Archive for January 30th, 2006

Anonymous marking

Monday, January 30th, 2006


The UK’s National Union of Students (NUS) has begun a campaign called ‘Mark My Words, Not My Name’, aimed at ensuring all student work is marked anonymously.

I’m all in favour of this. A few years ago I undertook the marking of around 60 large written pieces, investigations in to the workings of design firms. I asked that students submit their work with only their enrolment numbers for identification on each page and the cover, then took them home for a long Christmas of marking.
When I got the marks back to work in the new year I transferred them from the sheet to the official results form and after verification they were released (oh how I miss modular schemes where students know how they’re doing before the last day of the academic year).

There was quite a fuss. Students who, up until then, had been getting great grades had apparently slipped up, while those who had resigned themselves to Cs and Ds were getting As and Bs. Not everyone was happy, to say the least, especially one or two of my colleagues who leapt in to defend certain individuals: ‘but she always gets good grades’, ‘he’s such a hard worker’ or worse, condemn some: ‘he never shows up’, ‘he’s always late in’, ‘she’s lazy’. (On my first day in the job Iwas given a list of students who staff felt my predecessor should have ‘got rid of’. They were all students deemed to be failures, lazy good for nothings. Deciding to be my own judge I investigated and found that one was caring for a sick mother, another was the primary carer for her sisters, and another was battling a serious illness he didn’t want anyone to know about. Not only were these students models of perseverance, they were also beneficiaries of anonymous marking – their grades shot up the moment no one could put a name or face to the work).
No one seemed to stop and think that this was the first time in these students’ degrees – and this was right at the end of the third year – that they had been marked anonymously. And the results suggested that up until then grades were allocated on less than fair grounds.

In my current job I don’t really get to know my students until the end of the second year so up until then my marking is by default virtually anonymous. There are exceptions – the odd student whose name you get to know, either because they’re always asking intelligent questions, or they shop in the same supermarket, work behind the bar at your local, or are already waiting at the door when you arrive with a ready smile and a friendly greeting. They stick in the mind, not so much ‘favourites’ but more just ‘known’. The submission procedure here means that student work arrives with their name on the front of the feedback sheet so it’s difficult to avoid it. But I try to turn immediately to the work without seeing whose it is I’m marking.

Occasionally I slip up and then I’ll put the piece away to come back to later. The worst issue arises when I’ve looked at the work, compared it to the criteria I’ve set and then, about to write the comments and mark down I spot the name and think ‘oh but they deserve better…’

It’s a natural instinct to be more supportive to people you like – and I mean ‘like’ in a purely professional manner. It was interesting at one institution that my anonymous marking usually meant that female students got lower marks than usual while male students got higher. This seems to be the opposite of other experiences, at Swansea for example where, according to the NUS site, ‘anonymous marking is a sure way of guaranteeing equal opportunities and eliminating discrimination within our Institutions. Swansea University introduced anonymous marking as the case for it is a strong one. Since being introduced into Swansea the percentage of women achieving first’s or 2:1s has increased by 13%.’
According to the NUS’s women’s officer ‘anonymous marking is a perfect example of how we can change women’s lives for the better by ensuring that their grades reflect their ability to study, not an outdated gender prejudice. The main strength of anonymous marking is that it is a system that does not allow an individual’s response to a student’s work to be influenced by a set of pre-conceived assumptions or prejudices. When anonymous marking is implemented, all the research suggests that while men continue to achieve the same grades, women students achieve better grades.’

I wonder if that’s actually true (not having seen this research). My own experience suggests that women students are favoured in art and design at least, especially the ones who smile (I kid you not – if I were to give advice to any student, male or female, it would be to smile. It immediately adds a grade band to your marks). Take the smiles out of the equation and suddenly things look different.

There is of course something particular about these scenarios. The work I mark is largely written work. I may have spoken at length to individual students but I don’t generally see a draft of their work before I see the final piece. Anonymous marking is easier.
But when I’ve marked studio work I’ve been familiar with it, and the person doing it. It would be nigh on impossible to mark this stuff anonymously. And yet I think it should be.

According to Steve Coole, Vice-President of the NUS at the University College of Creative Arts, ‘anonymous marking was considered in 2002 but due to the nature of the teaching and learning process the assessor is often familiar with a student’s work before the final submission for assessment, therefore it was not thought possible to adopt a policy of anonymous marking.’

Personally I think that’s a cop-out but I imagine it’s the response on just about every visually-based course. Every time anyone suggests a way of changing or improving teaching, learning and assessment in art and design the old argument of ‘tradition’ rears its ugly head. ‘We can’t change the way we teach, it’s traditional, it’s how I was taught etc’. It’s boring and it’s not a defence against change that prevents discrimination.

I was invited to an art and design institution once to run a workshop on creative thinking for teachers. I set an exercise in which I put forward a ‘management edict’. Normally the response to such a thing would be for staff to complain and moan and not do anything about it, hoping it will go away. I said ‘imagine you can’t just ignore it. Imagine you’ve got to implement it now. What would you do?’
It took a few minutes for some people to get their head around this, but many were keen (especially the younger members of staff who seemed to relish the opportunity to break a few traditions). The end results were actually rather interesting – for example, one solution to the problem of students not reading enough was to begin a book club. One solution to the issue of car parking (a universal nightmare, it seems) was to see if a pub or café in town had an upstairs room that could be used for sessions that were easier to get to (that one stemmed from the throwaway remark about ‘drive-through teaching sessions’ to which I said ‘make it work’). The most profound came from facing up to the ever-present rumour in art and design that studio space was going to be lost. ‘Imagine it is going. What do you do?’ After half an hour quite a few people had realised that they could deliver most of their courses without the use of studios, which tended to be empty most of the time because they’re not great teaching spaces. It was quite a transformation – people literally left the session with glazed faces as though they’d just found out they were adopted and their whole lives had been a lie.

So if we did the same thing and said ‘you have to implement anonymous marking next year. No ifs, no buts, no harking to tradition. It has to happen. How will you do it?’ I imagine the responses would be to approach teaching differently, to assign one tutor to a tutorial group throughout the course of a project, but have a different teacher (who’d been working with another group) mark the work. I suppose traditions whereby two or three members of staff hold court and bore students with their anecdotes while never really explaining why they think the student should do X, Y and Z to their work, will be abandoned. I believe staff everywhere will suddenly see the value in giving students proper assessment criteria before a project starts, so they know how and why they will be marked. Imagine that. And I strongly suspect that self- and peer-assessment will be embraced – how criminal is it that we send our graduates off to work in the industry with the claim they are ready to do so, but never managed to trust them to make that most important of judgements, an assessment of their own and others’ work?

At the end of the day our job is to help students learn, not to satisfy our daydreams about our own importance, or to make our jobs easy. Fair assessment is a right, not an ideal. There is no postponement of issues like this – we should be intelligent enough to make it work.

The NUS’s campaign should be applauded, but the fact it has to happen at all should be a matter of shame for academics everywhere. We need to accept that anonymous marking is more than justified and adapt our teaching techniques so that fairness is central to all our judgements. You never know, we may be surprised by the results.