Best Foundation Year Students Graduating in Term II (2009-10)


By Dr. angus munro (Vice President for Academic Affairs)
In our continuing efforts to make our graduate programs the best in Cambodia, we have taken various measures, including those which can be broadly categorized as:
1. raising our expectations of students’ performances in their courses; and
2. encouraging students to take a more research-oriented attitude
To this end, the appointment in the latter half of last year of Dr. D. Kyle Latinis as our Associate Dean of Graduate Studies has helped to further UC’s drive for excellence in our graduate student population.


1. Performance in Course-Work
Master’s students are required to maintain a minimum GPA of 3.0 (equivalent to a ‘B’ grade) for their course-work; they are allowed a maximum of three grade C-scored courses (provided that they maintain a GPA of 3.0). Those courses where they score a ‘D+’ or lower are given a grade-point of 0 and have to be repeated, together with doing other courses as necessary to bring their GPA above the required minimum.
Grading criteria were raised University-wide in Term II of AY 2008-09, with the aim of encouraging all of our students to work harder and raise their standards. Whilst there was the expected initial drop in the performance of undergraduate students, the grades of graduate students were largely unaffected in the term when the new system was introduced, except for some evidence for an increase in the proportion of ‘F’ grades mainly (Munro, 2009, 2010) – a result which is confirmed by the latest data, for Term I of AY 2009-10 (fig. 1).

 

Whilst over 10% of grades awarded were ‘C’ (fig. 1; similar frequencies occurred in earlier terms), this is not an immediate cause for concern: out of the 17 courses [= 51 credits] that students have to take if they are not doing a thesis, the permitted maximum of three ‘C’ courses corresponds to a threshold of about 18%. This is well above the observed by-course occurrence, assuming that these low grades are equally distributed over all graduate students in the long term. However, if this assumption is not correct then this implies that certain of our graduates are weaker and thus having problems. On the other hand, the relatively high proportion of papers graded lower than ‘C’ is a cause for concern.
The data in fig. 1 represent an analysis of scores in individual papers, and provide no insight into how individual students perform or whether there are differences between Colleges and sessions or the possible impact of gender. An initial analysis of each of these dimensions indicates that there were no statistically significant differences

 

The data were further analyzed to take into account the fact that not all students took the same number of courses, and also to look at the distribution of grades for individual students. Overall, regardless of number of courses taken:
• 45 (58%) of all students in term I scored a minimum of a ‘C+’ in each of the courses they did;
• 10 (13%) had one ‘C’ as their lowest score and 4 (5%) had two ‘C’-grades (the latter, in particular, are a cause for concern, given that each student is allowed a maximum of three courses with this grade); and
• the remaining 19 (24%) had at least one grade of ‘D+’ or lower (generally an ‘F’).
Considering the last group further, almost half (9) failed all courses taken; whilst another 4 not only scored at most a ‘D+’ in one of their courses but also got a ‘C’ in another. This suggests that at least 13 out of the 19 can be considered as being weak performers in Term I.
There is also evidence that the number of classes taken was associated with differences in performance. Figure 2 gives a profile, for the individual Colleges (Law is excluded because of the small number of students) and overall: more detailed analyses can be found on our web-site. It shows that there is an general trend for the proportion of students who performed badly to increase with the number of courses taken. This is also the case for the individual Colleges where there are sufficient students to give meaningful results, with the notable exception of Management (fig. 2), where instead the optimal number of courses taken would appear to be three, compared with those who do only two courses or those who do an extra one (Management was the only College where some students elected to do four courses in Term I: of the six who did so, only two got ‘good’ grades for all their courses, whilst half failed at least one).
The foregoing data obviously raise the question of about the cause(s) underlying the poor performance of a proportion of graduate students. In the absence of a longitudinal study across successive terms (in progress), the main cause for concern is the finding that about a quarter of all graduate students effectively fail at least one course (only a small proportion get a ‘D+’ or ‘D’ grade: fig. 1); and that about two-thirds of these are doing particularly badly.
It could be argued that this is the result of our setting too high standards. The present findings (fig. 1) together with previous data (Munro, 2009, 2010) indicate that, compared with the term before introduction of the new grading system when about 5% of grades for graduate courses were less than a ‘C’, the figure has risen to about 10% for the subsequent three terms. However the fact that many students (nine of 19 with at least one grade less than ‘C’: see above and table 2) fail outright for all courses taken would seem to argue against this, as would the low incidence of grades ‘D+’ and ‘D’. Obviously changing the grading scheme will have effects on students’ performances, which will take time to adapt to; ultimately, the issue distils to the question of how high are ‘too high’ standards and we believe that the new scheme is commensurate with the other measures which we have since been introducing (see below).

 

As an alternative, the quality of instruction would not appear to be a significant cause: the evaluation of our instructors both by full-time UC faculty and by students provides no support for this contention (Munro, 2010). Indeed, one class which contributed a fair number of ‘F’ grades to the data in fig. 1 had an instructor who was evaluated very highly by the students; the fact that a proportion of students failed is presumably related to the demands of the subsequent project work required (which were deemed reasonable in a subsequent consideration of the exam results).
Overall, we believe that the main problem lies with the students themselves: in particular, a lack of attendance due to other commitments, whether to their family or to their jobs. Thus the evidence for a poorer performance on the part of evening students (Table 1) may reflect the fact that they have been working all day. This is clearly a problem that only the students themselves can solve.
• In the case of those who are sponsored by their employers, the latter need to be aware of the fact that they may be placing conflicting demands upon those students’ limited time, negating the original purpose of their sponsorship.
In addition, some students join a program without really thinking about what is expected of them. Thus the data in fig. 2 suggest that there is a progressive decline in performance for most Colleges with the number of courses a student takes; perhaps because of differences in their work-experience or their motivation, Management students are somewhat different, but even with them there is a clear decline amongst those who decided do an extra, fourth course. Also the attitude of some students indicates that they think about the scroll they want to get, without realizing the amount of individual time and effort (both inside and outside the classroom) that they have to invest in order to merit this potentially valuable piece of paper.
Thus our changes in the grading scheme used have been followed by other measures, made realizable with the appointment of Dr. Latinis). These reflect our expectations that students should use all aspects of their graduate program (including the three compulsory Foundation courses) in order to have a more rounded, holistic perspective based on what they have learned. A major route to achieving this goal is to promote research as a means of expanding students’ understanding, and thus their horizons and their value to employers.
2. Promoting a more Research-Oriented Attitude
According to existing degree requirements, Master’s students can opt to do 12 of their 54 credits by preparing an acceptable research proposal, doing the proposed research and then writing up a thesis on their findings. Alternatively, they can elect to do these 12 credits through further course-work and then sit a Comprehensive Exam (which comprises questions of a general nature which require the candidates to bring together information from different courses in their program). Since this system was originally put in place, MoEYS added an extra requirement – that students taking the non-thesis route must submit a mini-research paper.
To date, all students have taken the non-thesis option, the requirement to write a thesis in English being a major deterrent. Initially, because students wanted to graduate as soon as possible, we let them take the Comprehensive Exam (and also submit the mini-research paper required by MoEYS) in the same term as they were taking their final courses. However, it was obvious that this final term’s demands on their time were too much for many students, so that the quality of their mini-research papers suffered (many resorted to plagiarism, and were automatically rejected).

In recognition of this, together with the fact that our graduate program was now putting out a steady stream of students, we revised the non-thesis option requirements in early 2009. Henceforth, graduate students taking this route were required to complete only 51 credits of formal coursework. Having done so, they then register for the remaining three credits for a final term, in order to write their mini-research paper (which was now accepted as a requirement by UC as well as being expected by MoEYS). Once a satisfactory paper had been submitted, they could then sit the Comprehensive Exam; otherwise they would have to register for further three credits until an acceptable mini-research paper was prepared.
This had an immediate effect on the quality of the papers submitted, an effect which has subsequently been massively boosted by the very active involvement of Dr. Latinis and the high standards which he has set, starting in Term I of Academic Year 2009-2010. As a result, we now have material (including some earlier mini-research papers) which will allow us to re-launch the Journal for Cambodian Studies.
3. Conclusions
‘Quality control’ and ‘quality assurance’ increasingly are buzz-words in higher education, in Cambodia as elsewhere. As with our other programs, their underlying concepts have a central role in the running and continual upgrading of those for our graduate students (see also Munro, 2009, 2010).
Our increasing demands regarding students’ performance in formal coursework would not seem to have overly affected the performance of the majority of our graduate students. Available data indicate that poor performers are thus because of lack of time and/or the necessary motivation.

Building upon this, our increasing expectations regarding students who have completed their formal coursework and are preparing for the mini-research paper (now recognized as a requirement by The University of Cambodia) and comprehensive exam mean that the quality of our output has shown a recent dramatic increase (as evidenced by the fact that the bar for an acceptable mini-research paper has been set higher, with consequences for the quality of our students’ output).
This is the first step in our aim to promote (thesis-based) research and the development of further independence in our graduate students. In going down this road, we also aim to further promote research, scholarship and innovation in our academic staff (including through their list of publications – an international standard), to the benefit of all at The University of Cambodia.
The bottom line is that we are trying to provide a superior level of graduate education which we cannot compromise if our graduate degrees are to be things to be proud of. Students need to realize this and respond accordingly; if they do not, then there will be the inevitable drop-outs/ To give the last word to Dr. Latinis: “UC will not condone a graduate program in which students expect to receive a diploma merely because fees were paid – they have to demonstrate quality, professionalism, insight, ability, dedication, and significant effort. It takes hard work and motivation. This is best gauged through the research paper process.”
References
Munro, A. D. (September 2009). The Examination System and Quality Assurance at The University of Cambodia. UC Bulletin, 4, 4-5.
Munro, A. D. (March 2010). Report on Academic Performance for Academic Year 2008-2009. UC Bulletin, 6, 14-15.

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