Undergraduates deserve more marking time

June 21, 2018

The report on Dr Malcolm Anderson’s suicide (“Tragic suicide ‘a wake-up call’”) is shocking. He made valuable contributions to the community of those interested in the history of accounting and how that underlies its modern power, and therefore its popularity as a subject choice.

But there is another disturbing and increasingly systemic aspect to this tragedy. An expectation to mark 418 exam papers in 20 days translates to 21 papers a day. If one only allowed a “normal” working day of seven hours (all that a university is entitled to expect), that is more than three papers an hour, or less than 20 minutes each.

And even if, more realistically, academics put in something like 10 hours a day, that still only allows less than half an hour per paper – non-stop. One can barely skim-read a three-hour exam script in that time, let alone digest and carefully consider it, append suitable comments to provide an “audit trail” for the external examiner, and record the marks.

How many undergraduate students realise that all their final degree work, which is being judged by, say, eight three-hour exams over two years’ exam diets (perhaps supplemented these days by coursework evaluations) – in other words, some 24 hours (or four days) of exam writing crafted to encapsulate the many preceding weeks of their sweat-and-blood study and revision – will officially only receive just under three hours of academic evaluation by a variety of markers? (Halve this for a one-year, often extremely expensive, master’s degree.) It can take the same academics several days when refereeing a journal submission to read and consider it and write an assessment.

Students’ careers, as well as their self-esteem, depend on these pressurised judgements. A system that assumes they can be made so peremptorily is surely a scandal. (Double-blind marking, including reconciliation discussions, used to be the norm but that has virtually disappeared these days.)

Universities should surely publicise to current and prospective students the derisory amount of time for marking and classifying their work that will be allocated to academics, who will be put under extremely tight time pressure, and see what that does to student satisfaction scores and teaching quality evaluations.

Richard Macve
Emeritus professor of accounting
London School of Economics

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