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An evaluation of use and impact of zero grades in assessment; are we being consistent, fair, and transparent?

Assessment is at the core of teaching and learning at the Open University.  It is used to measure student learning against institutional and AQA standards and, most importantly, assessment has a pivotal role in consolidating student understanding and in supporting progression along their learning journey. The student response to their assignment is complex, with aspects such as student expectation, self-esteem and emotional response identified as key drivers for how effectively students engage with marked assignments (Walker and Mirabelle, 2009; Lipnevich, 2016).

Within the OU, there are specific circumstances resulting in a zero grade being applied to a piece of assessed work, aside from poor academic progress/achievement of learning outcomes for the assignment. Under these circumstances the experience of receiving a zero grade may compromise the student’s response to the assignment, and indeed, their ongoing study.

Within LHCS, a process involving application of a temporary ‘holding grade’ of zero is instigated when potentially serious academic misconduct is investigated by the Academic Conduct Office (ACO). Zero grades may also be given to students who submit their assignment late without (or beyond) an agreed extension. However, there may be some variability in student experience, depending on how strictly tutors apply this rule.  Some tutors may provide marking feedback to a student who submits late without an agreed extension (or beyond an agreed extension), but return it with an L marker, which will indicate that no score is awarded for the assignment; others may mark and grade as normal. Furthermore, the extent to which students are aware of L markers is unclear.

Open University students often have significant demands on their ability to study, beyond ‘typical’ study timetabling. Many students have caring responsibilities, disabilities, and/or are juggling complex family lives and working.  The impact of an L marker/zero grade has the potential to disproportionately affect students who already have significant study challenges.

The purpose of this study is to investigate the usage and impact of a zero grade, arising either as a holding grade pending ACO investigation or as a consequence of application of an L marker. We aim to conduct quantitative and qualitative analysis of academic conduct cases and L markers on Level 1 science modules to explore aspects of the immediate student response (via voice records) and to evaluate impacts on retention. Focus group and survey work with tutors and staff tutors will also be used to further explore awareness of policy and impact.

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