We love our students - they're so appealing!

January 23, 2004

We mark their essays, they object to the grade they get. We've been doing the job for years, so why do they think they know better? asks Nathan Abrams.

Why do students feel a need to appeal their essay marks? What is it they know about their work and marking that we don't? I have been teaching for eight years, and last year was unprecedented for the high number of essay score appeals I received - six, over two courses.

At one university where I worked, students were encouraged to appeal. The process was likened to an insurance policy. This makes sense, particularly given the vagaries of the marking system and the peculiarities of individual tutors.

But appealing sends the wrong messages to the tutor, no matter how polite the accompanying letter or email. Some of the communiques I have received suggest that I am more interested in form over content. But the two are indivisible. If the ideas are poorly presented and illegible or unintelligible, how are we supposed to mark them? Another allegation is that I have marked someone down because I didn't agree with his or her argument. This ignores the rubric that the student is encouraged to show both sides of the argument.

Appealing implicitly suggests that the student knows better than the tutor and that the tutor can't do his or her job properly. It ignores the fact that tutors have often been marking for years at a variety of institutions and generally know what they're doing. In some institutions, the tutor's marking is regularly monitored. On one of my courses last year, I had three essays sampled from every assignment submitted. That was 18 essays. Every batch was returned "satisfactory" and the last one "excellent".

I was pulled up for my comments, but not for my grading. Indeed, I was told to be stricter on penalising improper footnoting, referencing, bibliography and so on, and, when failing one student, was told to give an even lower mark.

Sometimes the appeal is motivated by the amount of work put into an essay.

Students may think that the harder they have worked and the more they have read, the better the grade they should receive. But not if the question is not answered, the rubric is disobeyed, the word limit is exceeded, the basic rules of spelling, grammar and syntax are ignored, or if there is no argument provided. Sometimes the appeal suggests that the student has an inflated opinion of their work. This does not help when other tutors are slack in their marking and give higher grades than some students deserve, possibly motivated by a desire to avoid confrontation. Without blind marking, this is a very real concern.

Often, students appeal in haste and anger, which can lead to misunderstanding. They forget to be polite. They may make accusations or allegations that get our backs up.

I received one email containing an analogy that infuriated me. It said that "sticking with a proscriptive marking guideline no more 'ensures fairness'

than stopping a black man from illegally drinking from a 1960s 'whites only' water fountain ensured justice. If the rule is unjust or inflexible, then merely applying it across the board, to all essays or to all blacks, does not ensure fairness."

It did not endear the student to me in the slightest. It may not be the student's intention to offend the tutor, but this might be the outcome nonetheless.

Most irritating of all are students who appeal when their grade is already high. I learnt a valuable lesson in the first year of secondary school when I had an "A" grade and appealed for a higher score. The teacher marked me down, saying I should be happy with what I had got. Students are aware that their grades could go up, but they don't seem to be aware that they may also stay the same, or even go down, and then there is no room for appeal.

Why are the appeals sent to the tutor? This puts us in an awkward position.

On the one hand, we are proud. Do we really want to admit error? Do we really desire confrontation if the student is known to be particularly aggressive? Is it simpler just to opt for the easy life and acquiesce? But will this encourage more appeals? Do we want to be seen as a soft touch or lenient, or easily browbeaten? On the other hand, what if I have made a genuine mistake (and in one case I have admitted as much)? Are we the best ones to determine this? Does it undermine us in front of the student/s?

These are questions that go through a tutor's mind when the dreaded appeal letter lands on the doormat.

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

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