Subjectivity in Assessment

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been experiencing something new for me: marking someone else’s assessment. More precisely, first-marking their assessment.

One of my colleagues has been on extended leave and so wasn’t in a position to mark the final essay for one of their modules, for final year undergraduates. Since the students need the work marked to allow them to complete their degrees this summer, our School was in a bit of a fix.

On the one hand, the usual practice is that the module leader does the first marking: they’ve run the module and know the students and material best. On the other, in the face of no certainty about when the colleague would be able to mark, and the clear need for students to know their situation for their final set of modules, there was a clear need to move marking on.

At a technical level, this was actually much simpler and problem-free than might be imagined. By coincidence, the module concerned covered much of the same subject matter as a module that I teach to Masters students, and even the form of assessment was nearly identical to my own. In addition, it is now our practice to provide both a generic and a specific rubric to students of our expectations for each piece of assessment, so I had not only the title of the work, but also extended comments on what that involved, as well as the university’s descriptions of classifications.

In addition, we followed the usual practice of British universities, and a colleague second-marked all of the scripts (the role I would normally have played in this module), and an external examiner (from another university) will look at a sample of the marking for the module. Both the second and external markers are there to provide a benchmark of practice and standards, to help ensure that students are treated fairly and comparably, not only across their programme of study, but also in comparison with other students on similar programmes in other institutions. In this case, the external will know about this situation, so they are fully informed.

At this point, some American readers will be shaking their heads in disbelief at the regulation around this: indeed, it’s one of my favourite pastimes at US L&T conferences to mention it.

However, from the students’ perspective, all of these procedures didn’t really matter to them. Several came to see me over the days after the marks were released, to suggest – very politely, it must be stressed – that my marking wasn’t the same as my colleague’s would have been.

In the words of one student: “I wrote that work for them, not for you.”

At one level, I completely sympathise with such comments: we do, after all, make a point of stressing to students that each of my colleagues has different views and approaches, so it might be fair enough to suggest that each of us has different things we look for in assessment.

However, this is to miss the deeper point that we do not ask students to follow our approaches, but rather develop their own ideas and worldviews. Neither I nor my colleague would want a student to slavishly reproduce our own thoughts in their assessment, as if it were some truer truth. I marked – like we all mark – not on whether I agreed with the approach, but on whether the approach worked and was supported by evidence.

The entire model of British assessment practice is to try to minimise any effect of subjectivity. Indeed, students (and others) often forget that all our marking is subject to revision by people who often stand at much greater distance from the teaching than I have with my colleague: external examiners are able to move entire spreads of marks, if they see fit.

The bigger point that I have taken from this is that despite such mechanisms to bolster objectivity, if students do not see and feel that, then it becomes a moot point. I am working with them, to try and underline this, but it remains a work in progress.

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