6.6 The “level” of a module

The issue of assigning to every module a ‘level’ (effectively “first year”, “second year” or whatever) is fraught with difficulty despite being demanded by many national agencies in higher education. To make matters worse there are at least half a dozen different systems, variously using numbers (Levels 0 to 3, 1 to 8, 1 to 10 or 1 to 5) or letters (Levels C, I, H, M, D). The most recent of these [updated 2013] is the European Qualifications Framework, EQF [http://ec.europa.eu/eqf/home_en.htm]. You need to be an expert to decode any these systems, let alone use them. Jenny Moon describes the historical background very clearly:

‘A programme in higher education used to be described in terms of years – thus we would talk of a student in her first, second or third (or may be fourth) year of an undergraduate programme. Generally the reference to years of study would convey the complexity of teaching, and the demands of learning and assessment that the learner would be experiencing. While the patterns of higher education were in their traditional form, this system was adequate. For example, there were relatively few students – well under ten percent of the population – and nearly all were full time. Those students did not tend to change between programmes, and teaching and learning was integrated and not modular. Under these circumstances, we assumed that we knew what a second year student’s work looked like. Whether or not we could have agreed on this in a precise manner might sometimes be debatable. When the matter of expectations of student achievement was addressed, we would rely largely on the interactions between teaching staff and external examiners to sort it out. Evidence of this approach to levels is demonstrated in the Council for National Academic Awards Handbook (CNAA, 1991) in which Level 2 achievement is simply described as ‘Work equivalent to the standard required for the fulfilment of the general aims of the second year of a full-time degree’. Such a self-referential approach does not enable the development of an agreed concept of standards.’  [Moon, 2002]

Unfortunately the acid comment about self-referential statements applies in several other areas of higher education. We are usually exhorted to set masters-level problems, for instance, without any clear agreement as to how these might be differentiated from 3rd-year problems or 1st-year problems. We are supposed to know a masters level problem when we see one, but I’m not sure that I do!  I must admit that my response to a demand to assign a level to a taught module is simply the path of least resistance: If it is to be offered largely to second year students I call it level 2; if to Masters students I call it level M. There seems to me no satisfactory way of assigning a level to a topic which is being met by the student for the first time. I used to teach crystallography. I would have to cover the same concepts and techniques whether I was teaching it to undergraduates or to Masters students. In both cases it would be entirely new to them. The only way I might differentiate would be to go faster for the Masters students (but this does not necessarily work – I’m not convinced that Masters students pick things up more quickly than undergrads). The same argument would apply if one was teaching Greek as a new language to Archaeology students – how can the level be different if it’s all Greek to all of them?  So let’s waste no more time on level descriptors. If you are excited by such things, read Jenny Moon’s very sensible (but intrinsically boring) paper [Moon, 2002].


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