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Does subjective marking affect grades?

A recent study by The Independent has found that members of the student body across the UK are beginning to question whether their final classifications are being affected by subjective marking. Students reading humanities disciplines, in which answers are mostly subjective, have been particularly vocal on this matter, with some insisting that it has affected their module choices.

A third year humanities student studying History at the University of Reading said: “As students, we’re only supposed to be marked for what’s on the page, but I’ve had a few cases where a tutor has discounted marks for missing information. However, only some tutors seem to do this.”

“Similarly, when writing a piece in a humanities subject, the whole point is to build an argument. Even when the tutors try to mark fairly, they are bound to find more marks to give to those students that agree with the marker’s own views.”

If this is the case, it has the potential to severely affect the final results of some students.

At the University of Reading, an anonymous approach to the marking of student papers is adopted, ensuring that there is no possibility of a marker’s bias towards a student affecting their results. Internal and external moderation of marking is also practiced at the University, however the guidelines indicate that not every paper may be subjected to internal moderation, and that the University needs only to provide the right of access to external moderators.

The guidelines state that: “Double marking of the whole cohort is a suitable method of moderation for cohorts of eight or fewer…Otherwise, where possible, moderation of a sample should be arranged. The sample should contain a meaningful proportion of the total candidates, but it is suggested that a minimum of eight candidates might in most cases be appropriate.”

“External Examiners have the right of access to all assessed work which contributes to an award. In practice, in most cases they will necessarily concentrate on a sample of assessed work”

This, for some students, does not seem to entirely solve the issue of subjective marking, in particular across different course modules and the third year History student added: “I know the departments try to keep things on a level playing field with moderated marking, but sometimes the people moderating don’t have the same understanding of the subject as our subject tutors, and therefore don’t always pick up on the same issues.”

Whilst this may be the case, it is difficult to imagine a fairer way to conduct the marking of subjective examination papers – all markers adhere to a list of marking criteria for individual modules that is established and regularly assessed by the module’s representatives With this in mind, a solution could be to attempt to establish a better understanding between the student and the subject tutor who marks the assignments of what is expected, so that the individual styles and theories of tutors may be better understood. However, with only one hour a week of personal contact hours with subject tutors for first and second years, and two hours a week for final years, many students may find this to be a difficult task.

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