Is blind marking the best way to mark?


Anonymous marking systems could prove beneficial for UVic

Graphic by Darian Lee

Often when coming back from a study abroad semester, students come home with stories of international adventures, nights out, and friends made. After spending a semester at the University of Edinburgh last fall, I also brought home a different perspective on university marking policies — which may be less exciting, but for UVic, potentially more beneficial. After learning of blind marking systems in the UK, it seemed that working towards more anonymous marking here at UVic could ensure marking is free from bias, and reduce administrative headaches over grading appeals.

While it has become a part of academic culture in the UK, it has not yet become a common policy in Canadian higher-level education. I was reminded of this when a friend from UBC asked a group chat I’m in if he should risk taking a course with a professor who had blocked him on Twitter, knowing that his experience with the professor could negatively impact his grades. I thought of this again when some friends from UVic and I questioned the good grades we got on essays, knowing good relationships with our professors could have played a role. It seems just the potential for positive or negative bias can affect students’ choices, confidence, and lives; an issue that blind marking could potentially solve.

Blind marking, which you may have heard referred to as anonymous marking or grading, is an umbrella term for different systems of marking, particularly in higher-level education, where the marker (usually the course instructor or a teaching assistant) grades exams and assignments without being aware of the name or identity of the student who submitted it. 

Students are given an ID number that they put on assignments rather than their names, and submit assignments online with only this number to identify them. Their number is usually randomized and different from their student ID number, to ensure there is no way for markers to link numbers back to the student. Often, this goes further with double- or triple-blind marking, where coursework is marked ‘blind’ by the course instructor or Teaching Assistant and one or two other qualified assessors. 

The “evaluation of student achievement” section of UVic’s undergraduate calendar says that “where appropriate and practical, instructors should attempt to mark students’ work without first determining the student’s identity.” 

This approach to marking has become more common in recent years as the diversity of university student populations has increased, in an effort to ensure marking is without bias,and is becoming a common approach at higher-level institutions, particularly in the United Kingdom and Australia.

Why mark blind?

The idea of blind marking was popularized in 1999, when the National Union of Students (NUS) in the UK found many student unions felt that biases affected student marks. The NUS later ran a campaign in 2008, “mark my words, not my name”, which encouraged many universities to institute blind marking systems.

As Dr. Marc Geddes, an instructor at the University of Edinburgh explains, “Anonymity makes it very difficult to be biased in marking. If markers know the identity of the student, then they could be biased in their marking – either to the student’s benefit or detriment.” 

He notes examples of causes for these potential conscious or unconscious biases, such as the student’s relationship to the professor, or information such as student names that could point to their ethnicity, gender, or class. 

Hannah Brydon, a student from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland who completed a term abroad at UVic, has seen this difference firsthand. Brydon says that at her home university in Scotland, using blind marking “ensures [marking is done with] integrity,” and that “no one is marked differently.”

exam and pencil, blind marking
Graphic by Austin Willis

Blind marking has been noted for its potential benefits not only for students, but for instructors and university administration as well. 

As Geddes explains, “it gives markers reassurance that we are not biased in our marking and that it was done fairly.” 

UVic’s Office of the Ombudsperson, which offers one avenue for students to make complaints about grading and/or bias told the Martlet that the numbers of complaints received about marking/grades was 44 in 2019 and 45 in 2018, and that concerns around bias had “come up a few times, but not enough … [to] notice a trend.” Though these certainly do not account for all the instances of grade appeals that occur every year at UVic, I believe blind marking could reduce many complaints and appeals around grading, at every level.

Blind marking has also been praised for its impact on decreasing the number of academic appeals made by students, and that it makes it difficult for anyone to allege positive or negative biases impacting an instructor’s marking decisions.

As Dr. Marc Geddes, an instructor at the University of Edinburgh explains, “Anonymity makes it very difficult to be biased in marking. If markers know the identity of the student, then they could be biased in their marking – either to the student’s benefit or detriment.” 

Currently at UVic, students can make appeals to their instructors and/or department Chair/Director about grading for a piece of coursework, and if this is not accepted, undergrad students can submit a request for $25 to the Office of the Registrar, who will ensure the Chair/Director of the Department arranges an independent review of the grade.

At the time of writing, UVic administration and individual Departments were unable to provide information about the number of appeals and formal grade reviews. 

How UVic Grades Now

Blind marking is, to a certain extent, recommended for instructors at UVic. The “evaluation of student achievement” section of UVic’s undergraduate calendar says that “where appropriate and practical, instructors should attempt to mark students’ work without first determining the student’s identity.” 

A 2018 document from Learning and Teaching Support and Innovation UVic entitled Grading Student Writing: a Guide for TAs has a section on Anonymous Marking, saying, “‘blind’ or anonymous marking enhances objectivity when grading. … [it] is becoming best practice in some higher educational institutions (Lancaster University, 2010) as it provides a fair, objective assessment of students’ work. Students perceive that they are fairly assessed with anonymous marking, and this protects TAs from accusations of unfair grading.” It further states that TAs can choose to cover student names before marking assignments, request students not include names in document headers or footers, or assign students ID numbers to use when submitting assignments.

Yet, this seems like it would be difficult to maintain in practice. UVic seems to be leaving it up to individual professors to decide if they will take this advice, and often grading can be unique to different departments. While UVic may encourage instructors to mark assignments without first knowing the student’s identity, students are typically asked to include their name on their assignments — sometimes on the header or footer of every page.

For professors to go through assignments and cover names individually before marking would be time-consuming, as many are already overworked, and methods like covering names with sticky-notes could prove unreliable. Additionally, students submitting assignments through CourseSpaces presently submit from their personal accounts with their names (and often photos) seemingly linked to their assignment. 

Yet, from what I can tell, there may be an easy fix for this and a way for instructors to move towards a more blind marking style – Moodle, the learning management system that hosts CourseSpaces, allows users to enable blind marking for assignments, so markers will see only randomly generated participant numbers until they have finished marking. Though, this would still require instructors to ensure that students did not include their names in document files they uploaded.

UVic was unable to provide information at this time as to any guidance they may offer instructors around how to avoid positive or negative biases when marking. 

Not a One-Size-Fits-All Solution

There are situations in which blind marking is not always appropriate or realistic, and, because of this, I’d argue universal adoption of the practice may not be the solution. Brydon mentions some examples of situations where they don’t use blind marking at her home university, such as with in-class presentations, discussions, and participation marks. She also mentions how an instructor’s knowledge of a student can be beneficial in marking, such as for students with learning disabilities or who may have language barriers. 

Geddes also mentions these drawbacks, saying “it is not possible to give personalized feedback,” and that this may cause difficulty in situations where a student had discussed their plans for an assignment with an instructor.

Grading Student Writing: a Guide for TAs echoes these concerns, saying “you cannot compare their performance to previous work and note areas of development, and you may find it more difficult to highlight strategies and resources students may find useful for future papers.”

There are some notable examples in Canada where it is used; the University of Western Ontario’s Law school uses an anonymous marking system, as does the Law School at the University of Saskatchewan. In 2018, the Vice-President Academic Affairs of the University of Saskatchewan worked to promote and raise awareness of blind marking practices, as an option for instructors and faculties to institute, rather than a universal policy.

Blind marking is not without its faults, and instituting a more formal system of blind marking at UVic would require time and effort to implement, however, I believe the benefits make it worthwhile, even if it only ends up being instituted by some instructors.

UVic’s website describes the institution’s “edge where dynamic learning and vital impact meet.” Instituting a formal system to support blind marking could be an opportunity for UVic to be a leader in Canada’s academic community, making a dynamic change that would have vital impacts.