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FASS staff not sold on anonymous marking

Zoe Stojanovic-Hill

Staff from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) have voiced concern over the University’s decision to introduce compulsory anonymous marking this year.

At a forum on Friday, staff members from various FASS departments expressed frustration with multiple aspects of the anonymous marking system, which organises digital assessment submissions by ‘paper ID’ rather than by name or student number.

Concern centred on the fact that there is currently no mechanism for managing late submissions and the technological difficulties associated with using the anonymous marking function in Canvas.

Joe Collins of the Department of Political Economy, a leading staff advocate of anonymous marking, who trialled the system in his courses last year, acknowledged that staff face the challenge of re-educating students to not include their name and student number in the body of the text when they upload assignments.

Director of Education Innovation, Adam Bridgeman, flagged another issue: if a student does not keep a record of the ‘digital receipt’ they receive upon uploading an assignment, the marker has no way of knowing that the student has completed the task.

Other staff members argued that the system could prevent students from receiving personalised feedback from markers, which would give students less of an incentive to put effort into coursework.

Anonymous marking is designed to counter the influence of cognitive bias in grading assessments — to ensure that all students are judged by the quality of their work, rather than by a facet of their identity or by their past academic performance. In part, it aims to ensure that groups that have been excluded from academic institutions throughout history and continue to experience discrimination in academia, such as people of colour, women, LGBTQ+ people, and other minorities, receive equal treatment.

The University made anonymous marking optional in 2017, before making the system compulsory as of Semester 1 of 2018.

The SRC has been advocating for the introduction of anonymous marking since late 2015.

Speaking at the forum, SRC President Imogen Grant said that the SRC is committed to “ensuring fair marking by reducing any sort of implicit bias that can affect markers, regardless of their intentions to promote or disadvantage any groups of students”.

“Markers [can] construct a schema to assign students to a pre-formed group, often drawing on stereotypes of what a high-achieving student is or a low-achieving student is,” Grant said, echoing the SRC’s 2016 policy statement on the topic.

Grant indicated that staff would benefit from an anonymous marking system, even if they do not believe the system will have its intended effect, because it will reassure students that they are not being discriminated against.

“Even at times when this bias is negligible there is a student perception that exists within the study body. That’s what needs to be managed as well,” she said.

One staff member suggested that the sense of “anxiety in the room” was a not a reaction against anonymous marking per se, but a sign that staff are feeling overwhelmed by the amount of technological and organisational reforms that have been introduced recently.

“I think the anxiety is not about the rights and wrongs of anonymous marking. I think the anxiety is the combination of so many new things that we are grappling with,” she said. “The issue is that we are bringing in this new policy right now, while we are struggling with the new curriculum and we’re struggling with this new platform [Canvas] which doesn’t do the administrative things we were able to do under Blackboard.”

“A whirlpool of different factors…are making people anxious,” she concluded.

Despite opposition from some staff members, compulsory anonymous marking will be enforced this semester.