By Prof Suzi Jarvis

How we interpret and respond to the higher performance of our young people as we raise the stakes of terminal exams needs to be considered with care – neuroplasticity should inform our approach. 

One of the first reports of grade inflation was in 1960s America where Grade Point Average jumped significantly during the Vietnam War.  High scoring students could avoid the Draft and many argued that those marking the exam papers, knowing the consequences of their grading, graded papers more generously than they would have otherwise so their students could avoid conscription.  Of course it’s also possible that students, understanding the consequences of doing badly, upped their game and performed better.  

Whichever of these arguments sits more comfortably with you is likely to reflect your own understanding and beliefs about intelligence. 

On the one hand, those arguing that more generous examiners impacted the results are likely doing so from a belief that intelligence is fixed. If students suddenly seem to be doing better, the logical explanation is that either the questions have become easier or they are being marked more favourably. The students themselves and their potential to do well cannot change.

On the other hand, those arguing that higher levels of motivation among students impacted the results are likely doing so from the belief that students are capable of doing better given the right motivation, guidance and persistence.  The discovery of neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to continue growing and evolving throughout life) is a recent one, and its implications for learning have only really started to be absorbed and applied in the 21st Century via Carol Dweck’s seminal work on growth mindset.  Dweck argues that our most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. Viewed through this lens and given how unpopular the Draft was in the 1960s, it seems reasonable that students would have studied harder and been able to achieve higher grades given the very high stakes.  

How might this help us understand what is going on today as the grade inflation debate rumbles on?  While entrance to higher education is not quite a matter of life or death, it is starting to feel like that for a lot of young people.  The number of people entering higher education has increased dramatically in the 21st Century (in analogy to secondary school education in the second half of the 20th Century). Many jobs now require a degree that never used to and many parents equate access to higher education with progress. Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris has notably made it a priority to champion alternative entry routes to further and higher education for passionate and gifted students other than the CAO points race.


At the same time we are seeing students at this stage of their education get higher grades than ever before. This was happening before the pandemic but has accelerated during the past two years. This is true globally whether students are in an exam system or in a teacher assigned grade system or a combination of both. In the case of the International Baccalaureate, students took either exams or had teacher-assigned grades based on the local Covid restrictions in their region. Yet regardless of the mode of assessment, results increased substantially everywhere particularly in the numbers of students achieving top grades (students who would have done well are doing even better).

As we raise the stakes of going to university by making it the social norm for the majority and a prerequisite to  many recruitment processes, those who understand growth mindset are not surprised by the upswing in student grades. There is more behind the year on year climb in our students’ grades than bell curves, grade profiles and ‘post-marking interventions’ as the Minister for Education Norma Foley once referred to.

However, the understanding of neuroplasticity and growth mindset and their implications amongst those educated in the 20th Century is not widespread.  We were educated amidst a different prevailing understanding of the brain as a fixed entity like a machine, capable of doing things but not capable of growing new parts, and a corresponding belief that intelligence is fixed.  

How we interpret and respond to the higher performance of our young people as we raise the stakes of terminal exams needs to be considered with care and needs to incorporate the recent discovery of neuroplasticity.  We in universities, driving the endless pursuit of perfection in exams amongst our young people are not measuring and filtering fixed entities into an elite system – we are in fact changing the brains of our young people to excel in terminal exams. If research is to be understood and applied anywhere then surely it should be in our universities and in our entrance processes.

“If you can’t change your mind, you can’t change anything” said the educationist Sir Ken Robinson, and we in universities need to change our minds on our entrance procedures.

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