Contributed article by Steve Wright
I read with interest, and serious concern, about Ian Meeks, LUSU VP Education’s, pyrrhic victory for ‘fairness’ in marking, achieved through the blunt and often inappropriate instrument of enforced anonymous marking (subtext 186). As such I propose it is re-dubbed a ‘Cheat’s Charter’ – because the only big winners here will be cheats. However, it is about much more than just making cheating easier, and shows a wilful disregard for education, professionalism and oversight in the institution.
I suggest the following five points are, or will be key outcomes and all should be of real concern:
– Making cheating much, much easier
– Blocking effective and innovative pedagogy
– Prioritising marks over feedback
– Imposing UG standards onto PG work
– Lack of faith in academic staff and University policies and procedures
I will address these in turn.
1 – Making cheating much, much easier
Whatever the proportion of students who cheat (differing figures are given here https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-45358185 and here https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-43975508), the selling of essays is a growing market and a serious concern. Maybe when you’re paying so much for education it seems only a small extra cost to take on – insurance perhaps?
One of the main justifications for introducing anonymous marking is that it will benefit BAME students by eliminating unconscious bias. Some who work and write for such services seem to share the Students’ Union’s concerns about institutional racism and discrimination (see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-36276324 for a fascinating interview with an essay-for-cash writer).
The evidence for anonymous marking benefiting BAME students is contested. The gap for medical education exists in anonymous examinations (see https://www.ucl.ac.uk/teaching-learning/sites/teaching-learning/files/katherine_woolf_seminar_bme_attainment_seminar_addressing_ethnic_differences_in_attainment_in_higher_education_january_2019.pdf). Meanwhile research and evaluation by the HEA suggests that inclusivity is best served through ‘a range of assessment which includes ways to draw on experiences – personal, professional, volunteering for example – and bring those in’ (https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/bme_summit_final_report.pdf). However, bringing in those examples serves to de-anonymise students and is thus likely to be discouraged by a focus on anonymity as a cure.
By contrast anonymous marking really, and singularly, benefits those who buy essays. Furthermore, this makes effective approaches to combat cheating and enhance teaching, as well as improve inclusivity, much, much harder – if not impossible – to implement.
Whilst Turnitin offers text matching (not plagiarism detection) and there are a variety of practices and misconceptions about it (e.g. high percentage matches are not necessarily indicative of plagiarism, whereas very low matches are often indicative of other substantial issues etc), the essay-selling companies promise a plagiarism-scan passing essay (see https://www.customessaymeister.com/ for example) so this will only help identify some areas of poor academic practice NOT bought essays.
2 – Blocking effective and innovative pedagogy
Rather than making ‘Lancaster a beacon of good practice’ the Cheat’s Charter will have a chilling effect. The Certificate in Academic Practice (CAP) programme identifies innovative ways to introduce assessment that can be more than the mere summative mark the Students’ Union seeks. Good assessment also encourages good practice, additional skills and deeper learning, whilst also discouraging or preventing merely buying summative essays.
Examples include developing presentation skills, as well as preventing cheating, by asking for oral presentations. There can be processes for requesting essay plans (as distinct from purchasable ‘drafts’) or other work that associates the process with the person and the product so that early formative feedback can shape and improve work, provide constructive input and feedback as well as an audit trail precluding merely buying an assignment to be anonymously marked. Other innovative approaches such as students correcting Wikipedia entries based on research evidence and the tutor reviewing their change log – so that instead of your work resulting in an anonymous mark and an essay in the bin you actually contribute to open information access based on your privileged position with access to paywalled research – well that’s out too as it can’t be anonymous! Peer-marking of group contributions to address the dissatisfaction with a single group mark that is so clear in NSS feedback complaints? Nope – anonymity makes that too problematic.
Furthermore where there has been close work with students to help develop a piece of work and work through issues, or where more than one person may have a similar overall project, anonymity prevents customised, personalised feedback. It requires impersonal comments rather than connecting back to formative assessment and supervisory support. Anonymity has rarely made communication fairer, politer or more nuanced – just look at Twitter! Here it has an equal likelihood of undoing the careful work of personalised guidance to support students’ learning in favour of impersonal ‘objective’ harshness and judgement.
3 – Prioritising marks over feedback
The Cheat’s Charter prioritises one thing over all others: the mark. Feedback, as subtext rightly pointed out and point 2 argues extensively for, is the key element for academic improvement. Tailoring that, and connecting it to other work so it can be acted on, is much, much harder with anonymity. The implementation of this pledge prioritises the mark over the feedback, the assessment over the learning, singular attainment over ongoing education.
4 – Imposing UG standards onto PG work
The rationale for imposing this on PG programmes is that ‘exams are the main form of assessment currently marked anonymously, but Ian is keen to see the practice expanded to ensure students have all their work assessed fairly’.
This not only suggests exams are seen as fairer, but it is also a category error when imposed across all work including that of postgraduates. Despite this massive blind spot in the assumptions it is based on, there is no nuance in the recommendation or its implementation. Postgraduate work with smaller numbers, asking for examples from professional practice and experience or a bespoke topic cannot be meaningfully marked anonymously. This should be a strength, not a weakness or something to root-out, yet that is what is happening.
5 – Lack of faith in academic staff and University policies and procedures
In his comments about the introduction of anonymous marking, the VP Education said: ‘Anonymous marking reduces the risk of unconscious bias by the marker, increasing the level of confidence students can have that they are getting the mark they deserve.’
As per points 1 and 2 – this could be argued to be the case but it certainly couldn’t give a student the confidence their peers would get the marks they deserve if they were in a group, or cheated by buying an essay. It strongly suggests an assumption that all academics are so prejudiced they’re not even aware of their prejudice, and furthermore that LUSU have no faith in the University for having academic standards, academic professionalism or appropriate procedures for challenge, review or complaint.
The paradigm exploration of this has to be the plot of the History Man (for those unfamiliar the TV show was filmed at Lancaster University in the 70s and is still available to view via Box of Broadcasts which is HIGHLY recommended – see link below). In this story a right-on, left-wing academic marks down a Thatcherite student’s essay and discriminates against the student. However, the student complains and his complaint of bias is upheld. The bias isn’t the unconscious racist bias Ian suggests is rife at Lancaster, but it is bias, and even in a 70’s satire there are University procedures to handle it!
Recording available via Box of Broadcasts through the library:
The History Man, 21:00 15/02/2009, BBC4, 95 mins. https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/prog/00DD68BC?bcast=31635147 (Accessed 04 Mar 2019)
All of the above combine to suggest that this ‘Cheat’s Charter’ is misguided, and leads away from creative pedagogy and applying insights to professional experience or context, and towards summative, anonymous, impersonal, anodyne, reduced value, standardised assessment.
The beneficiaries will be cheats, the costs to reputation that result could be very high. Despite this, the imposition of this has occurred without consultation, and with a heavily bureaucratic requirement for exceptions. My fear now is which will be the next values and faith in professionalism to be burned on the pledge pyre of a LUSU officer?