Why grading system of Liberal Studies should be changed

November 10, 2020 08:24
Photo: Reuters

Liberal Studies’ grading system, or more specifically, its role in university entrance in Hong Kong needs to be changed. Since its establishment, the subject has been put in the spotlight due to heavy criticisms on the delivery of curriculum and assessment. In recent years, critics have casted doubts on whether the core subject is fulfilling its original purpose, leading some to call on government authorities to make Liberal Studies an elective. But is this the right direction ahead?

Liberal Studies aims to develop students’ thinking skills, social and global awareness, and the ability to appreciate different viewpoints. These competencies are essential for young talents to thrive in the 21st century, and making the course an elective risks reducing participation and jeopardising the aims. Our Hong Kong Foundation has recently published a research report, calling for Liberal Studies to be retained as a mandatory examination subject, but replacing the prevailing seven-point grading scale with a pass or fail arrangement.

The need to redesign the subject’s grading system can relieve students’ exam burden, and university admissions-inflicted anxiety. Moreover, it also addresses the problems underlying the current assessment mechanism.

Assessing Liberal Studies is a complex process as it seeks to evaluate critical thinking skills. It is not feasible to quantify higher-order thinking skills and objectively map the results on a quantitative grading scale. For instance, does a Level 5 student necessarily possess better thinking skills than a Level 4 student, or is that just an indication of better language or examination skills?

A lack of well-developed assessments to measure qualitative skills is not unique to Hong Kong and remains elusive in other countries. The current mode of assessment for Liberal Studies is via the HKDSE, which emphasises short answer and essay-type questions like language subjects. However, language skills does not equate to thinking skills. According to the survey conducted by Our Hong Kong Foundation and Lingnan University’s Public Governance Programme, 97% of teachers and principals surveyed believe students with good language skills are more advantageous in taking Liberal Studies examinations. This sheds some light on the complications of the assessment mechanism. It is plausible to say that the process of marking Liberal Studies examinations may involve subjective judgment on the part of the markers.

Furthermore, the stringent time limit directs students to rely on examination techniques and frameworks. Obviously, exams incentivise drilling and rehearsed frameworks in any subject. But this is particularly not ideal in the context of Liberal Studies. When students are taught to follow rigid writing frameworks to answer essay questions, they are hindered from freely exploring the issues and thinking outside of the box, which defeats the very purpose of Liberal Studies.

But given the lack of impartiality and versatility in the current exams, it is unfair to use such scores to determine students’ eligibility for university programmes. To tackle the drawbacks as mentioned, while preserving the subject’s educational aims in the senior secondary academic structure, we see removing Liberal Studies from the JUPAS scoring system, such that only a pass is required for further articulation, as the optimal choice.

In addition, to improve the flexibility of the current assessment framework, the Education Bureau should consider incorporating different modes of assessment, such as multiple choice, concept mapping, or even experiential learning activities. The government should step up efforts in fostering closer collaboration between committees under the Education Bureau, Curriculum Development Council, and the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority, so as to ensure that the development aims of the curriculum and assessment are consistent.

Liberal Studies should be a fun, interactive subject. It’s designed to inspire students to become independent thinkers through exploration and live discussions. The course intrinsically requires greater focus on the learning process than the eventual assessment. Indeed, eliminating the subject’s mandatory examination status may see some students opting not to study at all. Changing the grading system to pass or fail scale prevents downplaying the importance of Liberal Studies, while providing space for learners to refocus on the learning process.

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Victor Kwok is Head of Education & Youth Research at Our Hong Kong Foundation and Richard Lau is Assistant Researcher at Our Hong Kong Foundation