Marking: How to keep your head

As exam marking season gets under way, seven academics offer their advice on assessing your students

June 7, 2018
God giving Adam a marker pen

‘My colleague was expecting an answer about the heart. Sadly, the student wrote about the sponge-like regions of erectile tissue within the penis’

For a long time after I graduated, I regularly dreamed that there was an exam the following day for which I had done no revision. When I became an academic, however, this recurring nightmare was displaced by another: I had 150 papers to mark by the following day and I hadn’t even started on them.

At times of anxiety, I still experience it – especially at this time of year, when the nightmare becomes virtual reality. Both the taking and the marking of exams exhume deep emotions and strongly embedded memories, and rightly so. Passing or failing often defines the future of an individual, so accurate marking should be approached as almost a sacred duty. But being a “high priest of marking” is not always easy.

Part of the problem is the devastating impact of a candidate’s “not answering the question”. In some sense, it is easy for the marker to deal with an answer that is simply wrong at every level. After one physics exam, a friend of mine realised that she had managed to convince herself with elegant equations that pressure and volume increased simultaneously. This inversion of Boyle’s Law generated nul points, and that was fair. But it is not so easy to reach a verdict on one student’s answer to a colleague’s exam question relating to the embryology of the bulbus cordis. The colleague was expecting an answer about the heart. Sadly, the student wrote about the corpus cavernosum, the sponge-like regions of erectile tissue within the penis.

The essay was a tour de force, accurate in every detail, but, again, it earned nul points. Should the student have been given some credit for an accurate answer, albeit on the wrong topic? The answer is invariably “no”, mindful no doubt of the necessity of ensuring that medical graduates don’t try to revive a hapless patient by applying a defibrillator to the wrong organ! Still, part of me feels that such by-the-book marking is a bit – how shall I put it? – Heartless? Below the belt?

Another problem is the need for the marker to stay fresh, alert and consistent for each paper, while keeping boredom and irritation under control. Some colleagues speed-read essays, looking for key words across the torrent of text. This can be dangerous. I once scanned an essay and noted that all the key words seemed to be present. I then settled down to read it in more detail, anticipating a thoughtful and accurate answer. Almost every sentence was wrong. The key words were all there, but in completely the wrong order!

The experience of another colleague presents an interesting warning. He attempted to maintain vigilance using a branded name of caffeine tablets. A caffeine kick can be useful short-term, but exceeding the recommended 400mg per day over several days can lead to problems (for reference, a “grande” coffee at Starbucks contains about 330mg). Caffeine increases peristalsis and he reported that while he spent a lot more time sitting, much of it was not at his desk. The other problem he noted was rebound fatigue after the caffeine left his system, making him more tired than usual the following day and necessitating even more caffeine to keep going. Combined with increased anxiety and insomnia, his stimulant abuse made him less effective and a physical wreck. Not a happy marking experience.

So what do I do? These days I do far less marking than I once did, but in the recent past I insisted upon sufficient time to do a good job. This meant marking about three to four full essays each hour, translating into 30 to 40 essays per day and no more. Other than setting multiple-choice questions graded by optical marking, which has major drawbacks for the student, there is no alternative other than to carve out the time needed.

The sad truth, though, is that marking is often not treated seriously. While endless effort is expended on timetabling lectures, the assessment of any knowledge gained by students is relegated to a scramble at the end of the academic year. I am pleased to say that my present institution does give us the necessary time, but I know that for many academics across the UK, the coming of marking season takes on all the menace of a defibrillator approaching the corpus cavernosum!

Russell Foster is professor of circadian neuroscience and director of the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at the University of Oxford.

‘My goal is to produce a better thinker and writer, but often the unspoken policies of a university can prevent that’

Grading student papers is no longer straightforward, especially during a time in which we must be sufficiently “woke” to accept and praise every effort, irrespective of how poor or minor it is.

Fortunately, in the sciences, most tests are electronically administered and graded with little human input. All written work submitted is analysed using Turnitin software, which in seconds compares written assignments to millions of documents online. Then, a robot grader makes a cursory identification of typical writing mistakes. But because the robot is often rigidly rule-based, it can be wrong. Thus, every written piece needs a human to ensure clarity, logic and topic pertinence.

I do insist on demonstration of scientific or content mastery, but for written work, I hope only for a cogent presentation. Using the “track changes” feature in Word, I add comments for every thought that needs clarification or more attention, but my comments lean towards “encouraging”. Blatant errors receive brief corrections. Smaller issues, such as spelling, are handled with humour, and grammatical and syntactical mistakes offer marvellous opportunities to encourage more reading and writing by the student.

Such gentle attempts to coax better work from students, instead of criticising their efforts, is partly a response to the reality of persistent grade inflation in US universities, and student outcries against faculty “racism”, “elitism” and “failure to understand other cultures”, resulting in our “inability to see the excellence” of misspelled text, poor grammar and illogical presentation of ideas.

Grade inflation allegedly began at the time of the Vietnam War, when students reluctant to enter battle were protected with inflated grades that deliberately overstated their intellectual prowess and, hence, their importance to civilian society. This misguided (and misguiding) trend has not abated at institutions where I have been on the faculty. Grade inflation is expected, if what students say is evidence: “I was an A student at X high school or college, so I expect to be an A student at this university or medical/pharmacy school.”

When my patience for poor-quality work gets the better of me and I properly evaluate my students, I have been admonished in the past for not “passing” a certain type of student who is perpetually in jeopardy. I have even occasionally been called a racist for not passing specific students, even when I didn’t know their heritage. Honestly, in a class of 200 students, I infrequently knew the full names of 10 students in any given year.

So, marking exams in this era can be tense. My goal is to produce a better thinker and writer, but often the unspoken policies of a university can prevent that. Hopefully, if I encourage enough students to do better, this will engender self-sufficiency and create a lifelong learner who does well in spite of our unwillingness to evaluate them honestly.

Jennifer Schnellmann is associate professor of pharmacology at the University of Arizona.

marker pen

‘The most helpful question I ask myself during the worst of the marking is: “Will this be any easier if I do it later?”’

We think our exam practices are gospel – that whatever format we use is a universal best practice. But examinations, like anything else, are deeply culturally conditioned. In Italy – a country that prizes rhetoric – all exams are oral, starting at the age of eight. In the US – a country that prizes independence – examiners have almost infinite flexibility.

The British system reflects the rigid managerial assessment culture so beloved of the government. On moving to the UK from the US in 2009, I was horrified to be asked to submit my exam questions in March, fully two months before the end of term. I was even more horrified when the external examiner rejected my phrasing – “Is P better described as X or as Y?” – on the grounds that it was two questions masquerading as one. To set a British exam, I had to learn to think in terms of goals met, not material covered.

Marking exams raises the profound question of whether we should stick to the handbook, or allow our teaching to change direction in response to student interest. Whoops – that’s two questions! I should have started with “To what extent should we…? There’s value in American-style laxity. I once had the students decide for themselves what material belonged on the final exam. It made them study. Another time, I made the final optional, after a semester of hard work. Some people took it, to raise their average. Everybody – colleagues, students, me – was happy.

Second-marking exams – a UK own-brand speciality – raises other questions: Are we teaching skills, or information retention? Am I assessing the student, or my colleague? My work on Italian religious spectacle doesn’t remotely equip me to assess developments in French artillery or German gender roles, but I do so regularly because my colleagues and I together cover early modern European history. Colleagues in foreign universities burst into incredulous laughter when they hear that UK universities can manage even the most minimal intellectual overlap among colleagues, and can impose such micromanagement as to have moderation, second-marking and an external examiner.

As I stare grimly at a stack of pink or blue exam scripts, other questions come to mind. Not the least among them is: “Who let you pass penmanship?” But there is also “Should I write useful comments on a script my student might never retrieve?”, as well as, more profoundly, “Do I prize getting the general picture over the recollection of accurate details?”

I’ve learned, now, that UK-style exams have their benefits. Like some of my colleagues, I like to release a longlist of questions covering the entire semester, of which a few will definitely appear on the exam. To do well, students must review all the material, but don’t have to guess at what I might spring on them. This makes them less likely to crash and burn, and allows us to ease their stress without lowering our standards. If we have to have exams, this seems like the best way to go.

Wherever we are in the world, all of us develop our techniques for dispensing with the towering pile of exam papers. Timers. Chocolate. Saving the best handwriting for last. And we all gain a sense of how to mark well. For me, good tips include keeping an ever-growing list of bullet points of ideal answers, checking the top of the stack against the bottom to make sure I’ve been consistent and resisting the urge to give a mark on each internal essay that will average out to round numbers, rather than decimals.

The most helpful question I ask myself during the worst of the marking, though, is: “Will this be any easier if I do it later?” The answer is “no”. It will never be easier to do than it is at this moment.

In fact, that answer turns out to apply to almost everything in life. Turns out even markers can learn something from exams.

Emily Michelson is senior lecturer in history at the University of St Andrews.

‘I’m not looking to expose inadequacies, but instead to seek out authentic responses’

There’s a scene in the 1998 animated film Antz in which a group of insects sit around a fire, trading stories and passing around an unidentifiable brown lump to eat. One bug says, indignantly, “This stuff tastes like crap”, before a fly pipes up: “Really? Let me try some. Hey! It is crap. Not bad.”

It’s a cheap gag, but it makes a succinct point, which I find helpful to relay to students in the lead-up to their exam period. I’m not a fly, I tell them. If you hand me crap, I’m not going to enjoy it.

Since I’m a pretty laid-back lecturer, I can get away with a moment of harshness, and the joke usually earns a few laughs. But I follow up by reiterating a fundamental mistake many of my students make in their submitted work. They forget that writing is communication, and that they are speaking to me in their work. I am your marker, I tell them. If you find your own work tedious, chances are that I will too.

Of course, the brutal nature of an exam can easily undermine my more idealistic expectations. Students run out of time. They fret and worry. They’re tired, or distracted, or hungry, or a thousand things besides. And exams are very often blunt instruments: supposedly summative assessments that sum up very little about the learning experience of any individual student.

A colleague and I recently surveyed a series of students about the efficacy of final assessments and exams; we were interested in what they thought assessments should do. Unsurprisingly, many students identified an affective component: they believed that the high levels of induced anxiety, stress and depletion in themselves somehow qualified exams as adequate tools of assessment. Communication with the marker is thus subordinated to a kind of blind endurance. In such circumstances, marking becomes equally burdensome. Like weary pugilists in the final round, we trade exhausted blows.

When I come to write exams, or comparable final assessments, I try to bear in mind what I am asking from my students. If writing is communication, then the shape and expectations of those exams should cultivate sincere communication. And, as I revise what I have written, I try to bear in mind American writer George Saunders’ words: “You revise your reader up, in your imagination, with every pass. You keep saying to yourself: ‘No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonor her with that lazy prose or that easy notion.’

“And in revising your reader up, you revise yourself up too.”

Revising my students up is, ultimately, about cultivating a marking experience that feels more like a conversation than a Sisyphean trial. In this way, the questions I write are often open, conversational and designed to provoke personal reflection. I’m not looking to expose inadequacies, but instead to seek out authentic responses.

And being generous in writing exam questions doesn’t inevitably lead to simplification. If anything, this kind of teaching involves higher expectations: both of the students and of myself. Because if I don’t want to receive crap, I shouldn’t hand it to them in the first place.

Jedidiah Evans is a sessional lecturer at Australian Catholic University.

marking exam papers

‘I try to remember that each paper represents three hours of intensely stressful work for the candidate’

Every summer I face a stack of handwritten exam scripts, all requiring marking, second-marking and reconciliation of final grades within a few days. The scripts arrive at a time of year when I’m usually preparing to go to one or more major conferences, as well as rushing to meet other deadlines before the end of the academic year.

This can be a daunting task, made even more difficult by the knowledge that traditional assessment methods are riddled with systemic biases. Closed examinations can cause particular problems: compared with men, women still underperform in this type of assessment. And even when provided with accommodations, disabled students may be placed at a disadvantage by an examination method that arguably is a better test of endurance and memorisation than it is of the skills required by a historian.

Many universities have reduced or scrapped altogether the traditional three-hour exam format, which may be why the gender gap in their results is less significant than at my own institution, where there is a statistically significant divergence in the numbers of men and women obtaining first-class honours in finals examinations.

These are structural problems, requiring change at the institutional level. My own faculty has begun to address this problem with reforms to both the content of the syllabus and the methods of examination, which will hopefully pay dividends in future. In the meantime, I need to mark the exam scripts I’ve got, and work out the best way to do so fairly while still having time to meet all my other obligations.

One peril I strive to avoid, for students of all genders, is the “halo effect”: a cognitive bias whereby one’s initial impression disproportionately colours one’s ongoing perception of a person or thing. In this case, we are talking about the first essay in, say, a three-question paper potentially influencing how positively or negatively I read the rest of the script; I try to minimise the risk by, where possible, marking different students’ answers to the same question alongside one another.

I keep myself going with plenty of tea and an upbeat Spotify playlist, but if I find that I am starting to feel genuinely frustrated or unable to concentrate, I take a break, no matter how pressed for time I am. And even in my eagerness to get marking finished, I do my best to stand my ground if I really disagree with a colleague’s assessment of a student’s work when we are reconciling our marks. Departments nearly always have a process to deal with such situations, and I am not afraid to refer the matter upwards – even when my co-marker is a more eminent scholar than I am. Fortunately, however, this has rarely been necessary; generally, I find a second marker to be a very useful fresh pair of eyes, and the mark adjustments I make after consultation with them have nearly always resulted in fairer outcomes.

At this point in the academic calendar, it feels as though I am undertaking all the slog of teaching with none of the rewards offered by face-to-face time in the classroom. And it is easy to wish all the marking away as quickly as possible, to get to a long summer of research and maybe even some vacation time. But as my enthusiasm wavers in the midst of yet another essay on social change after the Black Death, I try to remember that each exam paper not only represents three hours of intensely stressful work for the candidate but is also the culmination of many weeks of preparation.

Marking their papers is usually the last work I will do with a particular set of students. It is my last act of academic comradeship towards them. And carrying it out with respect for all their effort can make me a little less resentful of being inside marking when the sun is shining.

Rachel Moss is a lecturer in late medieval history at the University of Oxford.

marking group

‘The notes inscribed in the margins of their hard-copy papers may one day serve as a valuable interpersonal artefact’

Like parenting, marks and marking are difficult to discuss without first having an honest and open dialogue about generational change. In this case, we are talking about the downgrading of professors from enlightened beings to damaged demagogues.

I grew up hearing my baby-boomer father’s tales of the rigours of his degree study during the Vietnam era. His four-year state university was still populated by tough-minded pedagogues who had served in the Second World War and in Korea. Thus, despite decorating his papers on Chaucer with copious amount of red ink and assigning him a litany of C grades, Professor Searle was Dad’s favourite teacher. From Searle, a “C” signified real intellectual achievement, and Dad, a farmer’s son, characteristically preferred a high bar. He had cut his teeth on such tough love, raised by a member of the Greatest Generation who had been uncompromising enough to keep the farm afloat during the cruel exams administered by the Dust Bowl and Great Depression.

By 1968, however, that ageing American hero needed Dad’s help, forcing him to drop out of college before he had finished his degree. Still, for 50 years, Dad saved the papers on which Searle had spilled his most sanguine ink – in part, I think, because the prof’s marginal comments represented one of the rare occasions in the life of a labourer when the achievements of the mind, rather than the exigencies of the body, merited painstaking critique.

Those who don’t know better assume exam marking to be a punitive exercise, but, for me, good, tough grading locates and assigns value as few other forms of assessment can. But much has changed in academe since the legendary Searle era. Treadmill desks stealthily invade office corners; doughnuts, once de rigueur, grow stale in health-obsessed breakrooms; whimsical and “fun” purple gel pens replace crimson biro, and buffed-up high Bs replace the swell of Cs prescribed by the bell curve.

In this era of rising grades, unshackled, like currencies, from any gold standard, I encourage my students more than ever to go “old school” when it comes to honouring stern marks, and the stern markers who assign them. Some day, I remind them, they may be sharing their professors’ resonant tough-love message with their own children, as my father did with me, so they should welcome critical commentary with the same open-hearted spirit as that with which they might receive a personal letter from someone who both loved them and felt compelled to call them out.

After all, when today’s students reach the statistical peak of their careers in, say, 2040 or 2045, the inflated marks their numbers-driven profs recorded in digital gradebooks will be nothing more than figures whose meaning is lost to time, leaving them devoid of interpersonal currency. But the notes inscribed in the margins of their hard-copy papers may one day serve as a valuable interpersonal artefact: a breadcrumb trail leading the way back to a time when the individual mind was a book worthy of close reading.

So, for me, rigorous mark-ups with summary or “end” comments represent not just an important epistolary tradition but an integral part of the time-honoured pas de deux between the young hero undergoing their rite of passage and the tough-minded mentor-gatekeeper whose standards must be met if the hero hopes to return one day sufficiently proved to help heal a wounded land.

On my worst days, resistance seems futile and I succumb to the new normal, assigning Bs for fear of the hackles that well-deserved Cs would raise. Who am I to determine futures, I ask myself in these dark hours, when, dispirited, I lose faith even in my own ability for discernment. But then I remember that fair and rigorous critique begets growth, and that growth is perhaps the best synonym we have for true learning.

An adolescent culture intent on iconoclasm and bent on bathos will always prefer paper tigers for its pedagogues. But I still prefer gatekeepers with real teeth.

Zachary Michael Jack is associate professor of English at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois.

‘Exams permit students to develop ability to retrieve and apply knowledge in a time-limited situation: skills that may well be necessary in the professional world’

For many years, I have had it relatively easy around exam time. While most others were in a frenzy of preparing and marking scripts, I was already far progressed or even finished with the final essays that I always set at the end of the semester in lieu of exams.

I had what can only be described as a pathological dislike for administrating exams. I have a deep personal fear of sitting them, and I went to a college where they were limited to basic language and music skills (odd as that sounds). Moreover, I harboured secret disdain for colleagues in the humanities who relied mainly or solely on exams, suspecting that they were labouring under a bizarre, inappropriate form of science envy – or else were just too lazy to put in the much greater overall effort required to grade essays.

I found justification for my convictions in research indicating that exams do not produce self-sufficient learners and inhibit the development of deeper levels of understanding. And why insist that students absorb lots of facts, I asked the doubters, when today’s IT resources allow us simply to look up information as we need it?

As a humanities-based university teacher, my key focus is to teach students how to source and weigh evidence and to develop cogent and well-presented written and verbal arguments. Increased attention on the development of such “generic skills”, in preparation for what is likely to be a somewhat uncertain and rapidly changing future, no doubt underlies the recent general move away from exams in Australia and elsewhere.

But I have found myself pushed by my students in a somewhat contrary direction. A few years ago, they began requesting that my courses incorporate some exam-based assessment tasks, on the grounds that they want to be held accountable for the breadth of topics we address, and to be forced to engage with the assigned readings, preferably in advance of lectures or essays on the topics.

They also report wanting to be able to show me – and themselves – that they have mastered a certain body of information. The wisdom of this last aspiration, it turns out, is supported by research indicating that having pre-existing knowledge is an essential part of how we take in and interpret new information – and, thus, is central to critical thinking and problem solving. When faced with a dilemma, students must know which types of arguments are relevant and how to apply them to the issue at hand, and a properly constructed exam can allow them to demonstrate this ability.

Other defenders of exams contend that they permit students to develop and demonstrate ability to retrieve and apply knowledge in a time-limited situation: skills that may well be necessary in the professional world. Research also suggests that preparing for exams may well have its own positive effects, facilitating engagement with a body of material that can result in deeper understanding and abilities to apply it to different types of problems. This is particularly true if study is active and personalised, rather than drawing on standardised study notes produced by others.

Exams should always be used together with other types of assessment tasks, which in the humanities tends to include presentations, reports, essays and reflective journals or blogs. Personally, I still rely heavily on these. But shorter exams throughout the semester have also become an important part of my pedagogy.

I still struggle a bit with them, though! While marking exams is relatively easy, constructing them is not; I have found that some questions that I wrote in previous iterations of a course can take even me a few minutes to work through to get the right answer (and internet searches are no help). But, after all, exams aren’t supposed to be easy!

Rachel Ankeny is associate dean of research and deputy executive dean in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Adelaide.


Print headline: To the mark, the marker

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Reader's comments (1)

As someone who has moved their 225+ student first year module exams from an end of year (or even end of each semester) exam to smaller monthly exams, and automated them beyond simple MCQs, I really disliked it when the second and third year module essay exams came along and stacks of (mostly) poor penmanship arrived for me to decipher. The pure subjectivity of the whole affair, where the mark awarded becomes a very loose combination of actually meeting the marking criteria and how much the subject expert feels the answer is to their own standards. So now that I'm leading a final year module too, I've started two very different approaches to setting and marking essay based exams. The first is doing away with the pen and the "trapped in a windowless basement with no access to the outside world" approach - instead of three essays from six in three hours, done on paper in a regurgitation of short term memory like manner, it's now a single, unseen question done on computers with access to specified online resources so they can use research journals but will still have to know plenty themselves to fold those papers into their work. The exam therefore becomes more about communication of what you know and what advances there are than it is just whatever got crammed in their brains the day before. The second is breaking down the marking criteria (which are mainly about the writing, referencing, and level of knowledge evidenced) into grade boundary sets with tick boxes. They meet the specific criteria at a specific level (excellent referencing compared to appropriate for example), you tick the box. You tick all the boxes in a grade boundary, you award the top mark of that boundary; one missing means 2% off the top and so on. But having one from the boundary above will compensate and put you to the top of the lower one. It's a little hard to explain in a comment without getting carried away. But it fully standardises the award of marks, making the feedback given the only subjective part, and one that doesn't equate to the mark but instead informs how to do better or what to continue doing well (and doing that as inline on-the-fly audio feedback is soooo much quicker).