This was the question a student asked me the other day. And, to be honest, I couldn’t answer right away, or rather I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to provide a superficial, off the cuff response that left her with the impression that grading was somehow black and white, simple, fixed and incontestable. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Sue Bloxham (HE assessment specialist) at my former university and know from her research on accountability and reliability in grading that this is far from the truth. Here, I’ve attempted to provide the fullest and most honest answer I could. But, I would love to hear what others would have advised, so please leave a comment below to add further to this discussion.
Grading is Complicated
What Sue’s research has shown is that many tutors have this tacit understanding of what a ‘distinction’ is in their subject area (created by being a fully-fledged member of this subject area themselves and external examiners at other universities) and, so grade in a holistic way using their past knowledge, experiences, professional judgment and, indeed even by looking at how one dissertation compares against another (i.e. normative or comparative judgment). Some tutors even have individualised, internalised standards and ‘triggers’ that impact on their grading either positively or negatively (e.g. citing/referencing or use of punctuation).
It’s also likely that their judgment is influenced by cultural, institutional, departmental, peer-group norms and expectations. Universities and departments have reputations to uphold and standards they want to keep and reinforce and so they may grade according to this and in a similar way to their direct competitors. Some universities mark lower (i.e. working down from a top grade of 70 or 75); other universities are encouraged to use the full range of marks, but even that means working down from a top grade of 80 or 85, especially in social sciences or humanities subjects because there’s no such thing as a perfect mark in these subjects, unlike in maths, say.
What I'm saying, then, is grading is rather woolly and dependent on cultural, institutional and departmental norms and your tutor's professional judgment. But I'm sure this wasn't the answer you were looking for! So, for something a bit more helpful, please read on!
Aiming for a Distinction: Six Top Tips
1. Become a researcher. You need to take on and live this new identity for the next 3-4 months, and this new identity may require a different way of thinking and being. As a researcher you need to: be independent, taking the lead and driving forward your own project, making appointments and setting and meeting deadlines; be meticulous in everything you do, from your research design to your research questions to your data collection to your writing up; be methodical, thinking through pros and cons of every action you take/don’t take, reporting and reflecting on your decisions; be flexible, willing to re-formulate questions, re-evaluate methods, and re-visit theory/theoretical frameworks; be motivated for the long haul, maintaining your interest in the process and investing in the product right up to point of submission. If you’re waiting for a tutor or supervisor to feed you ideas, to move your project forward, to check up on you … well, you’ll be waiting in vain, I’m afraid.
2. Take each and every opportunity allowed to consult your tutor, taking him/her sections of your dissertation and asking for specific feedback. After all, he/she is the one marking it, so he/she will be able to (hopefully!) articulate what he/she is looking for! You need to take the initiative here and drive these tutorials so that you get out of them what you need. Make a tutorial schedule, book your appointments in advance, make sure you’ve written sections before you go, take questions you want to ask and make sure you get answers.
3. Read past dissertations that have achieved a distinction and try to replicate them. By this I mean, notice: the overall structure, the style, the academic language, the way one section or one paragraph follows from and leads on to another, the citing/referencing, the way authors are introduced, the way the literature is compared/contrasted/critically evaluated (and the language for doing this), the explanation of the methodology and methods, the level of detail, the way the findings are presented, the way the literature is used in the discussion section to support the writer’s own ideas or to develop new ideas, etc…
4. Do the above (c) with journal articles. Read, read, read… this is one of the best ways to improve your writing.
5. Assume that a distinction means (as it often does) that the work is publishable. So, I’d suggest you go through a similar process as academics do of making it publishable, i.e. take your work to a lunchtime research group (if you have one) or to your peers or to your tutor (as suggested above), in other words, get your work peer-reviewed. Make content revisions, make language revisions, make it as publishable as you can … and, yes, for many subjects in many universities, this will mean flawless English language and referencing.
6. Try to ensure that your small-scale piece of research makes some contribution to knowledge (this might be referred to as ‘knowledge creation’ in your grade descriptors). Most tutors are not expecting ground-breaking work at Master’s level, but it is possible to make even a small contribution if you move the research/discussion on in some way, e.g. maybe your context is a different one or maybe you're adapting or mixing methods or maybe you are applying the theoretical framework in a slightly different way or maybe your tools of analysis are slightly different. Whatever it is, you’re aiming to shed some new light on the subject, to look at it from a slightly different perspective.
Okay, I hope this helps. If there are any academics reading this who would like to add further to this discussion, by all means please leave comments below.