Grades in essay writing results

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1. There are two systems of essay grades commonly used in further and higher education [in the UK]. One is the numerical percentages system of grades (from 0 up to 100) and the other is the alphabetical letter system (from A down to E, F, and G).

2. Older, traditional universities sometimes employ a similar system, but using the initial letters of the Greek alphabet – Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta.

3. Those using the English and Greek letter system often employ the further refinement of a plus and minus system to provide a greater degree of discrimination. In this system, the grades Beta-plus (B+) and Alpha-minus (A-) represent incremental grades between Beta and Alpha.

4. Although these systems are in widespread use, there might be minor local variations. An example of the other common [sixteen-point] marking scheme is given below. See also the section on assessment.

5. In numerical percentages especially, there is sometimes a sense of fuzziness about the distinctions between one grade and the next. It is also quite common not to award percentages over eighty.

6. The percentage and letter grades, corresponding to the standard university degree classification, are as follows:

First class (I) 70% or over A
Upper second (II.i) 60-69% B
Lower second (II.ii) 50-59% C
Third class (III) 40-49% D
Pass/Fail 34-39% E
Fail Below 34% F

7. For most courses, the boundary between a pass and a fail will be forty percent. Below this there can be different levels of failure. A tutor might award thirty-five to record a near miss. This could permit a student to re-submit a piece of work or maybe to re-sit an examination. The band of marks between thirty and forty is sometimes called a ‘compensatory pass’.

8. A mark as low as twenty-five suggests a basic misunderstanding or a serious lack of achievement. Below this, there are further possible degrees of failure. These marks may sometimes be designated as E, F, and G in the letter grading system – though some institutions stop registering grades at D.

9. Low marks for individual pieces of work might nevertheless be significant depending on the system for calculating an overall course grade. One single low essay grade on a course might bring down an average score – or it might be disregarded as an aberration if all other grades were high.

10. Above forty percent there is a band of ten marks which designate a ‘bare pass’. The question has been considered, but that is all. The answer might be weak and hesitant, either in the arrangement of its ideas or in the quality of its arguments and evidence. The manner of expression might also be shaky. This band corresponds to the D grade in the letter system or a third (III) or pass mark in the traditional university system.

11. Work which scrapes through the pass mark will usually suffer from a number of weaknesses. The answers might have been very short, the focus of the argument might have wandered on and off the required subject. It might lack coherence and structure, and the expression may have been hesitant or clumsy. In work of this calibre there is often no indication that the student knows which is the more and which the less relevant part of the argument.

12. The higher the grade awarded to an essay, the greater must be the proportion of material it contains which is directly related to the question. Conversely, there should be as little as possible which is not relevant. The success of the work, in almost all cases, is directly related to the ability to focus single-mindedly on the question topic(s).

13. Next comes the band between fifty and sixty percent. Grades at this level represent a greater degree of competence, both in terms of handling the issues and the manner in which they are expressed. There may be a greater degree of fluency in the written style, and the generation of ideas. More supporting evidence may have been offered, or examples discussed. However, there will still be weak patches, and possibly mistakes or omissions which dilute the overall effect of the essay. This band corresponds to the C grade or the lower second (II.ii) in the other grading systems.

14. Grades between fifty and sixty are perfectly respectable. They represent rising degrees of competence in handling the issues raised by the question. These grades reflect an average ability in the subject at this level – yet they often seem to cause more problems than any other grades. Many students imagine that such results represent a humiliating failure to succeed, when in fact they demonstrate competence and success – albeit at a moderate level.

15. In the next band, between sixty and seventy, there will be a rise in the quality of written expression, argument and evidence. There will also be far less extraneous material and usually a greater degree of self-confidence in the writing. The essay will demonstrate an ability to focus attention on the question. This is a standard which shows a well informed and firm grasp of the issues involved, and the intellectual capability to deal with them. This band corresponds to the B grade or the upper second (II.i) in the other systems.

16. Students often want to know (quite rightly) what constitutes the difference in quality between two results, one of which might score 59 and the other 62 percent. This is a gap of only three marks, but enough to make the distinction between a lower and upper second level pass. The answer is that the better work probably has a stronger sense of focus and structure, presents more concrete evidence, or makes a closer engagement with the details of the question.

17. The regions beyond seventy or seventy-five are normally reserved for work which is clearly outstanding in its quality, intellectual breadth, and fluency of articulation. Answers pitched at this level are likely to be very confidently presented, and they will demonstrate a breadth of knowledge and reading in the subject which make it especially praiseworthy. Marks in this band are often awarded to work which not only answers the question but say something insightful or original about it as well. This band corresponds to the A grade or first class award (I) in the other systems.

18. Keep in mind however that essay questions do not require you to be dazzlingly original. Your tutors will be perfectly happy to award good grades to work which shows that you have studied the course material and answered the question.

19. Most institutions use similar standards of assessment, even though many of them do not make the criteria explicit. Here is one which does.

Grade Degree     Guide to interpretation
90/85 1 Outstanding work
78 1 Work of exceptional merit, in terms of coherence, clarity of presentation, comprehensive coverage and critical analytic discourse.
73 1 Excellent command of relevant material, clearly expressed, with a high level of perception and critical insight.
68/63 2.i Based on wide reading and critical analysis of material. Work is logically structured, is expressed clearly, offers broad coverage of the topic, and is accurate in points of detail.
58/53 2.ii Work is satisfactory in structure and expression, and is based on a fair range of reading. The student has thought through the subject, tackled most relevant issues with reasonable accuracy, and has attained an acceptable level of understanding.
48 3 Work has some merits, but is deficient in one or more significant respects. For example, structure and expression are poor; certain issues are misunderstood; factual errors creep in; insufficient reading; lack of evidence of independent thought.
43 Pass Work is deficient in several respects or badly deficient in one of them, but nontheless has some recognisable merit.
33 Fail Some awareness of the dimensions of the question/issue, but the communication of knowledge and understanding is limited and/or error-prone. Alternatively, the communication of knowledge and understanding is of a related subject, which represents a misreading or misunderstanding of the question/issue as set.
25 Fail Sufficient knowledge to indicate a minimal level of understanding, but knowledge based unacceptably weak.
15 Fail No coherent response to the question/issue, but a few relevant points made.
8 Fail Virtually no relevant response to the question or issue.
0 Fail No relevant response to the question or issue.

© Roy Johnson 2003

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