Sunday, 11 April 2010

Marking Woes

End of term - hooray! No more teaching - I'm free! And then the unmistakeable thud of assignments plopping through the letter box and the illusion of freedom is gone. It's bad enough having deadlines for my own writing, let alone having deadlines for marking other people's writing.

I love teaching and enjoy meeting students, but marking is - and I was thinking of being tactful but decided against it - the pits. I usually like reading the work, it's the assigning of grades that's so difficult. Is this one to get a 64% or is it only 62%? This assignment has lots of grammatical and spelling errors and the presentation is terrible, but there's a feel for language that makes the heart sing - should they be marked higher or lower than the perfect presentation that technically 'works' but reads at a plod? The writer in me goes for higher but I suspect I may have to argue the case later on so it would be easier to give them both the same mark...

Would we look at a Picasso, for example, and mark him higher, or lower than a Rembrandt? Would we be judging on use of materials, brush work, composition or the emotional effect the whole work created? Would we consider that a wide canvas with many characters was 'better' than an intimate portrait?Would we mark experimentation and innovation up or down? Should courage be rewarded, even if it fails, compared to playing safe?

When I'm agonising I remember I once had to cover for another lecturer. At the end of class one of the students sidled up to me and asked what mark I'd give for the work she'd brought in. Off the top of my head I said a high 2:2 - perhaps 58%. I discovered later it had been marked before and she'd complained so it had gone to a second marker. Luckily the second marker had agreed with the first - 58%. No wonder she'd looked sour at my spontaneous response.

It's fascinating we'd all agreed, given writing is such a subjective subject. I was terrified the first time I had to mark a bunch of assignments but it was quite clear where most of them lay in relation to each other. At university level there are second markers and outside examiners which gives some standardisation of marks. When I've worked with second markers and moderators it's rare for there to be much disagreement. We may not like to hear this, but some writing really is better than others and it shows.

In case any one is interested, I'm running a class in Bath on Friday afternoons for 8 weeks over the summer, a mix of exercises and workshopping. Contact me for more details on

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