Aarhus University Seal

Making the grade

Just like the language, the Danish grading system can be an oddity to foreigners.

Foto: Jesper Rais | AU-foto

Anyone who’s tried to pick up Danish knows that translations can be tricky – the soft d, the eight vowels, the expressions like Jeg skal på cafe, which literally translates to ‘I will on café’.

Well, it turns out that the Danish grading system can be a lot like the Danish language – cogent and clear to those who grew up with it, dizzying to those who didn’t.

Intro to Danish

University grades in Denmark are given on a seven-point scale, yet those seven points span sixteen numbers. The top score is 12, the bottom score is -3, and the only possible grades in between are 0, 2, 4, 7 and 10.

If that strikes you as a little confusing, you’re not alone.

“Here, I have no idea what I should be going for,” says Lisa Zions, an exchange student from Australia. “I’ve got no idea what to expect from my efforts. I know what it takes to pass back home, so hopefully that will be enough here.”

Odd as this system is, it’s actually a simplification of the old one. Until about five years ago, grades were given on a 10-point scale. Of course, it didn’t go from 1 to 10 – that’d be too easy – but from 3 to 13. Thirteen was regarded as more or less impossible to get, and for whatever reason, there was no 12.

This all making sense?

Trying to translate

Mette Kjær knows that this system is like the Danish sounds – jumbled, confusing and disorienting. As director of studies at the Department of Political Science, she hears complaints from students every year who don’t like – or don’t understand – the Danish grading system.

“Some of our students,” she says, “have a problem explaining the level they’re at – it looks kind of strange if they want to go to the USA and they don’t have straight As. But here it doesn’t work like that. We don’t really give too many 12s.”

To stem the confusion, Associate Professor Kjær and other staff members at the Department of Political Science drafted an official explanation of the Danish grading system. This was complete with charts and statistics, as well as the university logo, to try to break down exactly what it means when a student brings home a 7, for example. Think Google Translate for grades.

“Seven here is pretty good, but a C in the USA wouldn’t be very good,” Kjær says. “Some people are very upset because they got a 7, so we have to explain that they shouldn’t worry about that because it’s pretty good. Of course, it’ll translate to something that’s not very good in their home countries.”

Grading abroad

In Australia, they predictably do things a little differently. According to Zions, the university grading system is a score out of 100, and anything below 50 is a fail (there are no negatives, and they don’t skip any numbers).

“In Australia, it’s metric,” she says. “Everyone understands ‘50 per cent’, and everyone knows what that means. But here …”

Danish doesn’t translate well to Babak Jalilian’s native Iranian either, where they use a 20-point scale that – believe it or not – goes from 1 to 20. In Iran, getting a 7 means failure – you can’t even redo the exam.

But in Denmark, 7 isn’t so bad. In fact, according to Associate Professor Kjær’s statistics, 54.8 per cent of political science students received a 7 in ‘Methods’ in their summer exams in 2010. In the subject ‘International Politics’, 38 per cent got a 7.

The significance of 7 therefore changes dramatically from one country to the next. The problem, according to Babak Jalilian, is knowing the translations.

“I thought (the Danish system) was based on 100 for a while,” says Jalilian, a PhD student doing medicine. “I wish they’d put something somewhere so we can find out. The problem is they don’t inform us. I asked my supervisor, and he doesn’t exactly know. I asked my lab mate, and he doesn’t know either.”

Not bad – just different

Despite this confusion, international students are generally quick to point out that the Danish system is no worse than their own. Just different.

“I can understand why it’s different,” says Laura Errington, a native of the UK. Having been in Aarhus since August, she’s begun to decode Danish grades. “The English way is different as well. If a Danish student went to England it would be just as strange for them.”

Zions adds: “I don’t want to disrespect the system, because the whole point of going overseas is to see how people do things differently, to see that Australia is not the only way, not the ‘right’ way. However, it just doesn’t make sense to me.”

If nothing else, she knows that the best score is 12. In Danish, 12 is tolv. Of course, you don’t really pronounce the v.