishable work Exceptional range and accomplished use of sources, demonstrating expansive understanding of the field Exceptional style and structure, meticulously presented work Very wide ranging, comprehensive, precise, presented accurately
80-89%   Strong First Class Sophisticated, relevant and sustained critical engagement with the available literature/ sources, displaying some original insights or fresh perspective Excellent range and appropriate use of sources, demonstrating confident understanding of the field Highly accomplished structure, style and presentation Wide ranging Comprehensive, used effectively, presented accurately
70-79%   First Class Methodical, relevant and sustained critical engagement with the available literature/ sources Wide range and appropriate use of sources, demonstrating confident understanding of the field Excellent structure, succinct and concise style and presentation Wide ranging, used effectively, presented accurately
60-69%   Upper 2nd Class (2.1) Engaging critically and consistently with the available literature/ sources, organised in a coherent and persuasive manner Good use of a range of relevant sources, demonstrating clear understanding of main ideas Good, structure, succinct and concise style and presentation showing ability to create argument in highly competent manner Good range of sources, used effectively and presented accurately
50-59%   Lower 2nd Class (2.2) Engaging with some literature/sources, range of ideas organised in a mostly coherent manner Competent use of sources demonstrating knowledge of most of the main issues Coherent structure may contain lapses in style and presentation. May have some issues with succinct writing style Satisfactory range of sources, may be some flaws in presentation
40-49%   Third Class Adequate to pass, but work undeveloped showing limited critical engagement with the literature/sources Adequate use of sources, but some main concepts missed Uneven structure and inappropriate style. Presentation adequate. May have issues with succinct writing style Adequate but limited range of sources, may be inaccurately presented
30-39%   Borderline Fail Attempt made to engage with relevant literature/sources but lacks focus and basic academic rigour Poor use of sources, significant omissions, evident weaknesses Confused structure and inappropriate style. Presentation may be flawed and work difficult to read. Barely acceptable range and use of sources, poorly presented.
20-29%   Clear Fail Very poor engagement with relevant literature/source, work heavy with unsupported opinions Very limited and/or largely irrelevant sources used Serious deficiencies in structure, style and/or presentation. Writer’s intentions difficult to discern Inadequate range and/or inappropriate use of sources
10-19%   Fail with particularly serious flaws Minimal engagement with relevant literature/sources. Extensive errors/omissions Minimal content, irrelevant Minimal attention to structure, style or length requirement. Minimum use of sources, inadequate presentation of references
1-9%   Absolute fail No engagement with relevant literature/sources Non-existent or wholly irrelevant Serious deficiencies in structure, style and/or length requirement Non-existent referencing throughout/no list of sources used
0%   No work submitted

As with Eric’s scale the top bracket, an ‘Exceptional First Class,’ is considered publishable work. In my classes, most students fall into the 2:1 range. It’s quite common, though, for students to receive a 2:2 on their essays due to what the table (generously) refers to as “lapses in style and presentation.”

In some ways the differences between the US and UK grading scales are surface level—it’s easy enough to convert a “First Class” into an “A”—but in other ways those differences reflect a difference in approach to assessments and feedback.

When I first arrived in the UK, I found grading overwhelming, not just because I had a pile of 65 or 70 essays to mark in a matter of weeks, but because of the extent of the feedback I was being asked to offer. Unlike in the US, in the UK graded assessments go through a review process before being released to students. In a practice known as “moderation” a colleague reviews a selection of all graded assessments—at my university it’s all firsts, fails, and borderline grades—for consistency and fairness. The moderator fills out a form certifying that they have done a review, noting any requests for changes, and offering feedback on how to improve your grading. 

More than once moderators commented that I needed to offer more feedback to students, often requesting that I add a longer summary statement at the end.  This flabbergasted me. I have three degrees, all from Ivy and Ivy-plus schools. For most of my student career I considered myself lucky to get a “very good” at the end of an essay. Yes, I realize this is the academic equivalent of saying “back in my day I had to walk 10 miles to school in the snow and I turned out just fine.” I knew better to than to complain.

The bigger problem is that I was already investing significant time correcting grammar and leaving in text comments as I tried to make sense of what my students were saying. I engaged with the substance of what they wrote when possible, but summarizing the strengths and weaknesses of their argument in addition to the in text commentary would be an enormous lift. Clearly, I was missing something.

After about a year of this, I came across the matrix above. It turns out that my colleagues weren’t necessarily asking me to engage with the substance of the essays, they were asking me to justify my marks with respect to the matrix. I needed to pull out key words and phrases from the matrix and package them as comments. They wanted me to make the connection between my in-text comments and the assessment matrix explicit to the student, and they wanted me to do that even with the students who were already writing ‘First Class’ essays.

Whereas the US grading scale is built on the idea of perfection, holding out the possibility of getting the answer 100% correct, in the UK even top performing students aren’t expected to earn more than an 80%. As Eric recognized, when employed well, this approach can help students, and professors, focus on learning rather than outcomes.  

This is the third post in a series on differences between US and UK higher education. To read the others, click here.