Reliable rubrics

June 21, 2018

To the mark, the marker” raises some interesting points about marking.

As someone who has moved their first-year module exams for more than 200 students from an end-of-year (or even end-of-semester) exam to smaller monthly ones, and has also automated them beyond simple multiple-choice questions, I disliked it when the second- and third-year module essay exams came along, and with them stacks of (mostly) poor penmanship to decipher.

The whole affair is subjective; the mark awarded is a loose combination of the extent to which a student meets the marking criteria and of how much the subject expert feels a student’s answer meets their own standards.

Now that I am leading a final-year module, too, I have taken two unusual approaches to setting and marking essay-based exams.

First, I have done away with the pen and “trapped in a windowless basement with no access to the outside world” approach. Now, instead of students doing three essays in three hours, regurgitating their short-term memories on to a page, they answer a single, unseen question on computers with access to specified online resources. This means that they can use research journals but will still have to know plenty to fold those papers into their work. In this way, the exam becomes more about students communicating what they know than about spilling out whatever they crammed into their brains the day before.

Second, I have broken down the marking criteria (which are mainly about the writing, referencing and level of knowledge evidenced) into grade boundary sets with tick boxes. If a student meets the criteria at a specific level (excellent referencing, for example), I tick the box. I tick all the boxes and award the top mark for that boundary; one missing tick means 2 per cent off and so on. Having one tick from the boundary above will pull a student to the top of the lower one.

This standardises the awarding of marks, making the feedback the only subjective part – and that feedback does not relate to the grade but instead informs what to improve or continue doing well at.


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