Some time ago, before the start of conference season, I spoke about what I saw as the myth of gendered writing. The original aim of that article, the morality of anonymous marking, will now be presented. Let us begin with a simple statement.
I do not believe that anonymous marking is a moral practice.
I do, however, understand the moral reasons behind its adoption. There has always been, and sadly continues to be, some degree of prejudice in the marking of analytical works. The fact that some female, non-white, non-Christian or working-class students have had their work unfairly marked because of their background will not be disputed here. It has happened, and almost certainly continues to happen in certain cases. Indeed, even the most open-minded lecturers and teaching assistants will, despite genuine attempts to overcome personal biases, occasionally glance at the name atop a final exam and roll their eyes. ‘Oh yes, I remember him. The one who showed up late to every session.’ We may not mean to be more critical of certain students, but I am not so naive as to believe it does not happen. Nonetheless,
anonymous marking does not prevent uneven marking.
Instead, most of our prejudices come from expected patterns of discourse. Lecturers, left without names, will often imagine the author of the text they are reading; assertive writing is masculine; poor vocabulary or syntax suggests a non-native speaker of English; repeated misuse use of certain verbs or tenses hints to regional or class background. Often (as studies have demonstrated) these perceptions of the authors bear little resemblance to the actual student. Nonetheless, failing to meet expectations of proper rhetorical style, for whatever reason, result in a lower mark.
On the other hand, a lecturer who has provided his or her students with numerous opportunities for formative work will have already developed an eye for their individual writing styles, rendering efforts at anonymity useless. In most cases, students will simply write in the same manner in which they speak, further reducing the effectiveness of anonimising measures. Students who have attended class regularly, or shown their keenness in oral discussion might then receive an unconscious benefit-of-the-doubt whereas arrogant students, or those who refused to heed oft-given advice, might be penalised more harshly for their errors. More importantly,
anonymous marking prevents effective feedback.
By removing names from students essays, lecturers are unable to consistently provide longitudinal advice to their students on their academic writing. How can I, as a marker, see if my advice on previous essays is being understood, misinterpreted or ignored? How can I effectively encourage a student who has improved in one area and concentrate instead on continuing or new errors.
For example, I have a student who submitted three essays to me over the course of a year. The first essay received a 58. The second also received a 58. The third earned a 62. Under the pretence of anonymous marking, I did not go back and look at previous essays the student had submitted, nor did I take into account oral contributions or discussions we had had during office hours, which might explain certain errors or misconceptions. This would not have affected the mark, but would have focused the feedback considerably. Instead, I was forced to offer very general advice based on the writing in front of me, which may or may not have given the student clear guidelines on how to proceed in future writing. The student, on the other hand, became increasingly frustrated with continuing borderline marks. They were (rightly) convinced that they had taken advice from previous assessments and had succeeded in writing better papers in subsequent efforts. Because of anonymous marking, I could not explain (and indeed did not realise) that they had indeed solved the issues I had noted in their first essay, but had run into wholly new problems in subsequent projects. They had improved, but I could not reflect this in non-longitudinal feedback or in through a numerical score.
Another example: I have several students with learning difficulties. My university, in an attempt to maintain student privacy, adhere to strict anonymous marking guidelines, and appropriately aid students, has instituted a policy of attaching a non-specific notice to all assessed work that informs the marker that the student has a learning disability. Nothing could be less helpful. Without knowing the nature of the disability, I am not able to fairly mark the work; instead I must offer some arbitrary leeway on spelling, grammar and structure–none of which may indeed be unobtainable by this particular student. Moreover, I am not able to offer specific advice on how to overcome particular issues because I cannot be sure of their cause. In the same vein, much of my feedback to international students is essentially useless because I have simply written ‘poor structure’ rather than recognised and addressed very specific regional differences.
This is why I cannot condone the practice of anonymous marking. It does not prevent biases, which come as often from the words on the page as the name in the header. It distances student from teacher in a way that prevents longitudinal growth and improvement. It prevents effective accommodation of learning difficulties and disparities in educational background because markers can only guess as to the true cause or probable remedy.
Students may be marginally safer from prejudice under anonymous marking schemes, but they will also be denied vital feedback and longitudinal instruction that is only available through honest conversations between student and teacher. That is why I cannot condone anonymous marking in higher education. It does far more harm than good.
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