Does it work to pay students for good grades?

Education: The note lie

Grades decide on master's positions and jobs. They should make services comparable - in fact, they are unjust. Can there be any other way?

ZEIT Campus No. 2/201360 comments

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Sometimes Kai Jennissen, 23, takes his pen in the middle of an exam and crosses out everything he has written. "Then I actually feel well prepared," he says, "until I realize that it's not enough for a good grade." Kai's solution in such cases: abandoning the exam. Then he can take the exam again in the next semester. Kai is learning a lot for his bachelor's degree in economics at the University of Bonn. He's a good student and expects to get his bachelor's degree with a double cut. It is uncertain whether that will be enough for the hoped-for master’s place at the University of Zurich. Kai's note determines his future. But does it say anything at all?

Grades are meant to show how good you are. For being able to compare yourself to fellow students. They are designed to help professors and employers assess a student's performance. The problem is: that is exactly what doesn't work. Notes give the impression that they can be compared with one another. But they don't just depend on performance. There are subjects in which it is much easier to get a good certificate than in others. Psychology students are on average "very good", while economists and mechanical engineers, on the other hand, are often only "satisfactory". This is the result of a study by the Science Council, a panel of experts who advise politicians on questions of research and teaching. The makers of the study evaluated final grades from 2010. One of the results: There are different standards in all subjects. "Good" does not mean the same everywhere.

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Kai Jennissen doesn't care. He will not compete for his master's place in Zurich with psychologists with a single cut, but with other economists. But even within a subject, grades are not particularly meaningful. Everyone knows that there are professors who evaluate more strictly than others. In addition, there are entire departments where it is easier to get good grades than in others. In any case, this assumption is suggested by the study by the Science Council.

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An example: In business administration, the average grade of Bachelor students in Germany is 2.3. The Frankfurt School students get the best degrees, with an average of 1.7. The Frankfurt School is a private university, where the grades are often better. But even at the Technical University of Munich, a state university, the average is still 1.9. At the TU Clausthal, however, it was 2.8. That is almost a whole grade worse.

Are the students in Clausthal dumber than those in Frankfurt and Munich? "Unlikely," says Werner Mellis. Mellis doesn't work at any of these universities, but he comes from the same subject. He is professor for business informatics and dean of the economics and social sciences faculty at the University of Cologne. "The level is just different," he says. So do bad grades speak for a more demanding course of study? It's not that simple, says Mellis. The students in his faculty do well, with an average of 2.0. And Cologne has been an "elite university" since it received an award from the Excellence Initiative.

Another example: sport. Could it be that the students in Hamburg are more athletic than others? At least that's what the numbers suggest. A sports student completes his studies in Hamburg with an average grade of 1.4, in Bochum with just a 2.3.

In other words: the grade on the certificate at the end of your studies also depends on where you are studying. That's unfair. "In a certain way, grades are never really fair," even Horst Hippler admits. Hippler is President of the University Rectors' Conference and thus the most important representative of universities in Germany.