‘D’ is for distinction

By: Stef Foster, Columnist

Here’s a brain twister for you. A student has a GPA of 3.5 but her average grade is a D. How is this possible? It’s a trick question, of course! The student is Australian, where the D stands for ‘Distinction’. At Aussie unis (universities), a Distinction is awarded for a final cumulative score of between 70 and 80 percent. High Distinctions are 80 percent and above, Credits are for scores between 60 and 70 percent and a Pass is awarded for 50 percent and above. However, percentage brackets can vary from one uni to another.

While GPAs are officially recorded on our academic transcripts when we graduate, they are a relatively unknown concept in Australia. If you asked the average Aussie uni student what GPA stands for they might stare at you blankly and wonder, “Greyhound Puppies of Australia?” “Gas Producers Anonymous?” “Gaudy Pools Association?” “Gluttonous, Pious Astronauts-and-their-Wives-and-Girlfriends Club?” Instead, we talk about having a “D” or “C” average.

Another major difference that I discovered here in my first few weeks of studying abroad is the way in which classes are taught and assessed. There sure is a lot of busy work with weekly homework, pages of (sometimes mindless) tasks and heaps of pesky tests, quizzes, assignments and exams. In Australia, classes typically have two or three major assignments or essays per semester, and the rest of your grade comes from your final exam. In some classes I have taken back home, the final exam counted for as much as 80 percent of my grade. I even heard about a law subject in which an essay worth 20 percent of your grade is optional, and can be substituted out to make your final exam worth 100 percent of your grade if so desired. This situation is less than ideal if exam taking is not your forte.

Without the handholding of weekly tasks and mini-tests, and with no obligation to do assignments or homework, Aussie students have to be more independent learners. Attendance is not usually taken in lectures or tutorials and if it is, it doesn’t always contribute to your final grade. So if you want to play hooky all semester, go ahead, but good luck to you when finals hit and you’ve got a final exam worth 70 percent of your grade quickly approaching. Extreme (and I mean extreme) measures are taken to cram a semester’s worth of knowledge into your brain in a short space of time. Most Aussie unis have a one-week break for studying before exams begin. This is sometimes called “swot vac” and is abbreviated and derived from “sweat vacation.” Doesn’t quite have the same ring and connotation as “Spring Break” does it? Having experienced both education approaches now, my preference would be a system somewhere between the two.

Do you have a question about Australian unis or teaching styles? Send it in to [email protected].


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