Thirty minutes to evaluate 10,000 words

A proposed marking model has angered some academics. Rebecca Attwood writes.

January 10, 2008

Academics will be expected to mark 10,000-word dissertations in just 30 minutes under plans proposed by a Cardiff University department.

The plan is outlined in a workload allocation model designed to help determine the workloads of academic staff.

A concerned academic from the department, who did not wish to be named, has passed the document to Times Higher Education, warning that the proposal could lead to markers cutting corners.

"You can't mark a 10,000-word dissertation in half an hour," he said. "I've done a speed-reading course, but is it really appropriate for this exercise? I think it is an inducement to poor marking. It has also become clear there is no time allocation for lesson preparation."

Wes Streeting, vice-president for education at the National Union of Students, said dissertations were often the most significant element of a degree, taking many months of research, and should be given the appropriate consideration.

"In the National Student Survey, students indicated that they were particularly dissatisfied with the feedback and assessment they received. This proposed move will only deepen their frustration," he said.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, also criticised the plan. "Universities are learning environments, and the time available for staff to be able to conduct the different components of their jobs must be taken into account," she said.

"Precise diktats from management on how much time must be spent on the different components are often as unhelpful as they are unrealistic."

The case has sparked a wider debate about the time academics have for marking.

Margaret Price, director of ASKe, the Centre of Excellence in Teaching and Learning based at Oxford Brookes University, said it was encouraging that the Cardiff model allocated time to assessment at all.

"Most models do not and focus instead on delivery. But I can understand concerns about allocating times that seem far too short for the task involved. Thirty minutes would be a remarkably short amount of time in which to mark a dissertation."

Sue Bloxham, head of the Centre for Development of Learning and Teaching at the University of Cumbria, said: "Giving adequate time for marking and feedback is an important part of an academic's role.

"I think a lot of institutions are struggling with workload allocation models because it is so difficult to pin down workload in higher education to a model that is realistic and feels fair. I think people want workload models that work, but it is a very difficult thing to do."

Cardiff declined to comment.

Last year, a report into the management of academic workloads for the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education found wide variations in practice between universities and between departments, with individual departments or schools usually left to determine their own approach and widespread staff unease over changes to workload allocation processes.

The authors, Peter Barrett and Lucinda Barrett of the University of Salford, said "transformational leadership" was required to drive university-wide workload management policies, with consultative local tuning of this framework and training for heads of department to support it.

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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