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Jargon buster: Higher education

The first instalment of an occasional column by Biomedical Science Programme Leader Dr Lynne Lawrance aimed at training officers and others supporting students undertaking degrees.

My aim here is to demystify some of the jargon used in the higher education (HE) sector. Though, like clinical laboratories, each HE institute (HEI) has their own specific vocabulary, this article should give you a fair idea. Most degrees today are modular, with each module assigned a credit value. A typical undergraduate honours degree consists of 360 credits taken over three years (480 over four years in Scotland). Normally students will spread this evenly across the years with part-time students pro-rata based on their study duration.

A placement year may or may not be assigned a credit value. However, they do not count towards the credits, being seen as a separate but very valuable addition to the student’s learning and development. Students are awarded their degree with a classification based on their (usually) weighted score – many institutions discount lowest scoring modules from the calculations and first year grades often don’t count, but the credits have to be passed. Interim awards, such as CertHE, can be awarded if a student does not complete the full degree. The common banding of classifications is shown in Table 1.


Each module has a syllabus, and a set of learning outcomes or objectives that students are expected to meet by the time they have completed the module. Learning outcomes have to be assessable, but not all learning outcomes have to be assessed in every cycle. There is a current drive for authentic assessment in universities – assessment that builds workplace-relevant skills as well as testing knowledge. This is generally leading to a decrease in exams, which are retained when pedagogically (educationally) sound (or when a professional statutory regulatory body requires it). Programmes will have a mix of assessment types, some of which will be “controlled” i.e. the student has to be present in person so their identity can be verified. This includes exams, posters, presentations, laboratory sessions and vivas. Then there are pieces of coursework, laboratory reports, dissertations, reflective practice pieces, blogs, videos, newspaper-style articles etc… the list is endless. The aim of the variety is to develop transferable skills and to allow for the different skillsets of different students.

Universities have support structures in place alongside the traditional teaching via lectures, practicals and tutorials. These will usually include a named tutor from the academic staff to advise on academic matters and centralised support services for well-being support. Students who are experiencing external circumstances that are undermining their ability to perform at their best can often apply for extensions or defer assessments. Students with a recognised disability are eligible for reasonable adjustments similar to those expected within the workplace. The aim is always to enable a student to achieve their full potential. So, if you see your student is struggling, please do remind them to reach out for the support that is available via their HEI.

Dr Lynne Lawrance is the MSc Biomedical Science Programme Leader at The University of the West of England, Bristol

Image credit | Shutterstock

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