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Credits shouldn’t be motivation

Credits!  Credits credits credits credits credits.  Credits.  The answer to everything.  Kids not motivated?  Give them more credits.  Because that’s what counts, right?

Apparently students aren’t motivated to aim high, because, boo hoo, they don’t get any credits for it.  Harden up.  This isn’t a fault in the system.  It’s a fault in students themselves.  It’s reminiscent of a letter to the editor of the NZ Herald in July last year, complaining about not being motivated at university, to which another correspondent replied: “Who does [he] think he’s trying to kid?  ‘Woe is me, the NCEA has made me too lazy to try harder.’  The phrase ‘Cs get degrees’ has been around a lot longer than the NCEA.”

Let’s have a look at the facts.  One student gets 120 credits, 60 with excellence, 40 with merit and 20 at achievement.  Another gets 120 credits, all bare passes (“achievements”).  Who did better?

Common sense would say the first person, but according to the logic of thousands of students around New Zealand, the two students are on equal grounds.  Why?  Because they had the same number of credits.  What does this tell us?  That a misinterpretation of what credits are has led to an unhealthy focus on them, which has led to quite possibly the most absurd criticism of NCEA in its ten-year history: that NCEA doesn’t motivate students because it doesn’t encourage students to aim high.

There are many sucess stories of NCEA students, and they all have one thing in common: all of them are motivated to aim high.  It’s quite simple, really.  If you get an excellence, you did better than someone who got a merit.  If you got a merit, you did better than someone who got achieved.

The issue isn’t that excellences don’t get more credits.  That’s how it should be.  The issue is that the attitudes of students is misplaced.  Credits should not be the measure of success.  Credits are merely steps towards the qualification.  Either a student has enough credits, or he doesn’t.  When it comes to evaluating success, that’s where grades come in.

To this effect, the proposals by Steve Maharey—to give more credits for merits and excellences, and for harder subjects—are flawed.  They won’t discourage “credit-shopping” (when students cherry-pick for the easiest credits).  Rather, it’ll encourage it—Maharey is sending a message that accumulating credits is the way to go.  And alternative ways of increasing credits are introduced, students will just think about it more—should I got for more credits and risk failing, or less credits that I know I can get?  Go for tops in three standards or go for pass in one more?  All that will happen is that sole number of how many credits one has will be all that matters, and the days of aiming high will truly be gone.

Rather, the solution to this perceived problem of student motivation is to direct students so that they focus on the things that are right.  Students need to be thinking about their grades, not their credits.  This is how it should work:

  • Courses should be prescribed.  Flexibility is great, but too much flexibility is the root to all that cherry-picking.  If necessary, elective standards could be offered, of which a certain number must be chosen so that 24 credits are sat in total.
  • There should be more than three grades of achievement.  About seven’s a good number—it means that there are enough so that people in one band are of about the same ability, and few enough so that the divisions aren’t greater than the margin of error.
  • Most importantly, there should be an aggregate measure of performance, and that should be what counts.

So, if I take chemistry, I should take the same “chemistry” to everyone else, so I don’t have (much of) a choice; each of the six standards (in level 3) should be given one of seven grades, and at the end of all of them, I should have a number, to one decimal place, between 1.0 and 7.0 that represents how well I did.

This way, we get the best of both worlds.  If someone fails somewhere, we still give them credit for what they’ve passed, so that we can see what they can do, but we acknowledge that they failed a component for the purposes of aggregation.  So we get disaggregation, but we also get aggregation, and the focus is kept on how well a student is doing—not how many credits they have.

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