Why is marking practice important?
Marking and the validation of marks (verifying, analysing, moderating) ensures fairness and consistent application of standards. However it takes up a considerable amount of academic staff time. It's also a high stakes activity with serious repercussions if it goes wrong.
What are the common problems?
Approaches to marking are often highly personal. Academic staff may not view themselves as having regular working hours and the fact that they often complete marking and feedback at home or elsewhere off campus suggests that it's done in their own time and they should therefore have freedom of choice in how they approach it. Staff often resist institutional attempts to enforce a uniform approach.
Many of the most comprehensive marking tools are best suited to online marking and there are more hurdles to overcome for people who wish to use them in situations where internet access is not available.
The discourse of resistance is also highly personalised eg, some older members of staff may cite eye-strain as an issue with online marking. Others of the same age group prefer e-marking, and use technology to adapt to their personal needs and make reading easier.
Ensuring a safe working environment
Colleges and universities have a statutory duty to ensure that staff have a safe working environment; ensuring appropriate and proper set up of computer workstations and related furniture. The same applies to staff who are contracted to work from home but not necessarily to those who choose to do so.
It's important therefore that staff who work in situations outside of their formal work place are aware of how to set up and use their equipment in order to avoid musculoskeletal problems and eye-strain. Extended use of laptops in particular is likely to cause problems.
Tools to support e-marking have recently become considerably more user-friendly. Academic staff who tried to use such technologies a while ago and reverted to paper marking because they found them difficult may take some persuading to try the new generation of tools.
Case study: resolving access issues with Grademark at the University of Hull
In 2014, the University of Hull received complaints from a small number of academic users who struggled to use the university approved marking tool, Turnitin Grademark, on their university PC.
When viewing the originality report characters appeared fuzzy and difficult to read for any length of time despite none of the users having a particular visual impairment. Testing showed that the quality of the original PDF assignment submission deteriorated when used through Turnitin Grademark. This was specifically an issue with the rendering engine of the marking software rather than a browser issue.
Further testing showed a resolution to the problem when marking was undertaken by using the iPad app (which uses a different rendering engine to both the browser and the Turnitin web engine).
How might we use technology and what are the benefits?
There are various technologies that can speed up marking at the same time as delivering more effective feedback. The most comprehensive tools may include:
- Banks of frequently used comments to quickly insert for pointing out grammatical errors or the need for a citation
- Rubrics with marking criteria in a pre-defined matrix which improve marking consistency and may enable a quick calculation of marks and grades
- Integration with text matching tools to support academic integrity checking.
Other standalone tools which may still capture annotations in digital format include the mark-up features in Microsoft Word or the use of digital pens.
One of the most significant benefits of digital approaches is improved clarity for students who don't have to struggle to read handwriting.
Academic staff may need some time to familiarise themselves with new tools but many find the processes to be more efficient and more rewarding as many of the repetitive elements have been removed. The real efficiencies are however most evident when you consider the overall process. Other benefits include:
- The convenience of not having to collect and carry large quantities of paper
- The convenience of electronic filing
- The security of having work backed up on an online system
- The ability to moderate marks without having to physically exchange paper.
How does marking practice relate to the lifecycle?
It relates specifically to the marking and production of feedback stage which we discuss further in that section.
What resources can help?
- Our case study from the University of South Wales outlines the use of Grademark for online marking and feedback
- This case study from Sheffield Hallam University shows the benefits of online marking and annotation of student work
- The University of Northampton has a useful guide to setting up your computer workstation for safe and comfortable online marking
- The University of York's reading on screen guidance is for use by both staff and students
- Queen Margaret University's guide for tutors outlines how to mark and feedback using the Turnitin Grademark product.
Good practice in e-marking
(adapted from guidance produced by the University of Huddersfield)
Concentrate on the use of the tool to provide dialogic feedback (rather than a monologue) to facilitate conversation with students about their work. You can do this by:
- Never using generic comments alone to annotate student work - always include ‘bubble’ comments written specifically for that student. Redeploy time by offering more bespoke comments and support
- Make use of first person pronouns when engaging with the student’s work (‘I found this sentence difficult to interpret’ or ‘the opening paragraph you have offered here is really compelling: I’m feeling motivated to read on’)
- Invite students to ask their tutor to focus on specific aspects of their work in feedback
- Use colour coding to distinguish strengths from weaknesses and ensure that all students’ work has at least some aspects of their work highlighted in both categories
- Avoid building generic comments that replicate bad habits common in paper marking such as a tick or a comment that simply says ‘good’ or ‘vague’
- Agree a shared approach with colleagues to using the marking tool that offers consistency to students while still allowing tutors to benefit from the flexibility that the tool offers.
A suggested strategy for implementing e-marking
(adapted from work at the University of Huddersfield - see the report on their Evaluating the Benefits of Electronic Assessment Management (EBEAM) project for more information)
Academic staff attitudes are split into three main groups:
- Innovators or early adopters who have migrated enthusiastically to e-marking
- Those who have approached it more cautiously (likely to be the bulk of staff)
- Reluctant adopters or those who have tried it and then moved back to paper marking.
An effective way of managing the transition to e-marking is to allow each of these groups to continue marking in the way that they feel most comfortable. The movement from paper to e-marking will happen organically (probably over several academic years) but this process will generate the least disgruntlement and hostility.
Those who are happy to mark electronically should be encouraged to do so while academics who prefer to mark on paper are supported by provision of a print-out of student submissions. This strategy will lead to e-marking spreading organically but only if there is simultaneous pressure provided by strategic policy decisions.
This pressure comes in the form of change agency from early adopters, from administrative systems which reward academic staff who adopt e-marking (eg, by lightening their assessment administration load) and finally from student demand. The aim is to achieve critical mass whereby e-marking becomes established as the norm.
This allows it to become not just a student expectation but an entitlement and makes those who are reluctant to mark electronically the exceptions rather than the rule.
To achieve this critical mass, the bulk of academic staff (ie, those who are neither early adopters or especially resistant) need to find it easier and more rewarding to move to electronic marking than to stay in a paper-based system. This middle group is therefore the most important.
To achieve the goal of maximising electronic management of assessment, it's important to build a strategy and a system which provides each group with the support they need. It must also offers rewards and apply pressure in a consistent way so that moving away from paper-based marking and into e-marking makes the most sense to as many as possible.
Due to the differing attitudes of these three groups to e-marking, an effective strategy must be sensitive to them all.