Dr Liz Bennett


The different achievement levels for students from ethnic minority students makes shocking reading: there is a 22% gap between white students and students who identify as Black. David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, says “I get tired of reading this type of data. We have the evidence. Now we need urgent and transformative action on university campuses.”


Differential attainment is the gap in relation to obtaining a ‘good degree’ (upper second or better) between students with different demographic characteristics. Based on 2016-17 data, the Office for Students identify the following gaps in attainment:

  • 79% of young graduates gained a first or upper second class degree, compared with 67% of mature graduates
  • More female students than male students gained a first or upper second class degree: 81% of female graduates compared with 76% of male graduates
  • Three percentage points gap between graduates with a disability and graduates in receipt of Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSA)
  • 22 percentage points gap between white graduates (82%) and black (60%) with Asian students at 72%
  • 10 percentage points gap between Participation of Local Areas (POLAR) quintiles 1 and 5 ist (OfS 2019)

Myths about the reasons for differential attainment pervade: they are often based on racial stereotypes or suggest that poor performance is a result of students’ prior qualifications or as a result of an ‘aspiration gap’ (Stevenson et al, 2019).

Whilst there are structural factors that affect students’ outcomes, for instance more BAME students come from low participation neighbourhoods and they are more likely to be the first in their family to access higher education, there are also issues that relate to the curricula and learning including relationships between staff and students, relationships amongst students and the psychosocial identity factors (Stevenson et al, 2019).

One way that we are addressing this gap at University of Huddersfield is through our use of data. We are able to analyse attainment at the level of module, course, School and University. What we notice is that small statistically insignificant differences at module level aggregate to differences which are significant at School and University level.

As part of our strategic plan we are committed to getting differential achievement to zero. One practical approach to this is a timely intervention providing final year students with information about their attainment. 

Degree classification and Assessment Literacy intervention

The intervention is targeted at students who are starting the final year of their undergraduate degree. It involves giving them access to a spreadsheet in which they can enter their scores from their year 2 modules and see what degree classification they are ‘on track’ to obtain. It also allows them to model their final classification based on predicted scores in their final year modules.

In a taught session I provided the group with advice on how to improve their attainment. This took the form of guidance around the assessment task, helping them to understand the module learning outcomes, the marking criteria and hence to better understand what was being asked of them. This approach helped students to develop their assessment literacy i.e. students develop their own, internalised conceptions of standards and are able to monitor and thus my hope is that they will be better able to supervise their own learning.

To date the study has involved 57 students from across the University who have completed the intervention and the evaluation form.

The preliminary findings show that:

  • 34% were surprised when they found out their ‘on track score’
  • 73% felt that following the session they knew what to do to improve their degree classification

One particular feature of the intervention is that it is universal - it doesn’t target particular students. The preliminary findings show that the intervention was found to be valuable by students from across the attainment range. Table 1 is a cross tabulation of ‘Current degree classification %’ and ‘I now know what to do to improve my degree classification’. The table shows that students across the attainment range are now clear how to improve and in particular that all the students who are currently scoring below 60% believe that they know how to improve.

Table 1 Cross tabulation of ‘Current degree classification %’ and ‘I now know what to do to improve my degree classification’
What is your overall degree classification score (%)I now know what to do to improve my degree classification (no.)No answer



Strongly AgreeAgreeNeutralDisagreeStrongly Disgree
Less than 40% 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
40-49.5% 0 1 0 0 0 0 1
50-50.5% 6 5 0 0 0 0 11
60-60.5% 6 9 6 2 0 0 23
Over 69.5% 5 8 7 0 0 0 20
No Answer 0 0 0 0 0 2 2

Similarly, the qualitative feedback indicated that students from across the attainment range appeared to value using the tool and that it enhanced their motivation:

The workshop was really helpful in allowing me to understand where I’m heading in year 3 and how I need to improve to make my overall grade higher. (student currently scoring 2:2 classification)

Good workshop very useful and needed at the start of the third year (student currently scoring in 2:1 classification)

The predictor tool was very helpful in giving me an idea of what I need to achieve a 1st Class Degree, and thankfully it has given me confidence. I still hope to push myself to see how high I can average in my final year. Super useful tool for students to gain an insight on their targets (student currently scoring in the 1st classification)

Post-racial approach that builds the psychological contract

This project is underpinned by a ‘post-racial’ belief that it is important not to see race as difference rather to focus on practices that are inclusive and universal. The intervention avoids creating a deficit model by offering the workshop to all students irrespective of their current attainment and appears to be valuable for students irrespective of their attainment.

Using data can tend to led to a focus on categorising students by identifying them as falling within particular groups and this leads to destructive stereotyping and limiting of expectations. This approach is known as the Pygmallion effect from work undertaken in schools (Rosenthal and Jacobson, 1992). Rather the intervention operates for all students and thus avoids labeling students as weaker or in need of support.

The approach also helps to build students’ understanding of the tacit practices of higher education, such things as how a degree classification is calculated and what the degree classifications mean. It does this by making explicit the rules of the assessment process and thus helps to build trust in the higher education systems. In doing so it has the potential to enhance the psychological contract between the student and the institution which is also known to be at the basis of positive outcomes for all students (Cureton and Cousin, 2012). We also know that BAME students have a lower sense of psychological connection with their institution so the hope is that the impact of the intervention will be greater for BAME students (Cureton and Gravestock, 2019). 

What next?

The study involves tracking how students perform over the coming year to see if those that valued the workshop were able to achieve better in their overall degree classification. In addition, the intervention is being repeated with another group to extend the evidence base.


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