Investigation: Weighting First Year

I supervised Joe Wood, an MChem project student in his investigation of how (bio)chemistry students responded to the zero weighting of first year. A short infographic summarising his findings can be found here.

Key findings from those surveyed: students had some really strong views on the algorithm, and it seems likely that different students would suit certain algorithms better. Students in later years often felt better-disposed to a weighted first year than students in first year itself, and students on “with a year in Industry” variants (who require good grades to stay on the programme [and to secure placements]) were strongly in favour of a weighted first year.

Surveyed students also commented on the pressure they thought weighting first year would exert, and also on the motivation they thought it would encourage. The numbers surprised me.

There are arguments for and against weighting a first year (I have published some of them), and I wonder how we strike the right balance. Yes, the zero-weighting helps some students grow used to study (way back when, I was one such student, scraping a 2:ii in my first year). But the ‘first year doesn’t count’ ethos can be profoundly damaging to a student’s career in HE Chemistry, where the whole degree is largely an elaboration of first-year themes.

There are HEIs who have multiple algorithms, awarding the student the highest mark of the four-or-so calculations. This seemed weird to me at first. On reflection, though, there are multiple ways to succeed in higher education; perhaps we should recognise this in the way we classify degrees?

Joe’s position as a student was essential to the success of this project. He was studying the very algorithm by which he was being classified, which gave him a fairly neutral power relationship with his research participants. He was also the one who identified the ‘gap in the literature’: there is nothing out there about how students view their algorithms. The more I think about this, the more scandalous it seems, though I confess I didn’t realise it was missing before the project started! I am so grateful to have had the chance to engage with their views through his work.