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The Veil of Academic Ignorance

Marking at Sydney University is broken, Subeta Vimalarajah and Anna Hush know why.

Marking at Sydney University is broken, Subeta Vimalarajah and Anna Hush know why.

Alice* had a HD average in Gender Studies, but this changed rapidly after she entered into a relationship with her tutor. After she ended the relationship during the semester, for the first time during her years at University, she was getting credits. She was being treated differently in class; she felt “totally powerless” and “blackmailed.” You might remember Alice’s story from Honi Soit earlier this semester, in ‘Make Her Life Hell’, an article that exposed the dark underside of student-tutor relationships. Her experience raises another concern that needs to be addressed by the university— marking bias. Alice’s story may be an extreme case, but it is symptomatic of the broader problems that come with with attributing student names to assessments.

Assessing work with students’ names on it opens the door for bias—both actual and perceived—that disproportionately affects students that are already marginalised by academic structures. The current University policy makes no mention of bias in marking. The best we could find in the coursework policy was the nebulous assertion that “students’ assessment will be evaluated solely on the basis of students’ achievement” and that “assessment practices address issues of equity and inclusiveness to accommodate and build upon the diversity of the student body”. Sydney University is not unique. Of the Group of Eight universities, only Monash and ANU had any mention of anonymous marking in their academic policy. Even then, at ANU it only applies to final exams, and at Monash it is implemented “where appropriate and possible”.

Psychological studies confirm the effect background experiences can have on a tutor’s perception of a student’s work. The ‘halo effect’ describes the tendency to evaluate people more favourably based on positive experiences in the past. One study found that academics assessed the same essay more positively after watching the student give a high quality oral presentation than after a poor presentation. Students who are more personally engaged with their teachers may just produce higher quality work. That said, students that do not feel comfortable developing an independent relationship with their marker should not be penalised by comparison.

Personal bias is exacerbated by other more systemic and insidious prejudices, especially when names have racialised and gendered cues. In a study conducted at Yale, researchers submitted two CVs for a job that were identical, except one had a female name and one a male. The ‘female’ was rated less qualified, competent and hireable, and was assigned a 12% lower starting salary. The presence and extent of these biases did not differ based on the gender of the marker, evidence that we all internalise and unconsciously apply damaging stereotypes. This can be explained by the ‘expectancy effect’ where, to ease the high cognitive demands presented by marking, the marker will construct ‘schema’ to assign the student to a pre-formed group, often drawing on stereotypes to do so.

During the 1990s, the UK National Union of Students led a push for anonymous marking. Numerous studies emerged of marking bias, confirming the extent to which expectancy effects are implicated in marking student work. Although they vary, the most egregious data was that released by the University of Wales. After first implementing an anonymous marking policy, the number of women achieving firsts (a High Distinction equivalent) increased by 13%, while the number of men remained the same. Similar discrepancies were illustrated through an OFSTED study. The UK education watchdog found that students with African or Asian names received 12% lower marks in institutions without anonymous marking. While sexism and racism have diminished in the last decades, the results are too stark to ignore.

The nature of implicit bias makes case studies difficult to identify. Students are forced to rely on instincts, which hardly provide substantive grounds for an appeal. One such example was when, a few years ago, a number of students in a Civil and Criminal Procedure class taught at Sydney Law School were given the same mark for an assessment—7.5 out of 15. Uncomfortably, all these students were Asian, and were normally very high achievers. Despite two of these students seeking recourse, the final result was only that all marks in that tutorial group were increased by one. After the difficulty of contacting the Faculty and organising meetings, the difference for them was negligible. The story appears anecdotal, but without the very unlikely admission of negligence from the marker themselves, they all are.

We made our own inquiries into how students perceive anonymous marking. SRC President Kyol Blakeney and Ethnocultural Office Bearer Lamisse Hamouda agreed that a system with student numbers would be more favourable. When we contacted the Director of Teaching and Learning, Simon Barrie, he was on leave and unavailable for an interview. However, in an email he wrote that “this is an interesting issue and one that I see as just one aspect of the complex challenge of assuring ‘standards of assessment’ more broadly.”

Another academic we contacted noted that the current University version of Turnitin—the system used for online submission and assessment of work— does not allow anonymous marking, but a more updated version would. There is a specific function that allows markers to easily hide the names of student work while it is being graded, but the university has opted not to purchase this feature. We don’t know the extra cost, as quotes are only provided to staff, but can only assume it pales in comparison to the cost of flashy new real estate or re-branding the university website. The SRC President, Kyol Blakeney, told us that there have been recent discussions about upgrading the software, so perhaps this feature will be made available soon, providing a simple way to anonymise work.

Some people we interviewed had concerns about implementing a system of anonymous marking. One issue was that anonymous marking stops tutors from being able to provide students with meaningful feedback that is tailored to their personal academic development. But this can be solved relatively easily. The student’s name could be removed initially, but after grading the paper, the marker can look back at the name and provide more personal feedback, adding little administrative effort. Incidentally, this is the policy adopted by the Discipline of Physiotherapy at the University of Macquarie.

Another student worried that anonymous marking would divorce the identity of students from their work. The student in question, who felt they had been subject to bias resulting from a marker’s dislike of their political beliefs, remarked that they are “already uncomfortable with the extent to which the university treats me more like a consumer than a learner”. They argued that their academic work “is a result of my personal experiences and an application of my politics, and I don’t want it to be separated from my identity”.

Alice, the student from the beginning of this story, doesn’t agree. “The reality is that we are already just cogs in the giant corporate machine of the university— and a number isn’t going to make that fact more real.” Despite such inevitable disagreements within the student body, anonymous marking should at least be a choice for the students who would prefer it. Alice sees it as a way to ensure that “fewer students get fucked over by the corporate machine”—a “way of reclaiming a little bit of power that we cede by entering the institution and playing by its rules”.

Anonymous marking is not just important to ensure fairness in marks, but also to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable. It is often not just a matter of one unsatisfactory mark, for Alice it was a reminder of the “inherent power imbalance“ in that “[the marker] had the institutional knowledge and resources to further punish me if she chose to”. As a result, Alice felt uncomfortable about her participation in other Gender Studies units and temporarily stopped doing them. The effect of a mark perceived to be unfair is thus not just on a student’s WAM, but their freedom to learn and feel comfortable at university.

It is perplexing that anonymous marking is so unspoken of in tertiary institutions across Australia, when the potential benefits seem so clear. Although there are administrative hurdles, we are keen to explore the possibilities for policy change. If you are have had an experience that is relevant to the need for anonymous marking, please let us know! University reform is a slow and at times frustrating process, but we are committed to it. If you are too, get in contact at usydwomenscollective@gmail.com.

*Name Changed

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