More debate needed on marking 1

November 2, 2007

The fact that the Burgess committee has had so much difficulty in achieving consensus regarding a different classification system and now wants to do away with it altogether makes one wonder why the academic "on the ground" finds it so difficult to relinquish this myth that marking and assessment is objective and scientific rather than a professional art. I agree with Sue Bloxham ("A system that is wide of the mark", October 26) when she says that subjectivity is unavoidable. We all know of colleagues who will defend to the death their decision to award a 56 rather than a 57, but to do this they are amalgamating many judgments about separate elements (such as creativity, criticality, evidence, structure and argument) in a single piece of assessed work. Quite simply, no matter how hard we try, and no matter how detailed our marking guidelines are, an objective measurement cannot be done - it is a human judgment and human judgments are fallible.

Why then are we so fiercely resistant to change in our marking practices, even when confronted with research evidence and common sense? It could be something to do with fear of student litigation, but I think it is deeper than that and something to do with our own academic zones of comfort, and a mental schema that is highly resistant to change. This schema may have developed from our own experiences of being assessed, but it is also likely to be strongly influenced by the discipline and the department we work in. There are no quick and easy solutions to this dilemma, but a little more honesty and less defensiveness would greatly help a constructive debate across the sector.

Lin Norton, Professor of pedagogical research, Liverpool Hope University.

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