Student Shapers Project Summer 2022 – Scaling practices: the impact on student competition, belonging and fairness

Evie Brass, Muqing Xue, Madhur Varadpande, Anushika Raheja, Nusrat Kamal and Camille Kandiko Howson 

Scaling Practices  

This is a student shapers project with the Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship (CHERS). The project focuses on scaling practices, looking at how they affect student competition, belonging and fairness. Scaling practices essentially means ‘grading on a curve’, such that the marks achieved by students are adjusted to match a desired distribution. With this in place, there is an unofficial quota for each degree class. The end-goal of this project is to improve the current systems in place to aid in increasing student belonging. This is primarily focused on attempting to reduce competition between peers.  

We gathered data by sending out qualitative questionnaires to students individually and on group chats and contacting departmental Directors of Undergraduate Studies, Senior Tutors (or similar). There were 11 staff responses out of 14 targeted departments, and 123 student responses. 

Most departments at Imperial have some degree of scaling practices within them, though often labelled differently (such as moderation). There are varying levels of scaling and different practices, some have scaling only on exams and some only use scaling as a last resort. This influences the nuances of student opinion for each department, but below are some general comments surrounding our findings. Departmental-specific findings and recommendations have been shared with Registry and Quality Assurance. 

Findings: A mixed picture on scaling 

For undergraduates as a whole there were mixed attitudes to the effect of scaling practices. Some students felt that they help to provide motivation whilst others felt they had the opposite effect. Some felt that their effort was unrewarded hence were unmotivated to work and had caused feelings of not belonging in their department. In addition, there were also students who were neutral and felt they were neither hindered nor aided by scaling practices. As with many group policies it is a fine balance of trying to please as many people as possible.  

When considering all the data collected the primary conclusion is that scaling practices influence competition, but they are minor in relation to other factors. The competition within college, often for future employment purposes, has a negative effect. Many feel that they have to work harder than their peers in-order to rank higher than them to get a higher degree class. Scaling practices can lead to unhealthy peer to peer competition leading to a poor work-life balance as students strive to outwork their peers. This could have been exacerbated over the past year with the college requiring that similar numbers of each degree classes are rewarded.  

A further topic that appeared multiple of times as an origin of competition was the Dean’s List, awarded to the top ten percent of the students. This was largely mentioned separately to scaling for degree class awards even though the two are intrinsically linked. If a cohort is already competitive, as some students suggested they are, this award acts as a way of determining academic worth and is thus highly sought after by many. Some students felt that to improve self-efficacy they must go above and beyond to achieve this award, but with such a small number of students doing so this can negatively affect their confidence and facilitate imposter syndrome.  

Some staff also describe the Dean’s List to be multifaceted since it can help to provide motivation for students to work hard, but also reduces teamworking, which damages the ability to learn from each other. Staff in general seem to want students to be driven not by competition, but rather by a want to understand and an enjoyment from their subject. Some staff in the medicine department believe the standard error of measurement of assessment means it isn’t possible to tell the difference in ability between a ‘distinction’ student and a ‘merit’ student, even though they get different awards. This could be extended to further departments since a single exam in a module is unlikely to accurately rank each student. Overall, students have mixed opinions regarding scaling practices and the fairness that this has in result to the students.  

One student was particularly insightful about the specific effect that scaling has on competitiveness. They stated, “students at Imperial are very ambitious, competitiveness is caused primarily by the students in my opinion. However, scaling is what makes this possible. If everyone is putting in more work than even the lecturer intended, you have to match this work to perform relatively similarly to other students. This results in larger workloads than even the lecturers intending.” This suggests that perhaps scaling practices are not the cause of student competitiveness but rather an enabler that also leads to overworking contributing to worse mental health. 


There is a consensus that current scaling practices in departments are fair to students in the context of their specific department. However, there are opportunities to make sure that students feel better rewarded after completing an assessment, particularly after many stated that their best efforts were not rewarded. A recommendation that could be applied to many departments is a need for improvement of communication regarding scaling practices. Departments that sent out emails prior to exams and had web pages seemed to have success in this. The Department of Mechanical Engineering’s exam ‘passport’ method also shows promise. Another effect to note is that even in departments where there is no scaling and students are aware of this (such as Chemistry), competition still prevails. Whilst scaling may be necessary in some departments, transparency is imperative for reducing stress induced by miscommunication.  

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