Career advice: how to mark for the first time

Marking large numbers of student scripts can be tedious, but it’s important to get the feedback process right, say Kevin O’Gorman and Robert MacIntosh

July 20, 2017
Man at desk marking
Source: Getty

Think ‘bell curve’

When collating the marks from any exam, essay or assignment, there is a tendency to expect a smooth, bell-shaped distribution of marks. It gives you, the second marker, and your external examiner a warm, fuzzy sense that all is well in the world.

If you don’t end up with a spread of marks, you’ll probably be asked to explain things. Is it that the questions were too hard or too easy? 

Keep a running tally of how many A, B and C grades you have awarded, and think hard if anything other than a bell curve is emerging.

Take regular breaks

Marking should be classified in the same category as driving and operating heavy equipment in the sense that you should be legally required to take rest breaks. 

In short, when marking, especially in large volume, breaks are essential. They interrupt the tedium and help you to mark out the time between work and your eventual return to civilised society. Organise your exam scripts into bundles of 10 and allow yourself a short break when you complete each set. Time how long each bundle takes and try to stick to a particular pace so that you are not speeding up or dawdling, as each brings its own dangers.

Calibrate regularly

Every now and then, re-mark one of the exam scripts or essays that you have already finished to check that you are being consistent. Does it still feel like an A grade?

Marking guidelines, sample answers and other devices all aim to improve consistency but what can be less obvious is the need to calibrate against yourself.

Even where there are only 20 or 30 exam papers, mark them all and then re-mark the first few to see if you still agree with the grade. Sort out the As, Bs and Cs, and then check that they are all of a similar standard.

Trust your instincts

You can pore over the nuances in a sentence but a skim-read will give you an overall impression of the argument, the narrative arc and the key points being made in an answer. This probably gets you into the right band, ie, whether the work is a B rather than an A or a C grade.

A more subtle process may then follow where you try to establish if it is a good, bad or indifferent B. Don’t delude yourself into anything more accurate than good, bad or indifferent. You really won’t be able to tell the difference between 62 per cent and 63 per cent, so stick to something straightforward such as 62 per cent, 65 per cent and 68 per cent. There may be a norm in your institution or department, so be sure to check.

Give constructive feedback
Don’t just spray a few red ticks across the page and conclude with a “good”. Today’s students expect detailed and individualised feedback, particularly for essays and assignments, so you need to indicate areas of strength and weakness. You are not supposed to rewrite the assignment but every student deserves at least a paragraph.

There are also some innovative new ways of capturing audio and/or visual feedback that you can try. If you remember that your purpose is to help students learn, then you’ll approach the feedback task in a diligent manner.  

Provide an audit trail

Marking is usually a fairly tedious business. That tedium lends itself to a desire to try to get all the marking over with quickly but it is important to remember that each grade needs to be justifiable.

From a class of 500 students, you may need to know with some surety why candidate number 386 got a B- for question two. Make notes for yourself about what things you rewarded and what things you penalised. Write these down in the form of a marker’s commentary and provide this to the second marker(s) and/or external examiner(s).

Creating an audit trail doesn’t mean that you need to write a commentary on each exam script but it does mean investing a small amount of your time. As soon as you encounter your first appeal case, you’ll be glad that you have a trail.

Robert MacIntosh is head of the School of Social Sciences at Heriot-Watt University, where Kevin O’Gorman is professor of management and business history and director of internationalisation. Both regularly write about academic life on the Heriot-Watt blogs It’s Not You, It’s Your Data and thePhDblog.com.

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POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Rest breaks? Tick. Feedback? Tick. Marking audit trail?

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