An A+ for the Pretty Eyes?

How objective is grading at UCU?

By Klementina Ristovska

With discussion-heavy classes of 28 or less, it is only normal that professors at UCU often get to know their students well. At the same time, full name is required on student work in almost all courses. While blind grading is strictly enforced in Anglo-American universities, UCU does not seem concerned over the issue of potential bias. Does the lack of anonymous student assessment in our small college affect the fairness of grading? The Boomerang asked professors’ opinions on how objective is grading at UCU.

The first time I wrote an exam at UCU, I responsibly put down my student number on every page before I submitted my work. Glancing at my paper, the professor called after me: “Hey, you forgot to write your name!” Semesters later, I am still perplexed by the fact that in all the classes I take, from math assignments to short-essay exams, everything is graded within the context of who wrote it.

Professors I interviewed agree that with the current system bias probably exists.  Yet, opinions on whether this is a problem that requires measures are radically divided. “There might be an issue with anonymity but I think, in comparison, it is relatively minor,” says Teaching Fellow and Professor Guus de Krom. He believes that there isn’t any formal, solid reasoning behind the current practice. “It is one of those things that we do simply because that’s how we do it,” de Krom says.

Every professor has their own approach on whether and how to ensure anonymous grading. Methods range from no action at all to strict anonymity rules, as with Professor Rosemary Orr who even instructs her students that “any form of self-reference in the exam will earn them an F”.

“It is not fair to anybody if my personal prejudice influences grading,” Orr says. In her classes, she has developed a system using randomly generated numbers for identifying exams. She cannot know who received what grade before she distributes them back in class.

Professor Orr mentions an eye-opening past experience. In her linguistics course, Orr had a student whom she personally knew very well: the student was looking after her children and did a research project with her.  The same student got an A+ in the class for an outstanding paper. “The girl would have never gotten her A+ if I had known her identity when grading, because I would think I’m being influenced by knowing her personally,” Orr said.

When grading is not anonymous, familiarity with the student’s ability and previous performance influences grading even if unconsciously. Orr finds this unacceptable.

On the other hand, Psychology Professor Christel Lutz currently grades exams blindly, but opposes mandatory blind grading because of class-specific cases. In her 300 level psychology course, she admitted students who had not taken the prerequisite psychology courses, but had neuroscience experience. “It matters where the student comes from – what their learning progress is”.

“If there is any bias, it is positive rather than negative,” says Director of Education, Fried Keesen. From a science professor’s standpoint, Keesen says that a teacher is always hoping to see good results by students. If a written work feels disappointing at first and he had a better impression of the student previously, he re-reads it before grading.

The issue here is fairness: professors know some students better than others.  Are some students at a comparative disadvantage in relation to the benefits their more vocal colleagues earn because the teacher knows them already?

Lutz brings psychology research insights into the debate. “Negative biases exist in very specific environments. When there are groups about which stereotypes of their academic performance exist, plus there is not much knowledge of the individual student.” An extensively studied case is the one of black students in the USA and negative stereotypes about their academic capabilities. This explains the obsession with anonymity at large US universities. “These criteria might not apply much for the UCU environment”.

“Be careful what you wish,” says Philosophy Professor Floris van der Burg. “I am ninety five percent sure that the bias is in students’ favor. Grades on average will go down if there was complete blind grading,” van der Burg says. From across the room, Professor Orr agrees with this. Regardless, she still strongly favors anonymity.

Orr seems lonely in her advocacy for blind grading, as many others oppose the implementation of a unified, university-wide policy on this.

“Anonymous grading goes against the philosophy of what we’re doing – maintaining a very close student-teacher relationship,” Lutz says. Similarly, Keesen thinks “it is fostering a culture of distrust” to have such bureaucratic measures. “If the cure is worse than the problem then it would be wrong to implement the policy,” he says.

“At this college there is a culture of having faith in the professional integrity of the professors. Rather than implementing top-down measures to make sure that [professors] do what they’re supposed to, there is a tendency to have confidence in them,” de Krom says. “But this is not a reason not to take measures if it’s needed.”

As with every issue, practical constraints abound. “It is not difficult to think of improvements in assessment that would help against bias, but in the end it always boils down to: more work needs to be done for the same amount of money,” de Krom says. There is always the cost-benefit trade off to consider before implementing a policy.

“Anonymity gives you objectivity partially, but it doesn’t give objectivity per se,” Lutz says. She stresses that other grading aspects are more important, such as transparency and clearly communicated grading criteria. De Krom emphasizes the importance of feedback. “Feedback is vital for the learning process and it also makes grading more transparent,” he says.

To pass a policy on this, first the Exam Board would need to decide that there is a necessity. Then, according to de Krom, they would probably ask the Director of Education to formulate policy proposals on which again the EB will decide.

“If students feel there is a problem, then this needs to be investigated and solved. In this case they should come to ASC and we will discuss it and look at the issue,” Student Assessor Rens Bakker says on the issue of anonymity.

After all, the whole objective and fair grading thing can be re-considered. “Perhaps grading should be somewhat subjective” second year Veerle Oosterbaan says. “We shouldn’t be graded perfectly objectively when what we are doing here is supposed to prepare us for the real world where everything is subjective.”

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