How to take in the view up a marking mountain

June 1, 2001

End-of-year assessment may be arduous but it should be part of the learning process. You have not really passed the rites of passage in teaching until you have stoically waded your way through your first end-of-year marking.

The volume and pressure do not lessen with the years, but it helps to establish a rhythm. In the gruelling weeks of marking, it is easy to lose sight of how crucial assessment is to learning and how hard it is to maintain consistency when faced with mountains of work.

We mark student work throughout the year, but end-of-year marking - essays, reports, projects, dissertations, presentations, seminars, contributions, creative works - is a rite few explain in advance.

It can take every moment of your working, and sleeping, day until the final, rather damp squib of completion - the two-day long award board that follows the scramble for marks at the earlier, internal subject assessment boards.

The weight of marking is matched only by the volume of paperwork and other activities: mark sheets, moderation, reports to students, feedback sheets, letters to external examiners to accompany samples and so on.

And if you and the internal marking system get anything wrong, there are student appeals and the Quality Assurance Agency, as well as internal monitoring practices and systems.

Amid all this, it is worth reminding ourselves of why we mark, how marking systems and practices ensure consistency and fairness to the students, whether and how the assessments genuinely measure or reveal learning has taken place (and what learning) and how assessment is fed back. Assessment is for learning as well as for demonstrating that learning. If it is mere mechanical exercises, familiar activities that are not exactly suited to the subject or fed back as percentages, it is not really doing that. If a variety of learning outcomes are expected from assessment, then the formats should match.

Surprisingly, testing memory retention and the ability to perform under stress in a hot overcrowded exam hall may not fit the bill, whereas other more creative formats might. For example, if a course seeks to develop reflective learners and practitioners, the use and assessment of student portfolios, logs and journals might be more appropriate.

Another option is to get students to mark their own work. They can say how it fits or deviates from assessment criteria and what could be done to improve it. This allows them to reflect on what they have learnt, the shortcomings and to make suggestions for future work.

If creativity is important, it is better to offer students the opportunity to invent, paint, sew or build and to accompany this with an analysis of how the process and product embody their and others' ideas and arguments. If performance skills are being tested, allow space for analysis and reflection alongside the dance, drama, role play, presentations and games.

If teamwork and groupwork are important, group assessment is a tool. The group can share marks or be individually assessed in addition, for example, through a log or a report on the team process. Peer assessment is another tool that encourages students to bring the criteria to bear on others' work.

Marking is often a mystery. Old hands pretend they can spot a 62 per cent paper a mile off and know exactly how to discriminate between that and a 63 per cent. Do not be fooled. It is not a precise science, it needs to be learnt the hard way. That means sharing, clarity, practice and cooperation with colleagues so that everyone is interpreting and assessing in the same way. If not, it is unfair to the students.

A mentor or friendly colleague can often explain the marking rituals and help develop or confirm what you do.

Better still if there is a teaching or department team that meets to agree on interpretations of criteria, go through marking examples and discuss why people award particular marks.

Agreeing how criteria appear in practice, in actual student work, is part of the quality assurance process, as crucial to fair play as double marking, moderating or ensuring that the marks are attached to the right student numbers.

The paperwork that aims to ensure fair play must be properly in place. Assessment boards still frequently stall embarrassingly on missing, incomprehensible or simply wrong marks caused by computer blips or our own confusions and mistakes.

New colleagues need to be initiated into the importance of keeping clear, and confidential, records. Much end-of-year assessment is reliant on producing grades and percentages rather than giving feedback. Although it is difficult to provide sensitive feedback when marking hundreds of scripts, students benefit from margin notes.

Some people have perfect pitch and perfect assessment abilities. For most of us, however, it is a case of staying power and constant scrutiny of the criteria, re-reading student work, considering it carefully and responding both with feedback and assessment marks.

The marking period is hell. However, it is also the moment we have all been waiting for. Ideally, students will be able to show what they have learnt and achieved so it can be a wonderfully celebratory moment as we read through coherent and original responses to the work we have all been doing together.

Gina Wisker is director of learning and teaching development and women's studies coordinator at Anglia Polytechnic University.


STRATEGIES TO HELP YOU STAY SANE AND JUST

  • Clear time and working spaces to mark - in the garden, at your desk, with coffee (or whatever keeps you alert), without interruptions
  • Read questions carefully and consider varieties of possible responses (not just the one you would pick as there are different kinds of learners here and different interpretations)
  • Read through some of the work before starting to determine how students are responding and how the marking will develop
  • Pace yourself by marking a few at a time to maintain consistency
  • Keep returning to the criteria and question how individual students are responding
  • Keep alert and fair even if you are bored with seeing the same kind of response or tired because it is late
  • Take regular breaks to keep fresh but recognise avoidance strategies (the house does not desperately need cleaning nor does the garden need digging)
  • Check batches of marking to ensure that, having marked each piece individually on its merits against the criteria, at the appropriate level, you are fairly discriminating/differentiating between different students' work - so the range is fair and fairly spread
  • Finally, good luck.

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