Assessment, 1973 style

I became a lecturer in higher education quite late in life – I was 39, and had a career as a secondary school teacher behind me. At that point, in the early nineties, many universities were moving into what was called modularisation. The elements of degrees, often called courses hitherto, were being replaced by a system where each element, or module, of a degree programme would be worth a certain number of points. A degree would require 360 points, so 120 points per year in the English system. As a result, I became very familiar with the process of module and programme design, and over the next twenty years went through many validation procedures, where modules and the programmes they contributed to were approved. Every module had to have its assessment regime, showing how the proposed assessment would meet the learning objectives, how that would fit into the overall assessment pattern, and so on. Typically, in my experience, modules would have two or three items of assessment, usually assignments plus an exam, with each element weighted: maybe 40% for an assignment, 20% for a presentation, 40% exam. And those elements would be marked out of 100 according to a published scale of criteria, ensuring that every student knew exactly how marks were arrived at. So, looking back on how we were assessed fifty years ago, I find no real sense of an overarching system. We wrote essays during term time, and at the end of the year we took exams. As far as we knew, the essays, though compulsory, had no standing in the way we were assessed. Everything was based on the exam performance, though maybe our efforts in term-time essays were informally taken into account. I don’t know, because nobody told us. The assessment regime, and the methods by which degree classification might be awarded, were never explained to us.

We chose essay titles from a list given to us, and we had deadlines for handing them in to our tutor. These were handwritten, of course, and marked solely by our tutor – no second marking took place. What’s more, we discovered that each tutor marked according to their own system, so comparisons were difficult. My first year tutor, Alistair Stead, used Greek letters, with plus or minus symbols, sometimes with the symbols in brackets, and question marks to indicate a borderline case. So you might receive a mark of β + ? +, or α – (-). In the end, what mattered were the comments, which were always clear, fair, and pointed.

I can’t find our first year list of essay topics, but I do have the second and third year ones. Here’s the short essay list from 1974: 1500 words minimum.

These titles covered the texts studied in the poetry and novel courses of that year, and I’ll come back to those at a later date. The long essay (minimum 3000 words) titles were these:

For one of the short essay topics, I chose Herbert, whose poetry seemed to me to be less problematic than some of the other metaphysicals. This is the first page of my effort:

I’m impressed by the front of my nineteen-year-old self, declaring confidently just how Herbert derived the ideas for his poems. My tutor commented: “There are one or two words or expressions about which I am doubtful, with reference to Herbert’s poetry, or cannot read. Still, a most promising beginning.” As Pope put it, “damn with faint praise.”

Anyway, we worked hard to present our essays (we never referred to them as “assignments”) and dutifully took our exams at the end of the year. Passing the exams ensured progression. There was a retake option for those who had failed, but I didn’t know of anyone who did. One of my peers though, having read up on the exam regulations, decided that turning up to register his presence and just writing his name on the answer booklet before leaving would ensure that he got a second chance. Alas, the regulations demanded that an “effort” be made, and writing his name was deemed insufficient. He had to go, and the next time I saw him, he was collecting fares on the number 4 bus.

CC BY-SA 4.0 Assessment, 1973 style by Dr Rob Spence is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

2 Responses to “Assessment, 1973 style”

  1. Goodness! I can’t imagine any present day student being able to write on any of these, though perhaps I’m wrong. You definitely should be proud of your 19 year old self.

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