The agony of marking

It’s that season, yet again. For UK academics, term has ended, and coursework marking has begun. Soon to come: marking dissertations, followed by marking exams. I gave up marking when I moved to The Open University in 2011, as there it’s done by the associate lecturers (aka ‘tutors’), so all that was left for me to do was to moderate a sample of their marking. And now that I’m retired, hooray, I don’t even have to do that.

But today, various friends posting on Twitter that this is what lies before them in the coming week have reminded me of the sheer horror of marking. One even remarked ‘But first, marking. Always marking.’ I feel the pain, and the frustration. So here are my thoughts after a lifetime of marking.

Why is marking painful?

It takes a long time. Say, a minimum of 20 minutes for an essay of 2500 words? With a typical class of 25 students (here I’m going by the average when I was working in a brick university – sometimes I had 40), that’s over 8 hours of marking. And that’s the minimum. If a student is really having trouble, if the spelling, punctuation and grammar are as confused as the argument, it will take maybe twice as long to annotate the work; in truly dire cases, an hour. So let’s make that 18 hours. I never found it possible to mark for more than 5 hours in a day, simply because it is such an intense process and one needs to maintain consistent standards. One way around the time spent is not to correct the details, but how else are students going to learn that these are wrong? I once considered having a stamp made to say ‘It’s = it is. Its = belonging to it.’ After years of encountering the same errors, I used to go through the most common ones at the start of a class, just to get them out of the way; I didn’t notice much difference, but a few students were genuinely pleased to find out these basics, which had previously passed them by.

So, it’s painful because it takes a long time. That would perhaps be OK if the results merited the investment. In theory, at least, it should still be interesting to see how your students have reacted to what you’ve taught. Sometimes, it really is, and it helps for next time you teach that course. It’s also genuinely satisfying where a student is excited by the material and the approach you’ve taken to it. But you’ll see alongside these cases plenty of examples of work where students don’t get it, not remotely, and while some of those will be useful in terms of showing you where you need to be clearer or more engaging, many won’t be useful at all, because they are the result of students trying to cobble together an essay after a term of missing lectures and/or seminars for no good reason.

It’s also painful because the marks matter. When the exam and coursework marks are combined, your mark could be the reason why a student fails, or why they end up with a 2:2 for that module. Then, when all the module marks are put together, your mark could for example make the difference between a First and a 2:1, and thus open up or take away any chance of the student getting funding for a further course or training. While marks on the borderline are likely to be double-checked by a colleague in the moderation process, a mark in the middle of a degree class – e.g. a 55, where 50-59 is a 2:2 – may never be checked at all. So, that 55, which you gave to the 15th essay you’d marked in one day, at the point when your head was aching and you were telling yourself ‘Just one more and I can walk round the block’ – it can potentially affect someone’s life. You are responsible…

However, you’re not solely responsible. There’s a moderator from among your departmental colleagues, and an external examiner. But they may never pick up on that 55. The moderation process can be a nightmare. Some colleagues agonize over it – is this a 53 or a 54? (do I even care any more??) Others give the impression – I shouldn’t say more – of simply ticking the box to say they’ve moderated your marks. Some markers assume their students are all going to do well, and give much higher marks than their colleagues. Rules have changed over my career so that now, normally, individual marks aren’t challenged, and it’s only if the moderator detects a pattern – for example, that there is a reluctance to use the highest marks and instead a ‘bunching’ in the 2:1 band – that the first marker needs to respond. Even if that 55 was read again, if all your other 2:2 marks were upheld, you may not be asked to revisit it. Further down the line, there will be no paper trail to alert the external examiner to that essay. Are your nightmares beginning yet?

Why is marking frustrating?

Marking is frustrating because not all students put sufficient effort into their work. I’m leaving aside those who are trying to juggle their studies with ill health or other problems in their lives, although even here there can be frustration that the student didn’t put in more work before the crisis arose. Reading a poor piece of work when you are sure that the lectures were clear and the seminars useful, and where peer observation (when another lecturer sits in on your class and comments on it) and the student questionnaires at the end of the module confirm that you’re not hallucinating about this… it really frustrates the marker.

In addition, after marking and moderating are complete, students are often only interested in the grade. So you invest time in commenting, in entering into a dialogue with the student via the margins of the essay, and in suggesting how the grade can be improved, but when you hand back the essay the student will say ‘Oh good, another 2:1 mark’ and won’t bother reading what you’ve written.

And then there’s plagiarism. I used to be good at spotting this. My nose for plagiarism was indeed based on smell – a suspected plagiarized essay for which no matches showed online was traced back to a very old library book because of the powerful smell of pipe tobacco in both essay and unacknowledged source – but I’ve had far more cases where I haven’t been able to pin down the work being copied by the student. Plagiarism detection software only takes you so far, and the usage of a thesaurus can disguise what’s really going on. In my career I wasted hours trying to confirm my suspicions, although there were some great moments when I finally tracked down the elusive source. Students must have wasted hours copying passages out of books and then putting in the effort to change some words to get it past the plagiarism detection software. They wasted hours: I wasted hours. Frustration all round.

There must be a better way. If you’ve found it, please share it!

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6 thoughts on “The agony of marking

  1. Another facet of marking: we get a lot of our information and knowledge by reading. No matter how critically we read, after reading the same piece of nonsense in several essays, some of it goes in. We are damaging our brains!

    Neal Stephenson, in Anathem, puts it well: the student academics in the novel are punished for wrongdoing by being forced to master (not just memorise!) nonsense passages from the Book: “the contents of the Book had been crafted and refined over many centuries to be nonsensical, maddening, and pointless … you had to master them just as thoroughly as, say, a student of quantum mechanics must know group theory. The punishment lay in knowing that you were putting all of that effort into letting a kind of intellectual poison infiltrate your brain to its very roots.”

    That’s marking, too!

    Liked by 1 person

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