Chemistry omits names to prevent bias

Grades also written on inside pages of department’s lab assignment to protect privacy

Students are now required to omit their names from chemistry lab books as part of an attempt to prevent bias by professors and TAs when marking assignments. Bob Lemieux, head of the chemistry department, said it’s not a formal written policy within the department, but he has suggested that faculty implement the practice.

“Final exams administered by the University do not allow student names to be on the exam, only student numbers,” he said, adding that he thinks the practice should be applied to lab notebooks too.

“What’s happened in the lab is that student names are not printed on the lab notebooks. The practice of not using student names is also to remove any impression of bias or favouritism,” Lemieux said.

The front page of lab reports now only requires a student number, lab section and bench number for identifying the student. Grades are also written on an inside page to protect privacy.

Lemieux said the practice was instituted by lab co-ordinators based on advice he gave to the faculty.

“I just became head of department and this was just something I thought we should do. I just advise my faculty that it’s consistent with university policy,” he said.

Lemieux said he doesn’t know if the practice has been effective yet because it’s too early to tell if other faculties have adopted the practice.

If a teaching assistant or professor were to mark exams or labs, the argument is that even if the professor has no intention of being biased, eliminating names reduces the possibility of favouritism, he said.

Lemieux said that privacy issues also come into play if students come to collect their final exams and can see other students’ are on the front.

“If the name of the person is on the exam, then someone else might walk by and see what the person received from the exam,” he said.

Cynthia Fekken, associate dean of Arts and Science (studies), said the University has always had rules of confidentiality and the measures to maintain privacy are university wide.

“Our own university has engaged in a series of initiatives,” she said. “In terms of returning exams and assignments, the idea is that we have to take reasonable measures to keep personal information secure.”

When exams are returned, they can’t be left in a pile where other students can see names and marks, Fekken said, adding that one measure includes returning exams directly to students by mail or in sealed envelopes.

Fekken said not including names on lab books can minimize the perception of bias.

“Is there actually bias occurring? If you have a small class, you can ask for student numbers on essays instead of names but you can recognize writing style,” she said. “It requires judgement as to whether it’s going to be an effective measure.”

Greg Potter, PhD candidate and a TA for Organic Chemistry, a second year course, said he’s not sure whether the practice will reduce bias, because marking labs is objective.

“There’s not a lot of flexibility in how we mark it,” he said, adding that TAs are given a marking scheme when going over assignments.

“It’s not really realistic because it’s black and white. It’s a right or wrong answer. There’s not very much bias as is,” he said.

Even if students don’t write their names on lab books, he said he would still be able to recognize their handwriting as he only has 15 students.

He added that last year, a student went to his professor to go over how the exam was marked. The grade wasn’t changed but the student still complained of bias in the way it was marked.

Potter said bias is more of an issue than years past, and students are more sensitive about how things are marked because they want to get into medical school.

Joyce Lai, ArtSci ’07 and Life Sciences Student Council administrative co-chair, said she thinks what the chemistry department is doing is a great start but she feels the bias is rooted across TA groups.

“Some TAs mark harder and some mark easier. To get to the root of the problem is to get a standardized marking system,” Lai said. “Any elimination in any possible area to reduce bias would help.”

“I don’t think TAs will look at the name and recall the face of the students because they have so many students,” she said.

Lai said the chemistry department currently has a good mark adjusting system between TA groups but the council is hoping to devise a system for other courses such as Mendelian and Molecular Genetics, a second year biology course and Introductory Physics. “Once the TAs have marked all assignments, they submit the marks and then we look at the standard deviation between groups,” she said.

She added that the council hopes to pull up grades of TA groups who have a harder marker rather than bringing grades down.

“We’re currently in communication with the professors and so far I think they’re in favour of the idea but lots of logistics need to be figured out before we implement this.”

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