Posted tagged ‘anonymous marking’


June 25, 2009

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.