Marked variations

June 7, 2018

The search for the holy grail of universal objective marking standards is grounded in the desire – some would say need – to eliminate, or at least reduce, unfairness and subjective variability in grading coursework and exams. The debate around this has hotted up of late as consumer-driven norms dig deeper into higher education, putting academics under increased pressure to provide explicit criteria for their grading of work.

This impetus to produce monitorable norms for judging attainment is an example of what Max Weber referred to as “rationalisation”, the legalistic tendency to govern life by bureaucratic means. Has this process of “technicalisation” gone too far in contemporary higher education?

In any field of endeavour where evaluation of quality is involved, as it clearly is with academic performance, there is always scope for discernment – a “sense”, a “nose for”, an “intuitive understanding” or suchlike. Weber speaks of verstehen in such contexts, that is, the empathetic insight that allows us to identify layers of subjective quality below the external features of phenomena and experience.

Markers and moderators need to develop this capacity to “see the difference” between the formulaic and the creative and, most important, they must argue the case for their judgements. Marking grids, level criteria instruments and regulatory frameworks are of limited use at the fine margins where wisdom is required to discern a first.

Underlying the different positions adopted in academia on the future of marking and grading practices is an age-old debate between “technical” and “artistic” mindsets: the former seeking coherent rules; the latter recognising the necessity and wisdom of discernment. There is a lot at stake here in that it is a conflict between centralised control and the expression of individual professional judgement.

Perceiving “top-class”calibre and performance in any sphere – sport, art, science, academia and so on – requires a cultivated palate and gut instinct for the standout. We can “measure” only up to a point.

This tension between these contrasting orientations within our academic culture is an area of ongoing frustration that surfaces every year at marking time. The issue of looming legislative appeals based around contested grades and awards exacerbates matters. Institutions seek to cover backs. They lean heavily on the side of formalisation. However, the tension is here to stay. It can best be addressed by efforts to coexist peacefully as best we can in the high-pressure environment of modern university life.

There has to be professional and collegial trust and tolerance, as well as, in all likelihood, some sacrifice of pride all round. The technocrats and the intuitives need to see each other’s points of view and seek working compromises on the vexatious issues that this sensitive subject throws up.

Even if clear, regulative marking formulations were produced, they would, at best, only serve to reduce ambiguities in awarding marks. But they would not – academics being humanity’s institutionalised “arguers” – end the debate.

William Keenan

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