Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Marking Blind

Whenever possible, I blind mark student assessments, so that I have no idea whose paper I am marking. This also has the side effect that I rarely remember what particular students have made in my course, since I just quickly transfer all the marks into a spreadsheet at the end, and grades tend to blur together. I occasionally guess that I must have given someone a bad mark from how they, e.g., won’t make eye contact and hurry along when they pass me in the hallway… Absent such social clues, though, I generally don’t know whether someone was a “good” student, in terms of their formal assessment performance. I do, of course, remember things like how well someone engaged with the material in the classroom, but this never correlates strictly with marks in the course.

Some students, of course, have such a strong and individual voice in their written work that it is essentially impossible not to recognise whose work I’m grading. These students tend to be on the better end, since finding your “voice” in academic work is fairly difficult to achieve, so I’m not generally too worried about recognising who they are as I’m grading. And in courses like Research Stratgies, we spend so much class time discussing students’ work before they submit assessable material, that it’s essentially impossible to disguise authorship.

When I can blind mark successfully, though, I tend to get strong reactions from students who do well on an assessment or two, and then suddenly receive a poor mark. The reaction isn’t always negative – I’ve occasionally had students admit to having concluded that, after I gave them a high mark on multiple assessments, I must now think they are an “HD” student, and would therefore give them a high mark regardless of what they turned in. They might wince at the low mark, but still seem strangely pleased that I noticed that the work hadn’t been up to par…

Not all students share this view: I’ve had a number of students feel that early high marks were a sort of promise of what they would make in the course, and who therefore feel very betrayed by a sudden low grade. Sometimes there is a substantive objection – i.e., the student feels that they did a similar kind of work across two assessments, but received a very different grade – and then we need to work through why a strategy that might have been appropriate to one assessment, might not work for another (I’ve been tending recently to mix assessment types, on the theory that this would give students a greater chance of having at least one assessment draw on skills in which a student has a relative strength. I may drop this strategy, though, as on balance I think it may be causing more work for all students, as they have to readjust to new assessment styles as well as learn new content, and I suspect it particularly disadvantages students who, as a matter of temperament or skill, need multiple opportunities to practice and perfect their work within the constant structure of a particular assessment style…).

Sometimes, though, the objection to a sudden low mark does not involve a contestation about the quality of the work, but about something more like the social compact involved in marking – the student’s expectation that, since they have demonstrated their abilities to me, they should therefore receive a mark for the course that is indicative of their potential, even if they occasionally fail to live up to this potential in an individual assignment. Blind marking renders this impossible – forcing students to demonstrate their skillls on each assessment if they want a high mark for the course.

I generally do design in some failsafes to protect students from truly cataclysmic assessments – I usually offer some option to revise and resubmit, or I count the best x of y marks, or similar. In my experience, though, students rarely avail themselves of the failsafe options, and the existence of failsafes doesn’t seem to mitigate reactions to poor marks…


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