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Exam marks at Open University based on former students’ results causes outrage

The Open University (OU) has decided to base student exam grades on the previous results of former students. 

The institution decided to use a statistical model to calculate scores for cancelled final assignments for term 3.

Half of all final assignments were cancelled during lockdown – even if they were contact-free. 

The “sudden” move has caused outrage among students who have described the situation as a “disgrace”. Several students received downward adjustments to their marks.

One student received a final grade of 77% after previous assessments ranged between 84-92%. He said: “It just doesn’t make sense to use statistics to grade someone if it’s not their work they’re being graded against.”

In response to this, the OU said it adjusted by analysing data from students with similar scores and with students existing grades. The selection of student data used was from those who sat the modules the past three course years.

Dr Liz Marr, pro vice-chancellor of the OU, said that where the end-of-module assessment had been cancelled due to coronavirus, there had been an “exceptional process” for calculating a score. 

This approach is a quality assurance measure to ensure achievements in one year are of a comparable standard to previous years

– Liz Marr

She further stated that she believed the OU’s approach was the “fairest way” to handle the cancelled assignment averages and maintain the value of the establishment’s degrees.

She added: “It minimises the risk of grade inflation and protects the value of qualifications with employers. This approach is a quality assurance measure to ensure achievements in one year are of a comparable standard to previous years.”

Dr Marr maintains that the university has followed guidance from the regulatory bodies.

Many students and external academics disagree with the approach. Students who have received lower grades than what they should have said they will now find it harder to achieve the final degree classifications they had been expecting.

Students have concerns over the reasoning for the decision. With many universities losing money during the pandemic, students have raised questions on the possible financial motivation to cancel assignments including online ones. 

One student said: “It begs the question as to their motives for doing this. Was it a cost-saving exercise or to reduce the work that the staff had to do?”

The OU responded that staff workload increased as a result of this process and this hasn’t been a cost-saving exercise.

It’s my view that, because it rarely has to confront the students personally or vocally, it feels it can hide behind either blanking them or just obfuscating. I complained about the cancelling of the end of year assessments and the responses were woefully inadequate

– OU Student

The student also said it was hard to get into contact with university staff. 

“It’s my view that, because it rarely has to confront the students personally or vocally, it feels it can hide behind either blanking them or just obfuscating. I complained about the cancelling of the end of year assessments and the responses were woefully inadequate,” he added.

Students have set up a petition on 38 degrees at the university asking OU to re-evaluate the grading process. The petition calls to “not use previous students results to overlay an average reduction in the overall score”.

Dr Marr said that all students were treated as having special circumstances due to the pandemic. Individual and extenuating circumstances have also been taken into account. The university assures that “careful checks” have been made at every stage of by external examiners.

“Results are final and we believe they have been determined fairly and consistently in line with guidance from our regulators whilst maintaining academic integrity and standards,” she added.

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