Missing the mark

Marking exams or assignments is very different depending on the system. The school system in Germany uses grades from 1 (the top) to 6 (the lowest) which seems very different to the typical UK school system of A-G or percentages. The university system is very different again, both in terms of translating percentages and in terms of degree class. While 50% might be the typical pass grade for school exams, 40% is standard at UK universities. An average grade of 40-49% would allow a student to gain a third class degree although this would not impress some employers or generally allow access to higher degrees.

Second class degrees are divided into upper and lower seconds, 2:1 or the lower 2:2. These would typically be the most frequently achieved classes of degree, with a student averaging 50-59% receiving a 2:2 (spoken two two) while grades averaging 60-69% would achieve a 2:1 (two one). While the award of a 2:2 degree represents a major achievement for some students, a 2:1 would be more generally regarded as a ‘good degree’ which would qualify the student for further study at Masters or Doctoral level. A first class degree requires a grade average of over 70%, and these are far harder to come by. I didn’t get a first, and only a handful of our students achieve this each year.

So in comparison to GCSE grades for example, 70% at degree level represents an outstanding achievement. While GCSE papers may receive marks up to 100% (and I got some of those in practice papers, for maths anyway), arts degree students at least will rarely scale such dizzy heights. Perhaps it’s different for science students where answers can be completely correct, but certainly our essays are effectively marked out of 80. I very seldom see a mark above 75%, and marking out of 80 means the pass mark of 40% makes more sense. There is always room for improvement in an essay, and I suppose they are always more subjective.

It takes some of our students a while to adjust to these mark scales, and to realise that a mark in the mid 50s does not mean they nearly failed. Perhaps giving some higher marks would be better for self-esteem, but it’s hard to argue with years of academic tradition. At the other end of the spectrum, we rarely give very low marks either. Papers graded between 35 and 40 are near misses and the student may scrape through if other grades are good enough. Papers gaining more like 30% require a lot more work to put right, and there seems little point in grading at 15% or 20% unless the student has completely failed to make a serious attempt at the task. I think the lowest mark I’ve given is 28% and that was seriously under-length and made fundamental errors.

I have counselled students who have received a zero grade for certain papers, and they were generally in a bit of a state. The rationale from the tutors (that they were too upset to approach) was that their attempt was impossible to grade since they had completely missed the point. I tried to explain this to students – that the work wasn’t necessarily dreadful it just did not address the brief. My analogy was that they might have cooked a very nice meat dinner, but that if the brief was to cook a vegetarian meal they had completely missed the task. I tried to argue that getting 0 wasn’t any worse than getting another grade that failed, but it was quite a hard sell. I guess so long as you make it clear that a student has missed the mark, you don’t need to rub their nose in it.

While I can’t claim to have a lot of personal experience of academic failure, missing the mark is something we all do on a fairly regular basis in other areas of our lives. Listening to a (generally pretty good) sermon yesterday on marriage and singleness, it made me wonder how many people in the congregation were either thinking ‘my marriage is not that great’ or ‘my singleness is not that great’ instead. I do believe that Christian marriage should represent something of Christ and the Church and be a mutually giving and supportive relationship, but I know that some people have very different experiences. Likewise, while I agree that in theory, singleness leaves us much more free to pursue God whole-heartedly, the reality feels very different. If (hypothetically of course) I spend a lot of that available time in less edifying pursuits, wishing or even praying that my life were different, I may feel like a failure. And that’s without any comments from well-meaning friends or family members suggesting that I really should be finding a nice man and settling down. Thankfully my friends and family are more sensitive than that, although I know others are less fortunate.

Generally the sermons I hear focus rather more on forgiveness, grace (getting good things we don’t deserve) and mercy (not getting the punishment we do deserve). Though we let God down, and let our partners and friends and family down, God still loves us and will help us to learn and change. There are usually fresh starts and further attempts we can make, just like my students having another go at an assignment. And while their second attempts are usually capped at 40%, we can learn from our mistakes and sometimes go on to much greater things. Even if a relationship has broken down beyond repair, I have church friends who have clearly blessed and fruitful second marriages, though probably not without a lot of heartache on the way.

Other relationships seem to somehow survive even when the effort appears very one-sided. I guess just as some students will carry a partner rather than failing a task, some wives or husbands do the work to support their spouse through illness, emotional problems or whatever stresses or inadequacies mean that the giving and sacrifice is less than mutual. Sometimes this is thankfully just for a season, but others seem to draw on reserves of strength, commitment or determination to keep going and keep giving, perhaps reflecting something of God’s unfailing love for us.

I mentioned earlier how I didn’t get a first, and part of this was down to the amount of group work within my degree. Much to the frustration of some students, a lot of group work does even out the grades across the group, so fewer students will fail. This brings me back to one of the best points in the sermon yesterday – that married or single we all need other people to help us get through life. It was important to hear that verses in the Bible that talk about two being stronger than one and love being patient and kind apply to all Christian life, not just to weddings. We can all encourage our friends, married or single or in some hard to categorise state in between, and we all need encouragement sometimes as well. In some respects we’re all failures together; we all fall short of God’s standards and we all need his grace and forgiveness. But his love never ceases, his tutorials never get fully booked, his patience never runs thin and he never says we really weren’t cut out for this in the first place. We were made to live in perfect relationship with him, and one day we will.

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