Monday, 30 January 2012

We know where you live

Here's an interesting piece for you students and academics:
With the best of intentions and the worst of outcomes, anonymous marking discredits lecturers and serves students badly. 
We used to do anonymous marking here. The idea was that it would lead to personality-blind results: no favouritism, no revenge on those who never turn up or ruin classes, no racism, sexism etc. I can see the point: it treats every student equally, wherever they're from and whatever they're like. The work gets a grade, not the student.

On the other hand - shouldn't the student get a grade? What happens when I have two essays written in poor English and fail them both, not realising that one is by a dyslexic student? Should the direct entrant from another country get some extra credit for catching up so quickly, and in a second language? Should I not mark according to my knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of individuals? Why should a student who disrupts classes or doesn't bother to prepare get the same consideration as one who works hard but struggles? The balance is between the academic standards of the institution and the good of the student - and it's difficult. Anonymous marking assumes that individuality is a negative - I'm not so sure.

Then the administrators changed the form - without consulting any academics - so that students' names are fully visible on the essay coversheet and marking sheeting. Voila: goodbye anonymous marking, whether we like it or not.

Anonymous marking is also - as the article suggests - a tacit assumption that academics are bigoted and biased. I should be trusted not to mark down women, or black students, or a student with whom I have political differences. If I can't be trusted to do this, I shouldn't be in the job. The point of marking isn't to play 'gotcha': it's like being a doctor diagnosing a patient. We're here to help rather than judge. It's a long time since people wrote things like 'This is a disgrace: you should leave the university immediately' (true story). If we're open to students about what we're looking for, we shouldn't need anonymous marking (though given the sizes of our classes these days, an awful lot of marking is essentially anonymous because we don't know most of the students' names, which is awful).

Maybe there is a problem which needs the heavy hand of anonymity though - I haven't the resources to analyse all my marking over the years to see whether I've been biased in some way. What's your experience?

And how do you feel about this marking system?
On the last course I taught there were no complaints about my marking, even though none of it was anonymous. I returned essays with an evaluation of how students had performed against each assessment criterion, but without telling them the mark (it is well known that if you give a mark, most students will read the mark but will pay less attention to the comments). I then asked them to come and see me for a brief one-to-one tutorial, and tell me what mark they thought they had got and why. I was impressed by the accuracy of their guesses, and on the rare occasions when there was a serious discrepancy, we had a useful discussion about how the essay did or did not conform to the criteria - occasionally resulting in my revising the mark upwards.
My solution would be to follow the lead of Alverno College in the US and abandon grades altogether. This would release assessors from the absurdity of trying to distil complex qualitative judgements about a student's performance over a range of incommensurable assessment criteria into a single numerical grade. It would also wean students off their current obsession with grades, encouraging them to focus instead on developing the diverse range of skills a university education fosters. 

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