• Michael Randall

It's More Than a Number - What Exam Results Mean

June and July at universities are odd at the best of times. Teaching finished months ago, and so on the surface, it may appear that daily activities have wound down. It should feel like the academic year has finished. However, that is never the case. The end of spring exams brings a new challenge for staff and students – the release of marks and degree classifications.

Like ducks on a pond, there is a lot of work going on that you don’t see. Students, understandably, want to know how they have got on. In my experience, they understand that we work to deadlines, but the release of the decisions from the exam boards differs from getting marks/feedback for written assignments, as these deadlines are not always visible to the students (I’ll say this up front – I never know exactly when exam results are going to be released).

For staff, particularly on core modules, there is a lot of coordinating which needs to take place. One thing we’re sometimes guilty of is not fully explaining these processes to students (don’t worry, I won’t go fully in-depth here). However, a large, concerted effort is required from all staff – both academic and administrative (without meaning to sound like a certain world leader, we have the best administrative people like you wouldn’t believe). All of this work goes into making sure that the mythic exam board (essentially the staff meeting in a formal capacity) are fully informed of a student’s performance and personal circumstances, so that the most fair decision can be taken.

It is a nerve-wracking time for students, but also for their families. Recently, my dad phoned me with some good news that we had been waiting for, and joked that it reminded him of the many phone calls I would make to him at work, as exam results got released. I have lost count of how many exams I’ve sat in my time, but if you think about GCSE results, A-level results (apologies, I’m from down south), 4 years at undergraduate (including an Erasmus year), a masters and a PhD, we’ve had a lot of experience at waiting for results.

My intention, then, is to reflect a little bit on what results actually mean, reflecting on my experiences as a student and as a staff member. I’m hoping that in giving a few examples, you can see that we do empathise with students about the wait. I hope that that vast majority of students are delighted with their marks. However, I also know that there will be some who are disappointed.

The Wait Itself

The actual experience of waiting for results takes me back to when I used to work in a call centre over the summer. Those who have had a meeting with me as a Personal Tutor, or dissertation supervisor will know that I can’t avoid ending a meeting with “is there anything else I can help you with?” as a result – a feeling which is only magnified when using a headset microphone on Zoom. Although I do get a lot less abuse now, than back then.

Although I strongly disliked working in a call centre – you could argue that was the driving force behind my postgraduate life, in not wanting to go back – it was quite a good job to have at the time. You would be consistently busy throughout the day, so you were focusing on making sure that you’d entered the correct details for the customer, and logging everything correctly.

The issues really came when there was a break. There was many a time of checking my phone in the toilets – still nothing. You’d come home from work and log on to the desktop – still nothing. Eventually, at some arbitrary point, there would be a text/some kind of message from one of your peers that results were out, and you would then log in to find out how you had got on.

The absolute worst experience for this, though, was waiting for my masters classification. For some reason, the University didn’t release all of the postgraduate marks at the same time – the Human Rights Students got theirs first, and you could see people posting about how well they’d done. Which ramped up the pressure a bit, even though I was doing something very different from them. I can’t remember why, but I was back in Bristol, and was catching a lift with one of my Aunts up north. So I was stuck in a car with someone who really is not the safest of drivers, unable to check and getting worried about it. I don’t think they actually arrived until the next day, but thinking back – that was a silly response on my part. The results don’t change – it should have been a curiosity, not finding out my fate as decreed by the almighty.

For completeness sakes, I’ll mention the PhD – this had 4 distinct result moments. For those unaware, PhDs are ultimately assessed by a viva/defence of your work with two experts in the area. My first one did not go well – I knew it hadn’t, but you found out the decision on the day (I hadn’t passed, but was invited to resubmit with corrections). I worked on the corrections and sent them off before the deadline. There was a delay in both examiners being able to review them, and I managed to park it to one side in my mind. I was called for a 2nd viva, which led to taking immediate refuge in a colleague’s office. I then passed the 2nd viva (subject to minor corrections), where the wait for the verdict felt like 4 hours (it was probably 20 minutes). I got notification my corrections were approved in a brief 5 minute window when I went to the loo after teaching a masters class, but having to run and catch a train to Aberdeen for a moot.

What Results Signify

For me, one of the problems with results is that they don’t always reflect the practical application, or reality, of someone’s skillset. What happens is a numerical value is attributed to someone in one setting. It can lead to students reducing their abilities down to a Top Trumps-style competition between them, rather than thinking about skills acquired. Different classes require different things. That’s not to dismiss marks altogether, but they can act either as confirmation of an approach, or an indication that something hasn’t worked and needed to change.

For year 1, I mainly wanted to make sure that I had passed the year, knowing that I was adjusting to a new form of study. In year 2, I wanted consistency and to avoid a bad mark for the banana skin class of land law. 3rd year was my Erasmus year – that’s where I feel I made the biggest step in being more mature in my approach to study, so when I came back in 4th year, I was engaged with tutorials far more, and my marks improved accordingly.

I was never the best student in the class, but the ones that I enjoyed were the ones I did better in – considering I teach it, fortunately Tort law was one of those subjects.

Equally, there are marks which I was disappointed with, but in all honesty, they don’t keep me up at night. They’ve helped me to realise what worked for me, and what didn’t – these are changes which I now try and explain to students in personal tutor meetings.

If you are a good student, when you get a mark you are disappointed with, the best thing to do is be proactive and positive. The most invaluable experience I had was in my French law class in 2nd year. We had the opportunity to submit a graded piece of work, which did not count towards the final mark of the class. The assignment was very particular, and I completely misinterpreted what it required – so much so that the assignment didn’t have a mark on it, it just had a cross through the whole piece of work.

It didn’t mean that I was a bad student – it was a realisation that I needed to change my approach to writing. I sought feedback, and as a result, fundamentally changed the way I structure my writing. I got far more from that experience than if I'd got a mark of 52 with an 'it's fine' comment. Without making those changes, I wouldn’t have got to the stage I am at now.

One of the things I hear frequently is students doubting their abilities when applying for jobs/traineeships. An exam setting is never truly going to reflect how you really engage with law in a practical setup. If I run a business which relies on retaining customers, I’m going to look for someone who can work hard, is enthusiastic, communicate clearly, and build a rapport with people to give them a good customer service experience. That’s not necessarily the same thing as being able to rattle off what Sections 8 and 9 of the Land Tenure Reform (Scotland) Act 1974 says on the spot.

As an extension of this, the people that I was at University with have done a variety of different things after graduating – all of which play to our respective strengths that we’ve built up through the degree. As a lecturer, I need to be able to plan modules, set (hopefully) interesting assessment questions, and speak for 2 hours a week in front of a group of people. One of my friends is a barrister – he engages in public speaking in a very different format, and the way that he prepares would require different skills. Another one works in events management, which involves liaising with clients in arranging corporate events. One works for a charity, which requires them to be passionate about a topic and persistent. One of them had to resit a 1st year class, left with a 2:2 and is now a high-ranking civil servant for the Welsh Assembly Government. I doubt if you put us all in a room and asked us to give a full breakdown of Dicey’s principles of the rule of law that we would do particularly well.

Results can be a bit anti-climactic, but should be celebrated

For me, once you break down what is happening, results can actually be a little bit of an anti-climax (bar one exception). I eventually found them not to be something worth getting too worked up about. Granted, I was lucky enough not to have any major personal circumstances which impacted completing assessments, but what would normally happen is I’d log in, phone my dad at work, and then about 10 minutes later, got a ‘now what’. The PhD is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but after I got confirmation of corrections being accepted, I’d jumped on a train, and by the time I came home was knackered and had to get to Dundee at 9am for another moot the following day.

The only time at undergraduate where the hype was justified was the degree classification, because it was the culmination of 4 years of work. I remember it quite well – I knew going into the final exams that I couldn’t afford any mistakes if I wanted a 2:1 classification, but got the timings horribly wrong in my Criminal Law exam. Sure enough, I was on my own at home, and the results came through. I phoned my dad and my mum, and then straight away walked up to go and see my nan, and told her to make a spot on the wall for a graduation photo. My nan is no longer with us, unfortunately, so I have that photo, dented frame and all, on display in my flat. (I’d love to say more about my nan, including a story in which she guessed what people were calling me on the phone at work, but Parental Guidance and avoiding a lengthy post means this is for another time).

And that’s where I think that really, it’s important to recognise that it’s not just the student who is invested in the result. The student attends lectures and tutorials. They do the tutorial reading (mostly) and research for written questions. They revise and sit the exams. They have an internal barometer as to their progress. My parents and family didn’t see all of the work which went into my degrees, but results gave them an opportunity to see that work was paying off. Equally, my family have done so much to put me in a position where I could complete a law degree that you wanted to celebrate together to thank them, for all of the times where they picked me up from the station/Megabus stand in the early hours of the morning, to helping you move house and sending you away with care packages of chocolate.

So what is the upshot of all of this? If you’ve got good marks, it is confirmation that you have understood what the class required, and that your approach is working. If you got a good mark for one subject, but not so good for others, it’s probably because you enjoyed it, so think about how you can get interested in other areas. If you got a mark you are disappointed with, a good student learns from it, and tries to understand what the task requires, so they improve in the long run.

There can be a number of reasons behind a result, but they aren’t solely a numerical value. They are a chance for you to take stock of your progress and reflect on the skills you have acquired, and the areas to work on. They’re also a way to, hopefully, brighten up your family’s day. And when you get to being awarded a degree, make sure to raise a glass and save a spot on the wall for your photo, whenever that might be.

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