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Cor Zonneveld | What is wrong with numbers

Cor Zonneveld,
27 oktober 2023 - 12:37
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Why do we at the university actually work with grades? Columnist Cor Zonneveld suggests that grading exams or assignments should be omitted from now on. “Just as a fish cannot imagine what it is like to walk around in the forest, we cannot imagine a system without grades.”

The article in the NRC on 4 July 2023 read “Dutch universities should take a step away from international rankings that assess their performance”. These rankings “falsely claim to sum up the performance of a university in a single number”. Because how can research, teaching and other core duties be combined “into a single number”? The NRC writes that the weighting of the various aspects will always be “arbitrary and contentious”. Victory! At last, common sense seems to be gaining to upper hand over neoliberal eructations.
But let’s not celebrate prematurely. Measuring performance in research has in the meantime led to a serious field of expertise, namely the field of bibliometrics. In addition to conducting research, the university’s other core duty is to educate and train talented young individuals. Although there is no educational counterpart to bibliometrics, this does not mean that the quantification mania is passing education and teaching by.


We have been marking students for their courses since time immemorial. Those figures purport to summarise the student’s academic performance in a single number. Hmm, that sounds familiar. But wasn’t there something wrong with that?

“I believe that there is a whole host of things wrong with marks and grades”

I believe that there is a whole host of things wrong with marks and grades. The fundamental problem is that as soon as you start measuring human behaviour, that behaviour will change. The infamous culture of mediocrity can only exist because we measure academic performance and attach consequences to those measurements. At the other end of the spectrum, we see students whose world literally ends if they get less than an A on an exam. We believe both extremes are undesirable, but they are the inevitable consequences of a marking system.
It is time that insights into university rankings equally extended to our education system. You might very well think that is all nonsense, because we all grew up with marks and grades. And just as a fish cannot imagine what it is like to walk around in the forest and smell the scent of a refreshing summer shower, so too we are incapable of imaging a system without marks or grades.
But there is another way of thinking about this issue. Marks may seem objective, but ultimately come down to the judgment of a teacher – and are therefore subjective. If we trust the marks a teacher gives, then why shouldn’t we be able to trust the assessment of “this students meets the requirements of the degree programme”? We could save ourselves a lot of hassle and alleviate a lot of stress from the students, whereas the end result would remain virtually the same.

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