University of Botswana History Department

Notes on grades

by Neil Parsons


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Note, 2006:
The following was written to describe the old grade system. The current grade system is slightly different. See below for update.

Rough guide to grades


These criteria are based on those generally followed by Commonwealth universities in the discipline of History. Some universities, however, peg their Pass level at 40 per cent, while others peg the First Class at 75 per cent. The top of the bell-curve of mark distribution in a class of students would normally be the C or Lower 2nd Class level, with few A or E grades.

Under the pressures of commercialization and consumerization there has been 'grade inflation' in recent years, beginning in North American universities where the Pass level may be set at C grade or higher. (In an extreme case the B grade serves as a Pass, and the A grade is subdivided into three levels which correspond to the old First, Upper Second, and Lower Classes!!)

The criteria listed above were really developed for old-fashioned degrees in English universities graded solely on the basis of final year examinations. The grades given for previous assignments were used by tutors to signal the student's progress or lack of progress towards final examination standards. Thus a student who finally earned a First Class degree did not necessarily get continuous A grades in previous assignments.

Most university degrees in the Commonwealth today, however, now follow the Scottish/ North American practice of averaging many course grades taken over a number of years. The result of averaging is that most students get average degrees: there are very few First Classes or Fails. A brilliant Theology student may take an elective course in Statistics and get a C grade which downgrades his overall degree. Some universities have therefore adopted 75 per cent for A grade/ First Class or Distinction. (The other solution is to weight the overall grade towards courses in Major subjects taken in the last one or two years.)

No graduating student in Botswana achieved a First Class degree until four years after the university became autonomous. The first First Class was a student in Mathematics called Michael Hamlyn, who worked for the African National Congress media unit. Just a few hours after he was unofficially told of his achievement, apartheid government terrorists crossed the border from South Africa, murdered him and stole his computer software. Hamlyn had been working on a software program to produce an updateable Setswana-English phrase book. South African government experts were so impressed by the software that they announced a couple of months later, in a computer magazine, that it showed that 'the Russians' were way ahead of the West in computer programming!

Update, 2006, by B. S. Bennett

The above notes were written by Prof. Parsons in 1999, and refer to the old grading system. Since then the system has been slightly modified. I would say that marks are still broadly assigned on the basis described. However, the current grade system gives the following interpretations to numeric scores. The numbers (5.0 etc.) represent "Grade Point Averages".

Degree classes are in terms of GPA, as follows:

First: 4.4 - 5.0
2:1 :  3.6 - 4.3
2:2 :  2.8 - 3.5
Pass:  2.0 - 2.7

It follows that numeric marks can roughly be understood as something like:

First: 75 and above.
2:1 : 66 and above
2:2 : 58 and above
Pass: 50 and above

The effect is that if lecturers continue to give the same numeric grades as under the old system, the outcomes in terms of degree class will be somewhat higher. This is most notable at the top end, where an average of 75% is now required for a First instead of the previous very difficult 80%. (This was especially diffcicult because marks seldom went enough above 80 to balance the bad marks that fell short.) This would seem to be more or less what has happened.

Grade inflation is mainly a problem when it takes place at different speeds in different places. Staff writing references for UB graduates applying to American universities often have to explain carefully that the grades, which appear appalling by American standards, are quite normal and merely indicate a different scale. An interesting side-effect of grade inflation can be seen in the introduction at UB, under American influence, of the new term "Outstanding" for a level above "Excellent" which was traditionally the maximum endorsement. The two words mean in fact the same thing; i.e. going beyond the rest. Eventually we will no doubt need a new word, perhaps "Superlative".

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Copyright © 1999 Neil Parsons; 2006 Bruce Bennett
Last updated 1 April 2006