Attributive justice

With the best of intentions and the worst of outcomes, anonymous marking discredits lecturers and serves students badly. George MacDonald Ross believes greater trust will lead to fairness for all

January 26, 2012

Credit: Femke De Jong

In recent years, the practice of "blind marking" students' written work has become almost universal in UK universities. Why? This is because research indicates that some examiners give higher or lower marks to students they know, or whose sex or race they know, than they would if they did not know whose work they were marking. This is obviously unfair and damaging to the career prospects of students who are marked down. So university administrations have taken action by depriving examiners of the information leading to the bias, and insisting that scripts are anonymised before being assessed. But this strategy is misguided: it does not address the real source of the problem and it seriously damages the educational culture.

When I got my first job as an academic in the late 1960s, assessment was a largely intuitive process, in which academics were hardly more articulate about the criteria they were applying than chicken-sexers, and students were entirely in the dark as to what they needed to do to get good marks. I well remember examiners' meetings in which colleagues would say things like: "I just sensed from the first paragraph that this candidate has a 2:1-ish sort of mind." We have come a long way since then, with explicit course specifications and the compulsory training of new teaching staff. Nevertheless, we are still a long way from an ideal world in which students fully understand what is expected of them, and staff assess their work solely on the basis of published criteria rather than on the extraneous characteristics of the individual student. In general, academics have not been good at specifying clear criteria by which written work is to be assessed, or at ensuring that their students internalise these criteria, or at applying them impartially.

In my view, the solution to the problem is not anonymous marking; it is to build on the progress that has already been made towards creating an academic culture in which every teacher takes pride in their professionalism and impartiality, and is respected for it by students and administrators alike. In that culture, students will be treated equally on the basis of their actual performance, and will no more need to be anonymised than patients consulting their doctors, or clients consulting their lawyers.

This means putting much more emphasis on articulating assessment criteria, and making sure that students not only know what the criteria are, but also how to write in accordance with them. Well-devised criteria will encapsulate the intellectual skills and habits of mind each course is intended to develop, and helping students to internalise them should be at least as important a teaching objective as imparting knowledge and understanding.

The consequence is that there should be less emphasis on didactic lecturing and the mastering of textbooks, and more on active speaking and writing, with timely and helpful feedback on how well students are achieving the course objectives. With more frequent interactions between teachers and students, they will come to know each other personally, and there will be more scope for feedback that takes into account where each individual student is coming from. If students are writing as themselves rather than regurgitating what has been delivered to them in lectures, they will fulfil the assessment criteria in very different ways. They must be assessed as individuals, not as mere ciphers judged by the extent to which their work achieves or falls short of a single model answer.

This might seem to make it more difficult to mark objectively. But a university is not a knowledge factory, and a university education is not about identical students getting identical marks for identical work. What matters is that any method for assessing students should be accepted as fair by all parties. If students sign up for a course with clear assessment criteria published in advance, then the assessment is fair if students themselves agree that the criteria have been applied correctly to their own work.

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. What is significant is that the process ended in agreement, and that all the discussion was about the application of the criteria and not about the educationally irrelevant issues of sexism, racism or personal relationships - the only issues that the anonymisation of marking is supposed to address.

The compulsory anonymisation of assessed work sends precisely the wrong message to students. Instead of reinforcing the professionalism of teachers, it implies that teachers are not to be trusted and that students are to be treated as numbers rather than as human individuals. It is obviously unrealistic to hanker after a Platonic academy or a medieval college, in which teachers and students live together as one happy family. Nevertheless, the concept of a personal and trusting relationship between teacher and student is central to the idea of a modern research university as envisaged by Wilhelm von Humboldt.

Von Humboldt's central idea was not, as some mistakenly believe, that undergraduates should be informed by prestigious research professors about their latest discoveries (which would almost certainly be above their heads), but rather that teachers and students make a joint voyage of discovery, pursuing the same methods, and with teachers in the lead only because of their greater knowledge and experience. This is a cooperative model, which de-emphasises the role of teachers as instructors and assessors in favour of their role as facilitators of learning.

One of the worst features of the UK university system is its obsession with an outmoded method of classifying degrees, and its attempts to shore up this system with bureaucratic interventions such as anonymous marking. Degree classes mirror the British class system, with an aristocracy, an upper middle class, a lower middle class, a working class and an underclass. No one outside parts of the Commonwealth understands this system, and the sooner it is abandoned the better. A succession of committees have come to the same conclusion, but have failed to implement anything better. 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.

I know that employers might complain that this will make it more difficult for them to weed out the weakest candidates for jobs. But the present system rewards students who are good at playing the academic game rather than good potential employees; and employers and graduates alike would be better served by a transcript summarising each individual's strengths and weaknesses.

There is a close parallel between approaches to marking and attitudes towards plagiarism. Plagiarism simply does not happen if the educational culture is right. If students' primary motivation is to learn, then they know that plagiarism makes no sense, since it does not contribute to their learning, and thus they can be trusted not to plagiarise. It becomes a problem only in a culture in which students see grades as more important than actual learning, and examiners as endorsing tiresome regulations they would prefer to evade.

Similarly, prohibiting teachers from knowing who they are grading gives the message that they do not have the professional competence to be able to come to an unbiased assessment of students' work. And depersonalising the process has the undesirable consequence of making it impossible for the assessor to contextualise what has been written, and to take advantage of the knowledge of the student's abilities that is gained through the process of teaching. In both cases, university policies undermine a culture of trust between teacher and student - a culture that is essential to the kind of education universities should be about.

What's in a name? It depends which side of the atlantic you're on

One of the first subtle but substantive differences I noticed as an American studying in the UK was the degree of concern that the British academy places on the pursuit of a particular conception of objectivity in academic assessment, and the assumption that this "objectivity" is a guarantor of educational and academic quality and integrity.

In the US, students generally write their names on the papers and exams they submit, and in normal circumstances there is no undertaking to assess these submissions anonymously, as is common in the UK.

As an American, this was my normalised academic culture and it did not occur to me that our evaluation process could be considered compromised in some academic systems because of its lack of anonymity.

Intuitively, the UK system seems to be better at protecting students from potential for personal bias from tutors in academic evaluation, and from arbitrary and inconsistent standards. But having experienced the US system, I know that the alternative is not really what the UK system seems to be guarding against: the US does not have an overly subjective system of evaluation that invites abuse.

As an undergraduate in the US, I never felt that professorial evaluation of my work was unfairly biased. If it was, it was infrequent and marginal. I did, however, appreciate the personalisation of my lecturers' comments and their understanding of my particular interests.

On a term paper, for example, I would sometimes receive comments that would acknowledge ideas I had discussed in seminar and in previous papers. This feedback contextualised my writing within a broader educational framework and my learning experience as a student.

It was still concerned with qualitative outcomes regarding the creativity, critical depth of analysis, originality and clarity of my writing. But it also related to me as an individual learner. The UK system, as I have experienced it, does not allow for as much personalisation in evaluation.

Academics at UK institutions do have the opportunity to personalise comments to students when evaluating formative rather than summative coursework. This formative feedback to students is not used in determining their final grades but aims to help them improve their research and writing skills, and to improve their performance in papers and exams that will determine final grades. But such comments are generally orientated towards a fairly narrow and predetermined set of expectations of what the ideal (in other words, high-merit or distinction-earning) paper or exam should look like.

To be sure, the US liberal arts system has a very different educational philosophy from that of the UK system, with the latter more orientated to practical concerns with developing focused knowledge and skills in one subject area. Americans generally view a BA as a holistic education, both in the diversity of its content and in its aim to educate students not only as learners on a particular topic but also as complex individuals and citizens.

The liberal arts system is as sensitive to pedagogical process as it is to intellectually productive outcome; this has an impact on its ways of assessing students. Thus, a US academic is likely to be open to the individuality of a student's response to a particular essay question in a way that a UK academic may not be. The former will be concerned with outcomes and the quality of the overall essay but will situate these concerns in a student-centred context. This context may be more sensitive to the student's uniqueness as a learner and less inclined towards a preconceptualised notion of an ideally structured and argued paper addressing a limited range of topics and ideas.

These expectations and attitudes are rarely formalised. Rather, they reflect US academic culture.

College has a distinctive, central and existential place in US popular culture. It is seen as a time to develop the self and explore new ways of thinking, valuing and being as much as a time to gain concrete skills and knowledge. These two aims go hand in hand, and their integration is favoured by a broad range of US universities. This philosophy also has an impact on how academics situate and evaluate student academic work.

I have grown used to the British concern with "objectivity", although I do not share some of the concerns that inspire it. It seems to serve the UK higher education system well and to guarantee a certain element of fairness as well as uniformity and consistency of standards. (And, to some extent - and less educationally valuable, I would argue - uniformity of outcome as well.)

In my experience, the "objectivity" of the system of academic assessment in the UK has merits but also - perhaps inadvertently - orientates teaching, learning and academic culture in a way that can be less welcoming of diversity and originality in academic achievement, and that discourages intellectual risk-taking.

Noam Schimmel is a PhD student in political communication at the London School of Economics.

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