Anonymous

The UK National Union of Students has, amongst its key campaigns, one called ‘Mark my Words, not my Name’. This campaign is designed to persuade or cajole those higher education institutions not yet using anonymous marking for examinations and assessments to do so. The purpose of the campaign is to prevent bias, conscious ore unconscious, on the part of examiners. For example, the NUS campaign asserts that there is evidence that students from ethnic minorities fare worse in examinations in those institutions where there is no anonymous marking, compared with those where there is. But even where such evidence cannot be found, the argument is that anonymous marking gives students greater confidence in the impartiality of the system. It is the case of justice being seen to be done.

I have now been in two universities where anonymous marking was introduced while I was there, and an external examiner in another two in the same circumstances. In each case there was considerable resistance from some faculty to the change. Sometimes staff feel hurt – particularly where the staff in  question have worked hard to ensure fair examinations and impartial assessment – that notwithstanding their work for the students, they should come ‘under suspicion’ in this way; and sometimes academic and administrative staff are concerned about the (undoubted) additional administrative burdens. But I have also heard opposition based on the argument that anonymity would prevent examiners from crediting students who were known to be good or who were known to have problems. It needs to be said, however, that the latter is strong argument in favour of anonymous marking: bias in support of a student is just as wrong as bias against.

I suspect that for some academics anonymous marking is just one more piece of evidence that they are not appreciated or trusted, and this creates for them a strong sense of resentment, which I have seen come to the surface in debates on its introduction. It is therefore important to introduce this change sensitively, and to remove the idea that where anonymous marking is called for it represents an implied vote of no confidence in them.

But for those institutions which have not yet made this jump, it is perhaps worth remembering that the introduction of secret ballots in parliamentary elections in the 19th century was vehemently resisted by some liberals. The argument ran that a democratic vote was the ultimate statement of the power of the people, and those exercising it should be open and transparent in doing so. This view was influential until eventually the Chartists adopted the secret ballot as one of their six principles. In the end the secret ballot was introduced in Britain and Ireland in 1872.

In all these matters it is important that the wider society protects people – whether voters or students – from undue or unacceptable pressures and from the fear of disadvantage. It can be hard for academics to accept this, but this is a necessary step for a modern university. And to their great credit, in all four institutions of which I have knowledge, in the end all academic staff (and administrative staff) were engaged constructively in the project to make it succeed. And that will have been good for the reputation of our institutions.

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20 Comments on “Anonymous”

  1. Perry Share Says:

    when I used to mark exams (a few years ago) I would always open the booklet from the back and try to mark anonymously. Sometimes the handwriting would look intriguingly familiar and I wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to look and see who it was – about 50% of the time I would be right. (In Oz there is an obsession with teaching the locally-mandated form of handwriting in primary schools, so (nearly) everybody from the same State has the same handwriting!) I don’t know if my DIY approach to anonymous marking made a blind bit of difference to my grading. Maybe I should have conducted a double-blind controlled trial? Overall I can’t see any problem with it, though as the exam is beginning to die out as a means of constructive assessment, perhaps a whole new set of issues is more pertinent. At my institution the biggest issue is probably the assessment of group work. And bye-bye Jacko.

  2. Vincent Says:

    Everyone has an exam number and for that matter an ID number. So why is the name on the scripts necessary. And I’m sure the sensitive little souls who do the marking would not mind if the names were dropped from the booklets.
    In Ireland we have sensitivities with regard to names, where one can define ethnicity from the name. But would I be aware if ever I was marking a script. I would have to say yes. Would I mark to my ethnic roots, No.
    However, comments about Indians, or Natives just before marking a raft of papers. Well, it is best to remove the temptation.

  3. Richard Says:

    Students not performing as well as they think they should is an ageless phenomenon and I doubt that the introduction of anonymous marking would change that. I suspect that an academic with 100+ or 300+ scripts to mark is not going to waste too much time looking at students’ names, if a name is indeed present rather than a number (as we use). It is also unlikely that with such large undergraduate class sizes, having read the name they will be able to connect it with a person.
    Third-level assessment analyses is a big part of my job. I am continually looking for patterns in the data that might suggest exams are unfair or biased. Should such anomalies be detected they are always investigated and resolved in favour of the students and the overall fairness of the exam.
    Most third-level institutions tend to have relatively high numbers of individual assessments that contribute to final marks and so to get a significant effect on final grades you would have to have multiple, biased examiners.


    • I think that the case fir anonymous marking is not necessarily based on evidence that there is bias, but rather on the need to give students the confidence to believe this. Students always strongly argue this, and we need to take that seriously even if we are certain that there is no problem in practice.

      • Vincent Says:

        You have a far larger problem on your hands once the students feel unsafe enough to require numerical ID on exam scripts.


        • I’m afraid I don’t agree with that, Vincent. It’s like saying that the desire for secret ballots is a sign of a rotten state. The desire for security in such matters is not unnatural.

          • Vincent Says:

            That is exactly what it is saying. The pocket boroughs were rotten because the electors were not Free to vote as they wished. It was very rare and taken as such, with vote weight, when the Palatine of Tipperary elected her MPs, and when her MPs were called to vote. She is the Premier county on the two islands because there was no one large landowner who could dictate the survival of the parliamentary voter.
            But your problem is you do not have students with the bloody minded nature of the average Tipp person and a system which punishes independent thought.

            Anyone heard a Cuckoo this year. Off topic, I know, but I haven’t, and I’m up and at ‘em at cock crow.


          • On that logic, a country with a ‘clean’ political system should abandon secret ballots – and yet that would be outrageous. Secret ballots are necessary even in the most perfect of systems.

          • Vincent Says:

            Well, No, it is called democracy. And nothing outrageous about it at all. If you cannot not act as one, as in the cabinet, where a policy in a Republic is as if it were below a King, then there is fear. And this fear slices into everything.
            Secret ballots should be an option in any system, perfect or otherwise.


          • Precisely, that’s my point. The same argument is applied to anonymous marking. Like others here, I very much doubt that there has ever been serious bias or prejudice that has been reflected in examination results. But I still understand the students’ anxieties.

  4. maestro Says:

    I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, yes, it may appear that it is a fairer approach to assessment. However, there is a compelling argument regarding the de-professionalism of academia. Academics are employed because of their expertise and concern for their respective subject area. Consequently, academics (in past) were required to make judgements on individual students, and their suitably to ‘work’ in a particular field. Judgement is the key word above.

    Can you imagine a medical doctor becoming certified to practice based exclusively on their ability to achieve a mark in an exam – the world would be full of mal-practice suits (actually explains why the US has a disproportionate number of such legal actions!).

    having worked in both systems – I now believe that this is not necessarily favouring the student, and it *is* the de-professionalization of academia.


    • Maestro, you make some interesting observations. But I don’t agree with you about the de-professionalisation. I don’t think academics are asked to make judgements about a student’s suitability for a particular profession – and if they were, they would not really be qualified to make it. They are asked solely to make a judgement about academic achievement.

  5. Aoife Citizen Says:

    Now if we could have better glue on the anonymous marking flaps!

  6. Hugh Says:

    Before these super-sensitive academics start jumping up and down complaining that they’re not appreciated, they ought to read the following report, or at least the Foreword on page 5.

    http://www.equality.ie/index.asp?locID=105&docID=794

    Don’t take it personally, folks! Its about recognising that outside your own corner, the world is not a perfect place, and we all need safeguards.

  7. Richard Says:

    Quote from NUS website:

    “Research tells us that due to racism and inequality, black students receive lower marks than their white counterparts when anonymous marking is not in place.”

    I would hate to think this is true, even in a minority of cases. I do wonder if I would come to the same conclusions given sight of the ‘research’ data mentioned.

  8. maestro Says:

    Hugh, name calling is very mature. Firstly, I’m not concerned with equality and discrimination – please read my comment above. I *am* concerned about the quality of graduates going into industry (and other endeavours) who have paper qualifications, yet are wholly unsuited to the particular profession.

    Students learn the exam system (we have all done it!), and those who are good at working the system, generally achieve a high mark in the exam (please don’t try to correlate this with intelligence). However, that person may not be fit to become a teacher, doctor, practitioner, etc.

    Academics are not hired to mark exam scripts. They are employed to pass a judgement on the candidate.

    let me finish with this – would you feel confident flying in a plane whose navigation software (or other software) was written by a graduate who didn’t truly understand the implications of decisions made in the design and implementation of that software …

    • Hugh Says:

      Maestro, I did ask you not to take my comment personally. universitydiary raised the general issue of some academics not feeling appreciated or trusted, and of having a strong sense of resentment. I believe these are over-reactions to a proposal that seems to make very good sense to me. I linked to the equality report simply to point out that, regardless of how objective we might claim to be, we do, on occasion succumb to prejudice. This is why we need to be on our guard.

      Of course academics are concerned about their own areas of expertise, and, at a squeeze, I can also accept that part of their responsibility includes making judgements regarding suitability for work in particular fields. The ultimate arbiter of suitability, however, is the employer, and I suggest that (s)he relies on the academic primarily to ensure that candidates have reached a minimum standard in the discipline. I suspect employers might have something to say about academics pre-screening potential candidates based on their own judgement of “suitability”.

      And speaking of graduates, there are plenty of examples out there of utterly unsuitable Bachelors who have nevertheless made it past the academic suitability-screening process.

  9. Wendymr Says:

    I will confess that – in the days before anonymous marking – I would occasionally see a student’s name on the front of an essay and immediately, subconciously, form a conclusion about the anticipated quality of the work. Now, while I would obviously then proceed with the intention of marking the work based on its merit, I know I can’t say, hand on heart, that I am completely confident that the student’s identity was entirely out of the calculation, much as I’d like to hope that is so. If I expect that a piece of work will be poor, am I more likely to go up or down on a borderline grade? If I expect, based on past performance, that the essay will be very good, am I more likely to give that student the benefit of the doubt?

    We are all humans, no matter how objective we tell ourselves we are, and psychology tells us that we do make these kind of prejudgements and, consciously or unconsciously, can be influenced by them. It’s the same kind of thing as employers forming a favourable view of a candidate based on how they’re dressed or the firmness of their handshake, and perceiving their interview performance through that lens.

    Once anonymous marking was introduced, I was certainly surprised on occasion by some of the results – which, for me, definitely proved its merit.

    As for Maestro’s objection, would I not be right in saying that medical students are assessed as much on practical examinations – such as clinical tests with mock patients, and multiple mini interviews – as on written examinations anonymously marked?

  10. Exam Number 45789654 Says:

    Just wanted to say what an excellently written piece this is. Succinct, concise, pithy and not at all verbose. Exploratory without losing focus and all in all perfectly structured and delivered.

    Seriously though…my longing point is how “anonymous” is anonymous marking anyway?


  11. [...] a blogpost by Ferdinand von Prondzynski on anonymous marking spurred a fierce debate in the comments about the merits of anonymity. [...]


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