Structure is archaic, confused. See me!!

May 14, 2004

The university marking system is a hopeless muddle that lecturers view with trepidation. Nathan Abrams outlines the problems and pitfalls.

It's that time of year again. As students rush to catch up on months of unread notes, lecturers view the marking season with apprehension - not least because the incongruities of the marking system raise many questions and problems.

I am pleased to learn that the archaic system of degree classifications may soon be abolished, but there are still many issues involved in marking that need to be addressed. The first and biggest is why do we tend to mark out of a narrow grade band - 40 per cent to 75 per cent, with most students being given grades between 55 and 65? Lecturers are often afraid to mark too high (90s are unheard of in some departments) or too low (although I once gave a 20 per cent and I have seen a 5 per cent mark).

Where did this system come from, and why is it still in use? I find it difficult to justify it. Some universities use Greek characters to signify marks, which makes the system seem even more arcane and opaque.

Isn't it time to actually mark out of 100? It is a real joy to be able to give someone a score in the 80s and 90s and not feel scared that the moderator, assessor or second marker will query it automatically.

To complicate things even more, every university has a slightly different system of marking and a different understanding of what is expected in each grade band. Often an external examiner will come from a very different type of institution and declare that what is a first at "X University" would get only a 2:1 at "Y College". This is often done with no sense of contextualisation.

Then there is the problem of writing on scripts. At one institution, I was told to write nothing on exam papers because students would have access to them under the Data Protection Act. At others, I have to write on scripts to justify my mark. In one of my first teaching jobs, I was told to write at least four comments on every page of assessed work. Because I had not done this initially, I had to go back and make comments on scripts that I had marked several weeks before.

How much to write on the scripts is one question, another is: should we correct every grammatical, spelling and punctuation error or take a light hand so as not to demoralise the student? I've always felt that the light-touch approach suggests that a marker has not read the paper carefully.

When marking, I tend to write in full sentences to avoid ambiguity. But not everyone does this - some simply write "?" alongside the text. It would be interesting to know what students prefer.

Some universities issue cover sheets. With carbon-copy sheets, I've been told not to type because it creates more work. But I type faster than I write, and my hand hurts after 30-plus essays, leaving me less inclined to write detailed and useful feedback. Besides, the "Comments" box on cover sheets tends to be rather small, negating the provision of lengthy, detailed feedback. Other institutions provide electronic versions of feedback forms. This should be standard everywhere.

Another issue on these forms is the ubiquitous tick boxes. It is highly irritating not only that we have to remember to complete these but also that the students take them as an almost written-in-stone guide to how the lecturer arrived at their grades. Thus, one wrong tick or circle can lead to discussions, or worse, argument and appeals.

Sometimes, too, tick-box categories such as "average" are ambiguous. Are frequent errors in presentation, such as footnoting and bibliographies, "average" because most students make them or "poor" because the rules are spelt out in study skills courses and departmental handbooks?

Then there is the difficulty of the second-marking system. What if junior members of staff second-mark or moderate the work of more senior colleagues? Should they show respect and defer to seniority and experience? What if the senior academics are simply poor markers? Do we juniors contradict them and risk a backlash? Or do we toe the line out of fear of the consequences?

Of course, there are different methods of double-marking. At some universities, the second marker picks a sample of essays and assesses overall whether the first marker has arrived at appropriate grades. At others, the approach is to read all the essays and give a grade for each one, with the differences being thrashed out among the two markers and any big disagreements being resolved by the external. But second markers need to be clear what they are marking: the student's work or the professional ability of the first examiner.

Nathan Abrams is a lecturer in modern US history at Southampton University.

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