Sunday June 7, 2009 The Star Online
Not up to mark
By SARAH CHEW
With about 100,000 graduates being churned out every year, a university degree can’t be all that hard to get.
IT’S in the media, it’s in the coffee shops and everyone seems to have an opinion about the quality of education in the country.
With the increasing number of higher education institutions and graduates, increasingly one of the measuring rods held up is student assessment.
Nor’s* nightmare began when she only passed two of her students in a Syariah law exam.
“The dean told me that we don’t have to follow the marking scheme strictly as it is ‘just a guideline’ and he told me to be lax about the English language because they (students) come from Agama (religious) schools,” says the ex-lecturer of law from Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia (Usim).
“The dean told me it would affect our university ranking if too many students fail.”
She claimed she was told to give her students who failed a ‘B’ grade if they regularly attended class.
Recently, Kosmo! highlighted her case and Usim has adamantly refuted her claims, stating that the university did not give out ‘mercy marks’.
In a letter to Nor, the university management stated it was not wrong in asking for a review of student assessment, and did not ask her to add marks.
Nor says she has tried her best to give marks to her students – but they do not warrant it.
“Their answers did not answer the basic questions, and I didn’t even ask them analytical questions, I asked them ‘route’ questions like giving definitions, examples, instances and so forth,” she says.
Reading through the students’ answer papers, question paper and marking scheme, this reporter discovered a shockingly high number of questions that required straightforward memorisation and even more shocking unrelated answers.
“What would the world think of me if I pass these students? It would be unethical of me,” she adds.
Nor claims she has been subjected to verbal abuse, accused of being mentally unstable, with people even poking fun at her personal life.
It is not just Nor, however, as a few lecturers would share similar experiences when probed.
Shanta Perumal* taught in a variety of well-known public universities and a private college before she quit lecturing out of sheer frustration.
She recalls her lecturing days at a private college, where although the passing rate for their exams were high, only five out of a hundred students would pass the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) required for them to continue their twinning degree in a partner New Zealand university.
For some lecturers, the hassle of writing a report to explain every student failure, arguing with the management, dealing with student appeals and having to possibly re-mark the paper, causes them to resort to unethical practices.
“Instead of going through all that, might as well just add five marks and let the student pass,” says Shanta.
The same sometimes happens in the public universities she has taught English in, she says.
Hard to fail
She thinks that for some courses, “it is impossible to fail” because the breakdown of the marks allocated would easily allow an average student to pass; such as awarding 5% for attendance, 10% for participation and marks for appearance.
She recalls the time she refused to pass a matriculation student who handed in a torn fullscap paper scrawled with some sentences for his essay assignment for her compulsory module. The university passed him on her behalf.
There was also another hilarious occasion where the students were required to answer an exam question “give reasons to your cousin why he should join this course”, in order to test their critical thinking skills.
“We expected them to write things like ‘it opens your mind’, ‘you will gain new experiences’ and so forth.
“But instead, they wrote ‘you will get money from the government and you can buy yourself a motorcycle, it’s a guaranteed pass here, so don’t worry, and later you can work for the government or if you can’t get a job, you can come back here and lecture at this university’”.
The Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) says that in its accreditation processes, they look into student assessment systems, even reading samples of student papers to ensure the marking is fair and follows the scheme.
“It’s quite common around the world to use the bell curve as a guide,” says MQA chief executive officer Prof Datuk Dr Syed Ahmad Hussein. “Usually a small group of people would do well, most would be average and some will fail.”
He says in situations where every student gets an ‘F’ or and ‘A’, the “alarm bells” should ring and this would usually call for an investigation by the university senate on why this is so.
“The university senate has the authority to do this because there are many possibilities — maybe the exam was too easy or hard, maybe the question papers were leaked, or the lecturer was not fair,” he explains
Varsity can rectify
Should such situations occur, the university is allowed to make rectifications like asking students to re-sit exams, scale the grade brackets upward or downward, or making changes to the student assessment system.
If the senate decides to, say, add 10 marks across the board, it is allowed for and it is legal,” he says. Prof Syed Ahmad doesn’t deny cases where people have complained about standards or non-consistent marking schemes, but he thinks these are isolated cases and not a trend.
He is sceptical of claims that the standards have deteriorated as opposed to “back then”.
There are 100,000 graduates a year these days compared to the 70s, he says, which means that the number of both half-baked graduates and competent graduates would rise as well.
So far, Dr Syed Ahmad reveals that MQA has not received any complaints of conspiracies to pass students.
At the end of the day, he feels that consumers are the best judges of quality.
“After a while, people will start to say that graduates from this college or university don’t get employed, then word will go round and the college will die.”
Public universities such as Universiti Malaya (UM), use the bell curve as a guide, although UM’s examination section (academic division) senior principal assistant registrar Yeoh Siew Wan says it’s not necessary for all courses.
Depending on programmes, UM (like most universities) awards marks to students in a continuous assessment framework which includes not only written examinations but also presentations, quizzes, assignments, fieldwork and projects.
The university’s quality management and enhancement centre’s director Prof Dr Fauza Abdul Ghaffar says UM has in place certain quality management procedures such as internal and external audits, submitting papers to external examiners for input, and vetting the examination papers and marking schemes before students sit for them.
Yeoh reveals that the way a lecturer awards marks, however, is left to the discretion of the lecturer.
“The lecturer knows best how to give marks to the students because he or she taught them,” she says, adding that there are strict guidelines and the decision to give extra marks to a student is the committee’s decision, not the lecturer’s.
The same system is practised in Multimedia University, where IT lecturer John See says though the university has the auditing or vetting processes in place, the department heads would not have time to look through or sample the answer sheets, so the lecturers would have to be “responsible”.
“It’s up to the lecturers to set a hard or easy paper, and no one would say much,” he says, adding that there used to be a stricter guideline of what was deemed a “normal” rate of passing and perhaps lecturers were fearful of failing students to adhere to the bell curve, but MMU does not practise that anymore.
“We felt we had to maintain our standards, regardless whether students are lousy or not.”
In UM, there are chances for students to appeal for their paper to be re-marked and also to “redeem” themselves upon failing a subject, if their past performance has been good.
“The lecturer can set him a test, an assignment or interview him — but he can only redeem one subject if he has failed a few,” says Yeoh.
International Medical University (IMU) and Monash University Sunway Campus (Monash) do not use the bell-curve guide but rather, criteria referencing — which assesses a student based on criteria, rather than on the performance of the overall student body.
IMU Faculty of Medicine and Health executive dean Prof Victor K E Lim simply describes it as “if everybody meets the outcome, everybody must pass, but if nobody meets the outcome, everybody must fail!”
He believes the bell-curve guide is not suitable for professional courses like medicine which needs to judge expertise, but is more appropriate for entrance exams where many types of students are taken into account.
To maintain the exam standards across the years, IMU question papers undergo double vetting by lecturers and deans, before being sent to an external examiner for corrections.
After the students sit for the exams, the answers also undergo double marking before sample answer sheets with high, low and average marks are sent to the external examiner to check for marking consistency.
“We don’t really find ways to pass a student,” Prof Lim says. “If they want, they can re-sit the exam.”
And to ensure a student is rightly assessed in other areas such as practicals and interaction with patients, they are assessed by multiple lecturers and staff, rather than just one person.
Monash has rigorous vetting and sampling processes, as director of education quality and innovation Dr Glenda Crosling believes that the event of having to scale the grades up or down according to a paper’s level of difficulty shouldn’t happen after students sit for the exams.
“I think the paper should be set at the right level beforehand to prevent that from occurring,” she says. “And marks shouldn’t be adjusted just because there are many who fail.”
But if there are unusual trends, the chief examiner would have to explain to the board of examiners why this occurs.
Student assessment obviously does not depend solely on examinations, as assignments and projects play a big role.
A time for learning
From his experience in MMU, See finds that students who fail in his course don’t have the fundamental grasp of the basic concepts in programming.
“I think usually the problem stems from secondary school. If the quality of students is low, we can’t help it,” he opines.
The complaint of low standards in the schooling assessment to begin with is not an uncommon one.
“We know of students who got straight As for PMR coming into our centre and they literally can’t string together sentences properly,” says Tan Poay Lim, principal of Creative Horizons Language Centre.
“Numbers of distinctions now are so high but the performance is still so low. Put the two and two together and you know that our standards have dropped.”
With 20 years of teaching experience behind him, Creative Education Consultancy managing director Alagesan Arumugam has seen certain trends in the public school examinations.
“I have assessed some of my students and find it hard to comprehend that they are distinction students,” he says. “On my tests, they would get 55% but end up getting 1A in SPM. It does look like it’s relatively easy to score an A these days.”
Alagesan points out that this could be due to a few factors – perhaps the students “bucked up” before the exam, perhaps his own standard was too high or perhaps the marking scheme was lenient.
His suggestion for fairer awarding of grades would be to give A’s to the top 10% of the nation’s scorers according to subjects, to decrease the likelihood of many students getting a string of As.
“Because at the moment, a student may be in the top 1% in Physics but only the top 20% in Chemistry but he gets 1A for each subject.
“So you may get a situation where two students in a class – one who always scores 90% in school exams and another who scores 60% – both getting 1A in SPM. It’s not fair to the first student, isn’t it?”
For Shanta, the root of the problem lies in the low entry requirements for universities and colleges.
She thinks that the government should consider implementing minimum prerequisites to study at matriculation centres, colleges and universities.
“Let’s say most of the class at university got an F in the SPM English paper, the possibility of two thirds failing is very high,” she explains. “But if so many fail, the programme is questioned, the lecturer is questioned and the university has to blame somebody. At the end of the day, lecturers want to hold on to their jobs.”
See believes the general public’s attitude is partly to blame for the occasional lapse of standards.
“I don’t think the public values standards very much,” he says. “When I talk to parents sometimes, they are always asking for the fastest way possible to finish a course.”
He feels there is a tension between maintaining standards and pleasing students as they are “customers” and therefore the pressure is greater, with some students even forming petitions and setting up blogs to contest their results.
Some believe that it is really up to a student himself or herself to make the most of university education.
“The only difference between good students and under-achieving students is whether they put in the effort,” says Owen Yap, a subject matter expert for Basic Interpersonal Communications at Open University Malaysia (OUM).
“I’ve never been pressured by the university to pass students, but my students have begged me before! But I always tell them that they should have done their assignments in order to secure their marks,” he says.
It boils down to attitude, Prof Lim reckons. “Sometimes, it’s not really about knowledge or skills, a very important component is professionalism.
“But assessment of professionalism is difficult. You can’t assess students in an exam, they are bound to give all the right answers!’
And because it’s harder to detect or train attitude problems, Prof Lim claims “we have crooks in our medical system” who would resort to unethical means for money.
It’s not just attitudes of students, of course, it applies to anyone. But it might come at a price, as Nor found out.
“You know, I could have done what was wanted of me and I would still have my job today,” Nor admits ruefully, having resigned from her posts since last year.
“I’ve lost my pension, I’ve lost my chance to study abroad but a life with no conscience is not the way to live.”
■ names have been changed.