Head to head: Against capping – an argument on behalf of human error

Capping is but the latest in a series of crackdowns on the freedom of students here at NUI Galway. In the last two years, the capping of repeat examinations at 40% has been gradually phased in and received by the student body in general with all the warmth of a limp handshake.

Capping, in theory, presents no problems whatsoever. In the view of many, it is only right that the university should attempt to erode the ability of unscrupulous students to deliberately fail exams, only to repeat them in August with the renewed vigour granted to them by an extended summer break.

How frustrating is it to juggle an unrelenting balance of commitments during college term, to obtain a 2:1 by the skin of your teeth, only to have some jack-a-nape rock home fresh from a J1 in late July to study and achieve the exact same grade as you, while avoiding the December and May exam-time meltdowns.

All things equal, capping would function adequately. However, the landscape of academic topography here at NUI Galway is decidedly slanted. For example, continuous assessment is a mainstay of some courses, while being completely absent from some. Surely the commerce undergraduate, who takes around six exams a semester should be granted some modicum of relief from the draconian grasp of capping as opposed to say, a masters in journalism student, who may take only one exam per semester.

One size cannot fit all when university courses resemble a rag-tag of body shapes.

I would propose that we keep capping in place, but stagger it somewhat. The University of Limerick caps repeat grades at a C level, as opposed to the bare-bones pass grade that is mandated by our overlords in the exams office here at NUI Galway.

The staggered system I would rather see in place would grant sanctuary to people who put in all of the work but simply ‘had a bad day’, while also functioning as a deterrent against the opportunistic August heroes. A student’s first repeat should be capped at 70%, her second at 60% and her third at 50%. Anything beyond this should be capped at the minimum pass grade.

We all have bad days. No-one examines well all of the time over the course of the eight exam periods of your average four-year undergraduate course. No-one deserves to miss out on a prestigious masters course in Trinity because one of their god-damn questions didn’t come up in administrative law (solemnly swear this did not happen to me).

Another preferable alternative would be to cap the exam relative to the points scored in the original attempt. Say you achieve a mark of 35%, it is abundantly clear that you made some attempt to study for the exam, and aren’t simply skiving off your study during term-time. Perhaps it would be fairer to cap higher-scoring fail students at a rate higher than 40%, and work it down based on the mark achieved in the original exam.

Initially, it was thought that having to pay for repeat examinations was enough of a deterrent in and of itself – that is obviously no longer the case. There is a certain logic in what the university is doing. Since the advent of universal third-level education took hold, the holding of a degree has become somewhat devalued. Therefore, the quality of your mark in said degree has been amplified exponentially in importance. This is designed to favour students who have worked hard during the course of the year.

I agree with capping in theory, however, it is not a perfect rule. If capping is to apply to every course equally, every course should have the exact same proportion of continuous assessment. Moreover, ‘absolute’ courses should be graded in the same way that ‘subjective’ courses are. Ask any arts or law student if they have ever been graded over 80% and they will likely scoff at you. Ask a maths or science student the same question and they may answer yes. It is possible to get an accounting question 100% right, whereas the same cannot be said for a comparative assessment of post-Joycean Irish literature.

If the university is to adopt a uniform stance on one aspect of its exam policy, it should apply across the board. Otherwise, special dispensation should be afforded on a case-by-case basis.

-By Eoin Molloy

Image from Steve S. on flickr.

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