Can we avoid marking hell?

Inspiring blogger Plashing Vole has published a blogpost about marking which will certainly strike a chord with many of my colleagues. It got me thinking about what the possible solutions should be. We can’t go on like this! Or at least, I worry about Plashing Vole if we do.

The TRAFFIC project is a review of assessment policies and procedures at MMU. Some of this is about technology, and some of it is about administrative processes, but we’ve also taken the view that it’s pointless to look at those elements without also having a critical look at principles and practice. As we may have said elsewhere, assessment concerns pretty much everybody in the institution. Obviously students have to do it, with all of the stress and anxiety it causes them. Academic staff have to set it and mark it. A team of academic and administrative staff has to make sure that it’s collected in, logged, distributed to markers, moderated internally and externally, returned to students and that grades are accurately recorded and presented to assessment boards. But others are also involved. Library staff support students in finding and using resources, technical staff advise on methods and systems. An institution may offer additional language support to those whose first language isn’t English or to those with disabilities. Support and counselling staff may be aware of mitigating circumstances which require special consideration at assessment time. Senior staff track student performance avidly. So we are all in it together when it comes to assessment.

The management of assessment is complicated, and this may lead us to focus on the process when we’re thinking about reviewing assessment. But Plashing Vole’s blogpost is a useful reminder that there are other considerations which must be factored in to our review.

In the assessment lifecycle, it all starts with the design and specification of the task. Do we need some kind of manifesto for assignment design? Here’s a possible one:

I will design all of my assignment tasks with the intention that:

  • Students feel proud of what they’ve done when they submit the task
  • I look forward to marking the submissions
  • Submissions are manageable to mark and moderate
  • The contribution of the task to the overall aims and objectives of the course is clear to students, colleagues and external reviewers
  • Someone else could run the assessment task easily if I fall under the proverbial bus

I thought about adding a whole set of other parts, such as saying that the task would be difficult to plagiarise, but pretty much all of the considertations that sprang to my mind would be subsumed under each of these. I don’t enjoy detecting and penalising plagiarism – probably one of the most dispiriting experiences in a lecturers’ life (maybe second to meetings which involve discussion of car-parking?). I don’t enjoy reading what amounts to the same essay numerous times because I’ve set something that basically only has one answer. I don’t enjoy failing work.
I do love marking work in which a student shows that they’ve engaged with the course material and enjoyed it, and can see the relevance to their overall professional development (I now teach on courses which are practice-focused, so the connections are easier to make, but that was also the case when I taught physics to prospective science teachers who thought they hated physics). So I need to design assignments which first have the potential to let students demonstrate engagement and enjoyment.

I thought about including ‘students will enjoy doing the work for the task’ but I decided that would be difficult. Assessment is always going to be stressful because it has a performance element. It would be delusional to think it will be entirely enjoyable while it is being done. It would be nice if students looked back on it and thought they’d enjoyed it, but evaluating that is beyond my capacity.

At MMU, unit leaders are free to choose whatever type and size of assignment task they think will best allow students to demonstrate achievement of the unit learning outcomes. The most popular assignments for first and second years (Levels 4 and 5) at MMU are shown in figure 1.

I’ve blogged about this before and even if you haven’t read that, I doubt whether the list is a surprise to anyone. Most people will have experience of most of these tasks, either as a student or as a tutor/marker, and that can be a key factor in making a decision about the task. These tasks are tried and tested. We feel safe with them. I have no objection to an essay as a way of demonstrating the ability to develop and express a concise argument. But I don’t want to focus on those seven popular assignments. I can see why they are popular. I’m interested in the fact that there are around one hundred other types of assignment task in use at each of these two levels (click here for a full list of assignment tasks 12/13). How do people make the decision to use these?

In terms of marking, my favourite current task is a poster session where students present their research proposals to peers and tutors. It’s really hard to get all of your plans onto one A2 sheet which mustn’t have too much text on it. I guess you could plagiarise the components, but it would be difficult to fit them into your personal context and to explain them to peers and tutors as they progress around the room. It’s quick to mark (5-10 minutes per person in the room, 5-10 minutes each preparing feedback sheets) and it’s fun to do. Everyone sees everyone else’s work and gets ideas from it (it’s the penultimate task on the course, so there is time to use that learning). One thing I haven’t cracked with it is getting more peer involvement with the grading (feedback is fine). Now it would be difficult to do this with large numbers but some of our colleagues have done some brilliant work on this which involves an all-hands-on-deck day. Challenging to organise but apparently very, very enjoyable.

We have some guidance on a small selection of ‘alternative’ tasks and as part of the next phase of the TRAFFIC project I’m going to review this to include guidance for each part of the assignment lifecycle, so there will be more on the planning and management, and design of appropriate marking critera, for each one. So who’s with me on the manifesto? What’s missing from it?

Many thanks to Plashing Vole for sparking this blogpost….maybe he or she will disagree?

credit: Trident photo by the|G|â„¢, creative commons licence on Flickr

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