A Rock and a Hard Place

Stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Sometimes it is fun being stuck half way up a gully trying to get back to the cliff top. Other times it’s less fun and tricky to negotiate. Now, does that sound like anything else I know? Why yes! It reminds me a lot of marking.

In addition to the electronic feedback exploits, I have been doing some work requiring peer assessment. I suspect none of the general issues that have arisen are particularly new, but probably pretty representative of your average peer marking exploits (unwillingness to give lower marks, want to be nice to friends, reluctant to write comments etc) but one conversation last week stood out and I’ve been brewing over it for a few days*. Our institution, like many I suspect, has tended to suggest specific words to use while marking. So 2ii marks are ‘good’, 2i are ‘very good’, 1sts go from excellent through outstanding and hit ‘could not be bettered at undergraduate level in time available’. 3rds and bare passes are average or fair.  Looking at my average range of marks on course work, I’d say marks between 58 and 62 would be better given the designation ‘average’ but in the context of modules (complete with the unseen exams), something in the low-mid 50s would be average.

For one assignment a couple of weeks ago I’d devised a marking scheme involving 5 x 10 mark aspects ranging from 0 (didn’t show up) through to 10 (could not be better). I put in the words associated with each point so for 5/10 I put good, 7/10 was excellent etc. One of my students pointed out to me that if I said their work was good, they’d feel really pleased and expect a cracking mark. If I said they then had 5/10 or 50%ish for the work, they’d feel disappointed.  I probably should have asked the question of well what mark would be good, and what would be excellent then, but I suspect it would vary greatly depending on the expectation of the student and their self-concepts related to performance in the subject and necessary skills.

I did point out that to some students, a mark in the 50s was good and possibly more than they thought they could achieve. That gave us all some food for thought and reminded me of a conversation over the summer with another student who thought everyone was capable of a first. At the time I gently reminded them that performance in degrees was a function of the personal circumstances in which they found themselves and that not everyone had the opportunity to pour themselves heart and soul into their studies. Life and things like family, part time work, illness tend to intervene. We agreed that a degree was a reflection of what you could do in the time available with respect to your circumstances, and I think the same is true of any assignment.

I don’t think some people in the class were satisfied by that and without defining what constitutes good/very good/excellent in terms of the assignment, it’s a difficult debate to have. I don’t want to constrain students by the notion that the best they are capable of is good, but I don’t want them to feel that achieving marks in the 50s is inadequate. I believe I had an English teacher at high school who used to say our goal on entering the examination room was to be able to honestly say ‘I could not have reasonably done more’. I think if a student submits work, that sentiment would also apply. I’d suggest that the class and I might have a conversation in the future about what reasonably means in the context of university work, but it will do OK.

As for the peer assessment scheme, we’re using the same mark scheme for an activity this week (the earlier one was formative, this is summative) and I face the (probably common) dilemma of how to deal with slightly higher than ideal peer-assessment marks. I may resort to the olympics scoring system for gymnastics – discount the highest and lowest marks and average the rest. I may also open the session with some descriptions of good through excellent in context and remind them all of the expectation that they have improved based on the formative exercise.

It has had a knock on effect to the marking I’m currently doing. I’m taking greater care over the language I’m using and am generally avoiding good entirely. I am using very good and excellent however where the situation warrants it. The biggest effect is that I’m happier writing feedback on the current set of work than settling on a grade. At one point I was tempted to write feedback on all the work and send it back to the students. I thought I could tell them to figure out what grade they thought they deserved based on the feedback (perhaps increasing the chances of the majority reading the feedback?). I decided against that but it’s going to be the next thing niggling away in the early hours of the morning.

*OK I’ll admit that I’ve been brewing over a few things, mainly at 5am in the morning but thinking about this one has distracted me from the more frustrating things that better resemble being stuck somewhere completely intractable. But I do love it when conversations with students provoke this level of internal debate.