English department faces backlash for mark discrepancies

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The English department has responded to accusations that feedback is “extremely inconsistent”, stating that “we are proud of the work we have done to support students more fully in their assessment”.

Speaking to Nouse, English undergraduates raised concerns regarding the department’s Statement of Assessment, claiming that it “only offers a very vague outline of how the marking scheme works”. Students also alleged that different tutors prioritise different elements of essay writing; according to one second-year, “there’s a pressure to cater your essay to suit the tutor who will be marking it in hopes for a better mark”. As a result, a third-year said that students are “left completely at sea regarding how to improve, or what is expected”.

One third-year had submitted two essays which received marks of 55 and 75. “This was particularly surprising to me, as I spent weeks working on the former, and just 48 hours on the latter”, they said. “What specifically made one essay 20 marks better than the other […] was certainly not clear in the feedback”. A second-year stated that discrepancy of this kind “leads to people sometimes choosing modules because they have ‘easier markers’”.

The Statement of Assessment outlines the department’s marking procedures, which ‘are designed to ensure fairness and consistency’. All first-year essays are marked by one person. Sample moderation, whereby a range of essays from each examiner is re-marked by a moderator, is undertaken for all second- and third-year assessment. Topic modules are assessed by multiple examiners. Finally, dissertations and bridge module assessments are independently marked by two examiners who then agree a final mark. If no agreement is reached the work is referred to a third examiner whose mark and feedback is final.

All marking by part-time tutors and staff in their first year of an academic role is also moderated. In this case, moderators receive 25% of the marked essays; otherwise 15% are moderated. These processes “are scrutinised every year by our external examiners”.

Following an enquiry regarding staff training, the department outlined that “all part-time tutors attend a training session” to “discuss the grade descriptors, and different examples of good practice”. Termly sessions are run for part-time tutors and new markers “which [instruct] tutors in marking processes, electronic submission and use of the grade descriptors”. All new full-time staff are trained “as part of a day-long induction session”, and are “supported by mentors through their first year”.

Students also raised the difficulty of appealing marks. A thirdyear remarked that “on attempting to speak to my supervisor about one essay, and how I might improve, I was told my supervisor could not comment on the matter because it would be inappropriate to question the marker’s ‘academic integrity’”. The student said that “I have also learned that there is no appeal process in the English department, so long as ‘academic integrity’ is being questioned”.

Department staff highlighted their efforts “to more fully support students in assessment”. Tutors now mark who they teach, allowing students to confer with their examiner regarding their assessment, and formative essays have been introduced for all second and thirdyear modules. In a statement, the Department said “We have revised the department’s grade descriptors to make them a more useful tool… [and] adjusted the essay feedback form so that the connection between staff feedback and the grade descriptors is more explicit.”

Further changes are to be introduced, including a “‘feedback summit’ which will involve staff and students discussing actual examples of anonymised marking and feedback”. The curriculum has undergone significant revision ahead of the 2017 intake to include “a year-long writing programme” for firstyears, in which “students practice essay-writing and research skills and produce a portfolio which showcases best practice in essay writing”. Finally, “all modules will move from one to two or more assessment tasks” rather than the current system of one summative essay per module.

Continuing students recently made their option choices for the upcoming year, and the extent to which these changes will impact their degree experience remains unclear. However, the department encouraged students “to raise any concerns about assessment with us directly or through your student reps, as we can only act on your concerns if you let us know about them.”

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