Anonymous submissions are the key to academic fairness

‘Who wrote this?’ The first question graders should ask

Michela Reinink.
Credit: 
Supplied by Michela Reinink
Queen’s University should implement the anonymous submission of assignments. 
 
Queen’s should follow the precedent set by many other universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, to implement the completely anonymous submission of tests, assignments, and exams. The non-anonymous system at Queen’s fosters an environment of favouritism and biased marking, which could be reconciled through simple changes to the submission process.
 
Anonymous grading creates fairness and impartiality. The general method of grading at Queen’s involves students writing their name on assignments like essays, lab reports, and tests; this opens the door for bias to seep into the marking process. Anonymous marking would negate the impact of the conscious and unconscious biases held by graders.
 
Naturally, as academic staff develop relationships with students, they become biased. Students with no personal relationship with academic staff may find themselves at a disadvantage compared to favourite students. Having a friendly relationship with a member of academic staff shouldn’t influence a student’s grades, and anonymous submissions would eliminate the possibility for bias based on race, gender, class participation, perceived intellect, or a student’s previous performance.
 
The “expectation effect” refers to grading bias based on a marker having assumptions of a student’s aptitude relative to previous performance. This is a common form of bias that involves a marker having a preconceived idea of a student’s capabilities. They presume a student’s new piece of work will be of a similar standard to previous works, influencing their ability to provide a fair assessment. 
 
A 2013 study examined the “expectation effect” by asking markers to first watch a video of an oral presentation delivered by one student. The quality of the presentation was the independent variable, with each marker viewing a different presentation. After watching the presentations, graders were asked to mark a piece of that student’s written work. The same written work was given to all graders. The study revealed those shown the inferior oral presentation marked the written work harsher than those shown the higher-quality presentation. 
 
It’s not fair to mark students based on the standard set by their worst performance, which may have been an uncharacteristic misstep. Instead, blind marking would allow students to improve throughout a course without being hindered by their past marks. Improvement should be both possible and encouraged throughout a term—one low mark shouldn’t constrain a student’s future potential. Each piece of work should be treated as an individual entity.
 
Another study conducted in Swedish public schools found non-blind marking negatively affected students with foreign backgrounds compared to native Swedish students. It discovered that with non-blind marking, students with Swedish backgrounds scored eight per cent higher than students with foreign backgrounds. This discrepancy disappeared entirely when blind marking was used. 
 
Clearly anonymous grading would benefit students, but it would also protect those marking the work as it would shield educators from any accusations of bias and/or discrimination. Furthermore, students may take criticism and feedback given by a marker more seriously because they’ll be assured the feedback is based solely on the quality of their work. 
 
While blind grading eliminates bias and adds credibility, there are also drawbacks which are important to mention. Blind grading makes it difficult to reward classroom participation, and students might not participate if feeling disconnected from their work. Fortunately, this problem can be avoided by having educators include a section of the overall class grade reserved for participation. 
 
Blind grading is predominantly the standard for universities in Europe, but to a lesser extent in North America. It’s a system which functions on a large-scale, multi-faculty level. Simple procedural changes would allow Queen’s to transition seamlessly into blind grading. For example, the popular program TurnItIn allows for easy and anonymous online submission of assignments. 
 
There are also simple solutions to implement blind grading for submissions of physical or paper tests, assignments, and exams. Students could receive an exam number and a set of unique barcode stickers; the number would be written on submitted papers, and the barcode stickers placed on each page of exams. 
 
The transition to blind grading is necessary to promote a fair, equitable, and comfortable academic experience for Queen’s University students.
 
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