In this final post in our marking series, we’ll aim to further demystify the marking process by offering an insightful and telling perspective from a former academic. This academic has worked as a marker for many years, and has taught writing and other courses for over ten years in three countries, to native English speakers as well as ESL learners.

We sat down with our academic and asked them the most frequently asked questions students pose when trying to understand how marking works.

Is the marking process fair?

“One of the first concerns students often have, especially if they are struggling with their writing, is whether or not the way their work is marked is actually fair. And the answer is yes… and no.

Yes, the process of marking is generally fair at an academic level in the sense that the grade is more often than not indicative of the standard maintained at the university or college. This is, you must agree, fairly remarkable considering how subjective the process of marking is, and how varied approaches to assignments, and unique (perhaps even idiosyncratic) student writing can be. And certainly there are exceptional cases where students might be marked unfairly. Nevertheless, all things considered, most papers do fall within a certain range that might vary by a half mark from one marker to the next. So in terms of evaluation, yes, the process is fair.

But is the evaluation fair to the student? That is, in terms of education (as opposed to evaluation), and what the student pays for at university. In this regard, no – marking is generally not fair because students do not always receive the guidance and feedback that they need to improve. And worse, several students who do not fare well simply resign themselves to believing that writing is some sort of innate talent that one either has or does not have. This is actually very unfortunate, because writing is, in fact, a skill. Granted, not everyone will be a brilliant or spectacular writer. But anyone capable of forming a complete sentence can be a skilled and competent writer provided they receive the right guidance and feedback.

In support of this claim there have been a number of articles that complain about not only the poor quality of student writing, but the inadequate preparation of students for the working world (especially in business). Now, what a number of professional educators do is simply pass the blame to some other area. So, for instance, university professors blame secondary schools for not doing an adequate job of preparing students, or they blame entrance standards for not doing a better job of weeding students out, or they blame academic writing programs for not closing the gap between the institutions expectations and those of secondary schools. Sadly, none of this finger pointing is of any help to students right now, or especially to you. The fact that students are graduating from universities (still) lacking fundamental skills in writing offers sufficient proof that in terms of education, no, the marking process is not generally fair.

What students need is good, solid, helpful, honest and critical feedback and evaluation. Doesn’t that seem so easy? Someone who is demonstrably competent in academic writing – an instructor, professor, marker – reads an essay, explains what is wrong and how to improve, then the student incorporates this advice and improves. Essentially, the marker acts like a kind of coach or personal trainer and the student improves.

But it just doesn’t work that way.

One of the most difficult tasks students face is finding someone, anyone, that is competent and willing to give them the good, solid, helpful, honest, critical feedback and evaluation that they need to improve.

Part of the problem is, in fact, in the criticism part. Some students simply do not take criticism well and they do not want to improve. Or students do not do as well as expected, take criticism personally, and end up on suicide watch. That sounds extreme but it does happen. What a number of instructors that teach academic writing learn very early on is that part of the job they do can become a kind of counselling. And a number of academics in a variety of fields have started taking counselling classes to better relate to students. But for young markers, setting aside some of those other issues like time and interest that limit the comments that they make, there is some reluctance to say anything that might upset a student. It is easier to just mark low and leave it alone.

When I first started marking I was directed by my mentor to limit the comments I made because 1) this would save me some time, 2) they probably wouldn’t be read by the students anyway, and 3) if they were read, too many criticisms might make the student(s) upset. I highly doubt this advice is uncommon."

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What can students do about this unfairness?

"The state of things might look a little dire for you. On the one hand, there is a clear problem and markers know this: many students cannot write at an acceptable academic standard. On the other hand, most markers are not adequately equipped to provide the feedback to enable students to improve their work. And while the blame gets passed around, students who genuinely need help are floundering. But there are some things that you can do to help yourself.

Seek proper feedback

All the recommendations that were made in the previous blog post apply. The point at which you are finished with a paper is when you can say to yourself “this is the best I can do”. Not: “well, it’s finished”. You should finish your paper at least a few days in advance, a week if possible, and then look for feedback.

Until you internalise all the little things that you need to know to evaluate your written work, you need to find someone that is reliable to give you suggestions for improvement. So find a reliable source of feedback.

There are a few approaches you can take here. You might ask another student or a former student. Not particularly reliable, but it is someone.

1. You might ask your professor or instructor for some feedback, but if you do this there are a few things you should and should not do. First, make an appointment or go during office hours and bring a complete, clean and readable best effort. This has to be done face-to-face. If you put a piece of paper in front of an academic during office hours, they will feel professionally obligated to read it (especially if it’s a short paper, 3-8 pages). If you email it, the chances are good they will not take you seriously or will put it off. Also, if you take this route for feedback, do not show up to talk about ideas, or what you are thinking about, or just an outline. If you want genuine help and feedback then you need to show a finished product.

2. There’s something else that might be a help here. Handing your paper over in person means your professor is more likely to remember your paper (even if it is being handed in anonymously), and note where you incorporated their recommendations. This will positively dispose them toward you and probably improve your grade. But this cannot be stressed enough: this strategy will only work if you show a completed final draft.

3. You should also explain that you are not looking for an indication of what grade they would give your paper, but only asking for suggestions to improve the essay. Most professors look unfavourably at students who care more about their marks than the material. So even though you really want to know how they would grade the paper, don’t ask. Just focus on getting them to tell you what you can do to make your best effort better.

4. And again, only take a completed paper. If it is rough, they will treat it as rough. If you just say, “I’m thinking about discussing X, Y and Z”, they will probably smile and say that sounds great. You will not get any substantial feedback.

5. And speaking from personal experience: after a decade of teaching, only a handful of students have ever done this – and they did improve. Many have presented vague ideas that I did not remember. But generally, students do not make as much use of academics’ office hours as they should.

6. Another resource, if it is available to you, is academic writing centres available at some universities. These can also be good but somewhat unreliable. Here you often have students acting as writing coaches. Whilst I don’t advocate a writing centre being the only feedback you seek, it can certainly help to use one, particularly if you’re struggling to get good feedback elsewhere.

7. Hopefully, all of this has impressed upon you that there is another layer of ‘work’ in the writing process that few students are aware of and even fewer pursue. But getting feedback before you hand in an assignment and not relying on the comments of markers afterwards can make the difference in your marks and final grade. And the more you do this, the better you will become.

Overwrite the first draft

Most students often treat every word as a precious item. They worked so hard to get that word count and the idea of cutting any of the essay and rewriting is just so much, too much, work.

It usually goes with essay writing that 10-20% of what you write will end up being worthless. Either it doesn’t work, or it doesn’t fit, or it doesn’t go where you want it to go. When you write the first draft – your best effort draft – you should plan to overwrite by about 10-20%, so that’s you’re supplying yourself with the material that needs to be cut. I know, you are probably thinking, why write it if I am going to have to cut it? Think of it like sculpting. Before you get into the fine detail, you start with the larger, rougher section. Then you work your way into the fine-tuning. Trust me, overwriting your first drafts will truly improve your writing. It will give you practice in cutting out what does not work and give you a reason to reread and proof your paper before turning it in."

Don’t be proud

One important factor in getting feedback is listening and not reacting. Let me illustrate this with a personal anecdote. The first student I ever failed came up me to after class (this was a writing class) and his hands were shaking and he was crying. Big tears! I will never forget them. His paper did not give any indication that he actually cared, but he said, his voice shaking a bit: “How can I do better?” So I sat down with him and said what I have said to every student that has ever asked the same question: “I’ll tell you, but you have to accept that you might not like what I say and that it might hurt your feelings, but none of what I tell you is personal. It is just what you need to know to write at the level that is expected.” And then I read through the paper with him line by line, paragraph by paragraph. He did improve, tremendously.

It is difficult to accept that most markers do not care about students, and it is equally difficult to accept that most students are unable to learn how to improve their writing. But what I did with that student is not reasonably possible with every student for one instructor.

In any case, if you want to improve your writing, one of the first things you have to accept is criticism. Going to someone capable for feedback is somewhat like going to the doctor. If there is something wrong, and the physician doesn't tell you, they aren't doing their job. And, in fact, their job is to find something wrong with you whether you like the news or not. If you don’t like the feedback you get then certainly go elsewhere for a second opinion. And if that person says something similar, you should take that advice to heart.