Warm glow of a chore well done

April 22, 2005

Marking scripts on a fine summer's day may not seem too unpleasant a task but, says Susan Bassnett, you do it in the garden at your peril

One of the most demanding tasks for an academic is not teaching or research or administration - it is marking. Marking essays and/or exams is time-consuming and stressful because the papers come in great waves and because you have to work against the clock, while trying to ensure that your judgement stays unclouded. A lot of exam marking happens during the spring and summer, when your body clock tells you to spend more time in the garden. Yet experience will tell you that sitting in a deckchair with a pile of papers is not the best way to approach the task, not least because concentration will probably lapse more quickly if you feel warm and relaxed. As for the glass of chilled wine or the gin and tonic, best forget it and put the kettle on instead.

There are no simple rules for marking efficiently, as everyone has different concentration thresholds and we all read at different speeds.

I have tried timing myself so as to give roughly the same number of minutes to each candidate. But this system has never worked well because each script is so different. What works for me is to set clear time boundaries and to work intensively in short one to two-hour bursts, taking a break once tiredness starts to set in.

Occasionally, there can be advantages in pushing yourself to the limit. By working on long past my deadline I once spotted two identical essays by candidates who had obviously copied from one another. If I had set the papers aside earlier and begun again next morning, I probably would not have had the strong sense of déjà vu that led me to spot the cheats in the first place.

Reading tens of thousands of words on the same subject quickly dulls the mind, and once you start afresh the previous day's marking recedes into a kind of limbo.

Different institutions have different conventions for writing on scripts but it is surely good practice to make notes, whether separately or on the paper.

Just writing the notes adds a few extra minutes to the task, but it is invaluable for ensuring that you have a record of what you have read and it helps you to focus on each paper individually. Note-taking is a basic element in quality assurance.

The fundamental problem, of course, is that you are reading with a view to assigning a mark, and that mark must be fair and impartial and reflect your view of the quality of the candidate's work. A small variation can have serious consequences, so you owe it to your students to work in circumstances that offer you the best opportunity to be confidently competent.

Best then to mark sitting comfortably somewhere, at a time when you feel most alert and to ensure that you don't overdo things.

The big problem with marking, particularly if you have a lot of scripts, is that fatigue sets in pretty quickly, for the chances are that most of the scripts are rather similar. I've always found that the really good and truly terrible papers are the quickest to mark because they stand out from the mass.

Nobody can pretend that marking is fun, or even instructive. It is a chore, like washing up or scrubbing floors. But, like housework, it has to be done, and there is a certain satisfaction to be gained from looking at the work once it has been completed. A pile of papers that you know you have read thoroughly and marked fairly, like a clean floor, gives you a real sense of achievement.

Susan Bassnett is professor at the Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies, Warwick University.

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