Agony aunt

May 28, 1999

Q I am staring at a growing pile of exam scripts and wondering if there is any hope of marking them objectively.Any advice would be very welcome

A

Cliff Jones Director of continuing professional development in education, Liverpool University

All you can do is mark with the best possible judgement. Trying to be objective carries the assumption that there is a perfect and unchangeable answer and this drives people towards multiple-choice questions and computer assessment, which gives a spurious sense of a scientific approach.

Pure objectivity is not necessary. That is not to say, though, that "impression marking" is to be encouraged - the idea that "I know a 2:1 when I see one". You need a sense of consistency and quality. You need to educate your innate gut feelings. You can be subjective but you need to constantly refresh your thinking by talking to others.

A good start is to have more standardising meetings. When you have a sudden-death exam, those wielding the red pen need a thorough understanding of what they are looking for. Even the best marking schemes are not perfect and there is no point in listing model answers because students will always come up with something you have not thought of. But marking schemes ought to guard against, for example, ambiguous words appearing in exam questions.

Getting a 2:1 or a first ought not to be a lottery. You should be able to tell a student where their strengths and weaknesses lie, and then defend your judgement.

A

Lee Harvey Director of quality enhancement, University of Central England

Mark in short bursts of say half an hour, then take a break. You will be much more productive than if you are ploughing on for hours and hours. And try to spread the marking out, do not leave it to the last minute. Put it in your diary ahead of time and schedule in other activities around the marking. It really helps to make a note of any issues students are repeatedly getting wrong. That way you can give collective feedback. Give some thought to what proportion of scripts will be double marked.

The only real way around all of this is agreed assessment criteria. The time spent devising them will be well repaid later.

A

Brenda Smith Director of learning and teaching, Nottingham Trent University

The key really is to be consistent rather than objective so that each candidate is assessed on the same set of criteria. That way you will not be swayed from one answer to the next. Otherwise there is the risk that those candidates whose scripts are marked at the beginning are disadvantaged because you do not know what else is in the pile. Those in the middle will be judged against what has already been read and those at the end will suffer because you might be jaded. Write down the criteria to provide some kind of benchmark. This is easier in subjects like maths, of course. In the humanities and social sciences you need broad criteria. These cannot prescribe how each answer should be addressed because each will be debatable; that is the whole point.

The idea is to specify criteria against which work can be evaluated. These should be as clear to the students as they are to the staff. In many places this does not happen because it is time-consuming but it does work. I tried it once as an experiment with an MA group. We had a detailed dialogue to establish an assessment scheme which ended up as a grid with different weightings. It was a long process but certainly successful and it took all the mystique out of assessment.

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