Now every degree will be second class

Continuous assessment is little more than a cheats' charter, says Stuart Sutherland
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In awarding degrees, Oxford University has decided to place more weight on continuous assessment, less on examinations. The ostensible reason is that women are awarded proportionately fewer firsts than men. The authorities allege that this discrepancy occurs either because women are more anxious about examinations than are men or because they are disadvantaged by the menstrual cycle. Neither reason is correct - indeed, research at Harvard has shown that women actually perform better before and during their period than on other days of the month. The difference in examination results arises from a more general difference between the sexes. On all traits, from intelligence to height, men are more variable than women; more men exhibit outstandingly high ability and more extremely low ability. IQ tests are rigged so that the average score of all men combined is equal to that of all women: in general men do better on spatial tests, women on verbal ones and the mixture of the two types of tests is adjusted so that overall men and women have the same average scores. Without the blatant use of different scoring methods there is no way of making the spread of their scores the same.

Using continuous assessment as a contribution to degree class was introduced by most provincial universities many years ago, solely in order to placate students who regard such assessment as fairer and less stressful. In fact, it is less fair because students can often obtain help with their essays from a parent or friend who knows the subject. It must be a rare father who refuses to help his child with an essay on a topic about which he is knowledgeable. In most American universities and some British ones there is an industry devoted to the selling of essays to students. Some students who cannot afford ready-made essays may unashamedly copy passages from textbooks. Years ago, when I noticed this, I would take the appropriate book from my shelf and, as the student was reading their essay aloud, I would correct them whenever they departed from the text they were copying. The rash of textbooks now available makes it virtually impossible to spot such plagiarism.

Ironically, the use of continuous assessment will almost certainly reduce the relative number of firsts awarded to women for the simple reason that one major difference between the sexes is that women are more honest: hence they will be more reluctant to take advantage of the opportunities for cheating that continuous assessment offers.

One reason why students like continuous assessment is that, having been graded on a particular course, they can dismiss it from their mind, thus lowering the load on memory. This must surely prevent them gaining an overall view of a subject and making cross-connections between its different aspects.

Continuous assessment has the further disadvantage of being subject to the halo effect, repeatedly documented in dozens of experimental studies. If assessors know the student, as is almost inevitable, they will be influenced by how far they like the student personally, a factor that has nothing to do with the quality of the work submitted and that is overcome in marking anonymous examination papers.

Why, then, should universities pander to student views? The answer is that the funds departments receive depend in part on the number of students and on their success rate. The news that a given course at a particular university is a soft option spreads among schools and it gains in popularity. My own university used to have a remarkable assessment system which included the grade "Failed, deemed to have passed". It was its proud boast that it had one of the lowest failure rates in Great Britain.

Almost anything that offends students' susceptibilities is now discouraged. As an undergraduate, I remember writing that the hundred years before the Gracchi was a pregnant period of Roman history. My tutor remarked: "A hundred years' pregnancy, Mr Sutherland. I'm no zoologist, but surely even an elephant does not go on that long". Such sarcasm can be a useful teaching device - it certainly taught me not to make the same mistake twice. But it cannot be employed today. The last time I tried it, the student - a woman - ran screaming from the room to report me to the University Health Centre. I received a call from the psychotherapist there, urging me to be more careful because the student was "treating me as a father figure".

Parenthetically, it seems possible that the expensive counselling services established in almost all universities do more harm than good. In many cases the methods used have been shown to be useless, and there seems no reason why the already privileged university students should not rely on the general facilities of the NHS. Despite popular belief, the suicide rate among university students is no higher than that of their contemporaries elsewhere, though in both cases it has increased alarmingly over the last 2O years.

The evaluation of teaching staff by students is becoming increasingly popular - with students if not with staff. A recent series of papers in the American Psychologist suggests that there is only a small correlation between such evaluation and the effectiveness of the teacher. Moreover, this correlation is caused less by accurate evaluation of teachers' ability than by teachers deliberately inflating the grades they give: not unnaturally teachers who give high grades are popular with students regardless of how well they teach. Hence assessment of tutors by students is likely to add to the decline in standards at British universities.

In America, many courses are marked, in whole or part, by multiple choice questionnaires, a method popular with both students and staff because little or no thought is required either in answering or in marking. Since examination methods are bound to influence teaching, the introduction of multiple-choice questions, already practised by many British universities including, I regret to say, my own, will inevitably lead to the teaching of strings of facts, instead of teaching students how to think within their subject. It is presumably only a matter of time before Oxford University introduces multiple-choice assessment, thus reducing the education it provides to the level of preparing students for a pub quiz.

The writer is emeritus professor in experimental psychology at the University of Sussex.