Incorrect evaluation of student’s work

exams

Case investigated by the Commissioner for Education

The Complaint

The student lodged a complaint with the Commissioner for Education[1] claiming that a lecturer (hereafter referred to as the Lecturer) in the Institute of Agribusiness at MCAST evaluated his[2] work incorrectly. The Lecturer gave him a Fail grade for an assignment he submitted and as a result he failed to attain the related Extended Diploma. The student further complained that throughout his studies, the then Director of the Institute victimized him because the latter criticised the general maladministration of the Institute. The complainant alleged that the repeated failure in this particular Unit resulted in the form of retaliation for his criticism.

The complainant further claimed that the first ‘re-sit’ procedure was not conducted properly since the Lecturer concerned did not provide a scheduled revision tutorial.

Moreover, the complainant maintained that the appeal sessions held to consider his case were flawed because the Board’s members did not consider all the evidence. He alleged that the Board chairpersons allowed him and his parents to attend the hearings but prohibited them from contesting witnesses’ statements.

The complainant requested that the Fail grade be upgraded to a Pass without further testing so that he could satisfy all the course requirements and be awarded the Extended Diploma.

He also sought financial compensation for the private psychological treatment he had to undergo and for the mental stress he suffered during the time spent contesting the MCAST decisions.

Facts and Findings

The complainant joined MCAST in October 2010, to pursue the two-year full-time course leading to an Extended Diploma in Agriculture.  He completed all his studies successfully except for one Unit in the course, which he failed. As a result he could not attain the Extended Diploma unless he undertook an extra year of study to complete the module successfully. The following is the ensuing sequence of events.

In the first week of January 2012 the complainant submitted an assignment for the Unit in question. On 16 January 2012, the Lecturer handed him the result as a Fail stating that the assignment lacked sufficient details. An internal verifier confirmed the Fail result and the complainant opted for a referral as a first ‘re-sit’.

In such cases, lecturers could voluntarily conduct a revision session prior to resubmission.  The complainant asserted that on the assigned date for revision, the lecturer took the attendance of the students present but noting the poor turnout, left the lecture room without conducting the revision session. The Lecturer refuted this claim and produced an attendance sheet for 19 January 2012 to show that eight students, including the complainant, had attended the revision session.

On the eve of the submission, the complainant e-mailed a revised version of his assignment seeking the Lecturer’s advice.   The latter did not reply to the complainant’s email. The Lecturer subsequently explained that due to illness he had not checked his emails on the day in question.

The complainant resubmitted the ‘re-sit’ assignment on 26 January 2012. The Lecturer and an internal verifier evaluated the revised assignment on 31 January 2012 and once again marked it as a Fail.  The complainant immediately protested to the Institute’s Appeal Board challenging the result.  The latter, composed of the Director, a lecturer in the Institute and a student councillor met the complainant and his parents on the 16 and 24 February 2012 to investigate the student’s complaints especially his claim that his work was superior to those of his colleagues who had obtained a pass. The Board appointed two independent examiners to conduct a revision-of-paper exercise; and once again the reviewers confirmed the Fail grade. The Appeals Board concluded that the reassessment procedure was correct and consequently the Fail grade should stand.

Unconvinced, the complainant brought his case to the College Corporate Appeals Board claiming that during the earlier appeal hearings the Director had been openly hostile towards him and had not allowed him and his parents to present their arguments fully.

The College Corporate Appeals Board met on two occasions in March 2012.  Its members were the MCAST Deputy Principal, the Registrar and a College lecturer.  The complainant and his parents were present throughout the hearings except during the Board members’ final deliberations. The Board interviewed the Director of the Agribusiness Institute, the lecturer who was a member of the Institute Appeals Board and the Lecturer as well as the students in the Unit in question. The Corporate Appeals Board decided against the complainant’s claims of flawed assessment procedures and of unfair discrimination against him during the Institute Appeal Board hearings. It concluded that the Fail result should stand. The complainant and his parents once again claimed that during the hearings they were not allowed to cross-examine witnesses or to express their interpretation of events. The Chairman of the College Corporate Appeals Board categorically refuted this assertion, stating that he allowed the complainants to have their say, but disallowed interruptions, comments and gratuitous allegations by the complainant.

The complainant and his parents sought the outgoing College Principal’s intervention to remedy what they considered as unfair treatment by the Lecturer and the two Appeals Board Chairpersons.  Eventually, they renewed their efforts with the new Principal who investigated their claims. In a letter to the University Ombudsman, the latter explained:

“On taking over as Principal at MCAST, on being informed of the situation, in an attempt to resolve the situation and to give the complete benefit of the doubt to the student, the Corporate Appeals Board was reconvened and decided to give [complainant] another opportunity to redo [his] failed assignment.  It was also decided that the new assignment would be corrected by a different lecturer. This lecturer deemed that the student had not achieved the relevant criteria in this assignment and thus failed the unit.” [3]

At the meeting with complainant and his parents, the Principal conveyed the result of the third re-sit and explained that according to the regulations the complainant could not be awarded the Extended Diploma. He advised the student that to obtain the desired qualification his best course of action was to repeat the failed module.

Unsatisfied with the Principal’s conclusions and advice, the complainant lodged a complaint with the University Ombudsman. In his reactions to complainant’s allegations in the complaint document, the Principal confirmed that he had thoroughly investigated the complainant’s claims and found them wanting. He stated that the complainant was given every opportunity allowed by the regulations to re-submit the failed assignment, including an extra ‘re-sit’ in order for him to avoid repeating the year. The Principal was convinced that the four assessment procedures and the two appeal sessions were conducted with all due diligence.

Observations

The complainant was convinced that the then Director of the Agribusiness Institute regarded him as “a torn [sic] in her side” [4] because he often drew her attention to the alleged shortcomings in the organisation she ran.  The complainant claimed, for example, that the animals were kept in unacceptably poor conditions, that fruits were left rotting on trees, and that staff frequently missed lectures.  He was also one of the organisers of a petition signed by 64 Agribusiness students insisting that the Institute should provide them with the academic and practical experiences that were promised in its promotional brochure.

The complainant maintained that the Director harassed him for his troubles.  The complainant also highlighted two occasions when the then Director accused him of theft, once of stealing €20 from the library, and on another occasion of stealing reptiles from the Institute’s farm.  The first accusation was eventually dropped. The laboratory curator apologised for the second charge when the real perpetrator was caught live on the CCTV cameras. The Director also accused the complainant of frequent absenteeism but his actual attendance records showed otherwise to the extent that his stipends were always paid in full.  The complainant and his parents are convinced that the Fail grade for the Unit in question was the Director’s and the Lecturer’s form of retribution. The latter vigorously dismissed this assertion pointing out that he rarely saw eye to eye with the Director, and would certainly have refused to collude with her to harm students.

During our meeting, the complainant repeatedly stressed that he cared deeply about animals, and had spent much of his free time improving containers for the Institute’s reptiles. His writing and expressions reveal his urge to seek perfection even where it is not always possible to attain it.  It is evident that his attitude and demeanour did not endear him to some members of staff at the Institute.  The Lecturer described complainant as a difficult student who thought too highly of himself and his products; he rubbed people the wrong way and often made derogatory sweeping statements about staff and fellow-students with little or no justification. MCAST’s Deputy Principal observed that the complainant presented his allegations as factual truths when it was obvious that these were coloured according to his own mistaken perceptions. The Principal observed that the complainant misinterpreted the discussion he had with the student and his parents. The student mistook advice that the Principal had given in good faith for censure and arrogance.  The Principal argued that if the complainant’s retelling of his encounters with College staff were as inaccurate and as distorted as his own meeting with him, then the veracity of his allegations was very much in doubt.

It is not the role of the Commissioner for Education to analyse the complainant’s character, or anyone else’s, although the above background information serves to understand better the nuances of this case.  Moreover, it must be stressed that this investigation limits itself to those of the complainant’s claims that impacted directly on his failure in the Unit under review. It does not deal with the other alleged administrative shortcomings at the Institute, which were not related to complainant’s complaint.  For instance, the investigation did not delve into the question of whether the animals at the Institute were ill-treated or whether fruits were left to rot on trees. Once these issues were brought to the attention of MCAST’s authorities, it was for them to investigate and take the appropriate action.  Similarly, I will not comment on the quality of complainant’s academic work and whether it deserved a Pass or a Fail grade since this task belonged to the lecturers concerned.  This investigation will also ignore the complainant’s comments, comparisons and references to his fellow-students’ alleged poor work.  Here, my task is to establish whether due process was diligently followed in order to ensure that the grade given to complainant was a fair one, and that the ensuing appeals procedures did not discriminate negatively against him.

1. The Assessment of the Unit in question

The complainant submitted the assignment for the Unit under review: his Lecturer and an internal verifier marked it as Fail grade.  Complainant resubmitted his assignment as a re-sit.  The original lecturer and internal verifier corrected the resubmitted work and again marked it as Fail.  The student’s  work was subjected to a revision-of-paper exercise and the reviewers (different examiners from the above) confirmed the Fail grade.  The College allowed the student a second ‘re-sit’ with a new set of questions on the module and appointed two entirely new assessors as internal and external examiners.  Once again they gave a Fail grade; the external examiner wrote:

“Student did not achieve the requested criteria in questions 1 and 3.  In question 1 mistakes could have been easily avoided as basic straight forward answers were required.  In question 3 student used direct online information in one case, and did not discuss in detail as expected.  Grade not achieved.”[5]

The above shows that on four occasions six examiners assessed the complainant’s work for this Unit.  All found it wanting and marked it as a Fail. These facts make it difficult to understand how the complainant persists in maintaining that his work was of acceptable or Pass quality when six academics in the subject declare that it was not.  When, at our second meeting, the complainant was asked to reconcile his claim to a Pass grade with four recurring Fail assessments by six examiners, the complainant, and his mother, became extremely agitated alleging widespread corruption at MCAST and lecturers’ collusion to fail him.

2. Pre-submission tutorial

During the Institute Appeal Board hearing, the student protested that the grade for the first ‘re-sit’ should have been invalidated since the Institute had not provided him the tutorial assistance due to him before a referral.  The relevant Assessment Regulation 3.15 states:

“Students who receive a referral grade may need to arrange a referral tutorial in order to clearly establish what work still has to be completed.“ [6]

However, the Lecturer has produced documentary evidence to show that he did conduct the pre-resubmission tutorial and that the complainant had attended it. Students giving evidence before the College Corporate Appeals Board corroborated the Lecturer’s statement and led the Board to inform the complainant as follows:

“You have failed to prove that the tutorial of the 23rd [should read 19th] did not take place.  On the contrary, a number of students stated the contrary and stated also that they were happy with the feedback they received on that day.”

The Board’s conclusions go on to say:

“Your statement that the email sent to the lecturer [name of lecturer] on 25th January was left unanswered is not reasonable, considering that you chose to submit the assignment the very next day on the 26th.  Your action hardly gave the assessor time to look at [his] email and respond.” [7]

The Corporate Appeal Board upheld the decision of the Institute’s Appeal Board that the Fail grade, for the work resubmitted by complainant as a ‘re-sit’, should stand.

3. The Appeals Procedures

The complainant and his parents complained that the appeal procedures carried out first by the Institute Board of Appeals and later by the College Corporate Board of Appeals were flawed. They claim that both Boards prevented them from presenting their case properly and disallowed them from cross-examining witnesses.  The Deputy Principal, who investigated the Institute’s appeals procedure and who chaired the Corporate Appeals Board, refuted the complainant’s allegations.   He explained that on both occasions the student and his parents were allowed to have their say and to present any evidence they thought fit.  He added that the complainant was not allowed to disrupt witnesses’ accounts or to make gratuitous remarks on the latters’ statements that the complainant disliked.  Furthermore, the Principal stressed that his own investigation into complainant’s allegations, established that due process was followed scrupulously.

It is evident to the neutral observer that complainant’s acrimonious experiences at the Institute, not least the Director’s unfounded accusations against him, coloured his perceptions and fed his conspiracy theories. Eventually he extrapolated the negative experiences at the Institute to include the entire College hierarchy.  His suspicions about mismanagement at the Agribusiness Institute spread to the belief that all MCAST officials were corrupt and conspired to discriminate against him.  By the time he lodged his complaint with the University Ombudsman, he mistrusted and disparaged even the College officials who sought to help him and gave him sound advice.

Conclusion

It is not in my remit, nor is it in my ability to evaluate the work presented by complainant for the Unit in question.  However, I note that six examiners, including an external one, corrected complainant’s assignments.  All found the work of below acceptable quality and marked them as Fail. During this investigation, I found no evidence to suggest that the complainant’s work was corrected in an unfair or discriminatory manner.  Consequently, I am unable to uphold his first claim that the failing grade given to him was an invalid one.  Nor do I support the complainant’s claim that his lecturer failed to carry out his duties before the first re-sit examination.

The complainant also claimed that throughout his studies at the Agribusiness Institute, he was harassed and treated unfairly. The complainant inferred that this treatment was reflected in the manner his two appeals against the Fail grade were conducted.  My investigation did reveal that complainant’s interactions with some members of the Institute were turbulent but his own aggressive attitude exacerbated the mutual distrust.  Indeed, his relations with the Director verged on the acrimonious as evidenced by the three occasions she wrongly accused him of serious misconduct.  It is not surprising, therefore, that complainant was highly suspicious of the whole appeals process.  However, complainant was wrong to misinterpret the normal practice in such hearings of restraining those present from interrupting and from hurling accusations at each other, as measures to curtail his right to defend himself.

In view of the above, my final opinion is that I do not exclude that the outgoing Director may have exerted unwarranted pressure on the complainant.  However, I found no evidence that the College authorities conducted the two formal appeals procedures in an unfair manner or with improper prejudice towards the complainant.

Under the circumstances, I likewise find no justification to sustain the complainant’s claim for monetary compensation.

Recommendation

It behoves educational administrators to promote, not discourage students’ awareness in the management of the organisations where they train. Such interest enhances students’ sense of belonging and commitment. This investigation reveals that the administrator of the Agribusiness Institute did not cherish the complainant’s enthusiasm to improve the organisational and physical setup.  Indeed, the indicators are that she viewed it as a threat. On his part, the student interpreted his encounters with other MCAST officials in the same light as his unpleasant experiences at the Institute.  As a result he even mistrusted and accused of bias those who genuinely sought to help him.  Both sides now have an opportunity to show good-will by seeking an equitable solution to the complainant’s desire to complete his studies.

Despite the fact that I do not uphold complainant’s allegation of an unfair result, I propose that, if the College regulations allow it, the complainant should request the MCAST authorities to give him the opportunity of re-joining the course even at this late stage in the scholastic year. With the appropriate tuition and guidance, together with his best efforts, the student will have the chance to graduate and attain the Extended Diploma later this year.  Thus one hopes that, to use a pastoral metaphor, his toils and aspirations to flourish in the Agribusiness field will bear fruits.

[1] Professor Charles Farrugia opened this investigation in his role as University Ombudsman, and concluded it following his appointment as Commissioner for Education on 1 February 2014.

[2]   In order to avoid the cumbersome use of masculine/feminine pronouns (e.g. him/her) the masculine version is used throughout, even when the complainant is not a male.

[3] Letter, dated 7, October 2013 from the MCAST Principal to the University Ombudsman; the two discussed the case again in February 2014 when the Principal clarified the point that an internal as well as an external examiner corrected the second ‘re-sit’ and both agreed on a Fail grade.

[4] Quoted from complainant’s complaint document.

[5] External Examiner’s report on the complainant’s second ‘re-sit’ examination.

[6] Section 3.15 of the MCAST Assessment Regulations.

[7] Letter, dated 21 May 2012, from the MCAST Registrar to the complainant.

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