Sunday, 29 May 2011

On your marks…

My wife is currently doing some exam marking, for the module she lectures in. She's also swearing a lot more than usual. I'm not sure if these two things are related, but it seems likely. Admittedly, marking large volumes of work is quite an annoying process, but one that needs doing. I know, as I've done a lot of marking myself in the past, and may be doing some more very soon if the Medical Psychology students I lectured opt to answer the questions based around my lectures. While I'd be pleased if they did, they may wish not to, as I can be somewhat puritanical when it comes to marking work.

Unlike a lot of my peers, once I got into it, I actually got to quite enjoy marking. Be it essay assignments, exams or practical reports, I got to do it at some point. For those of you who may not know, it's standard practice (in Cardiff University at least, but I'm told it's the norm elsewhere) to get postgraduate students to do a lot of the day to day marking in return for some extra cash or, in these constrained financial times, magic beans, or the opportunity to spend an evening with their family or loved ones who are struggling to remember what they look like these days.

I've never marked anything submitted by School students (G.C.S.E's, A-levels, finger paintings etc.), so my experience is solely in the Higher Education realm, but it's still quite an education to do some marking (excuse the deliberate irony of that statement). It's a bit worrying for some people, when they find out that the assessing of students work in Universities is done like this. Most people see Universities as big places where students go to be taught useful things in exchange for increasingly ridiculous fees, so it's disconcerting to hear that the assessment of the students output, which surely should be of primary importance since a) That is the function of the University, and b) they've saddled themselves with a lifetime of debt in order to pay for the privilege of being assessed, is a task which is handed down the ladder of responsibility until it reaches the bottom rung, namely the postgraduate students who don't have anyone else to dump it onto and are desperate enough for money to actually do it.

It's also weird and alarming to some people how the marks for a group of students are invariably adjusted to fit a predetermined pattern, usually the famous bell-curve, or normal distribution. It's assumed that all students in year will have a normal distribution of marks. In fact, it's assumed to thoroughly that it's actually made to happen every time. Too many students failing suggests the course isn't being taught properly or efficiently. Too many getting high marks suggests the assessment process is too easy, and therefore invalid. These things can risk an institutions funding in the long run, so they don't happen. This may seem a bit harsh. In a year that has an unlikely but still plausible number of driven, intelligent students who all score well on exams, the threshold for outstanding marks is increased so that only a 'normal' number of students achieve this. On the flip side, I know of several people who have final degree scores that even they agree they didn't really earn, because too many people got low marks and the standard for a higher mark was lowered.

But everyone does this, it's prevalent in our society. Even something as widely varying as intelligence is decided by the bell curve. The average intelligence of a population is 100. No more, no less. If 99% of the people in the country suffered blows to the heads tomorrow and lost half their cognitive abilities, the average IQ of the country would still be 100. It would just be a lesser 100 than it was previously. So any so-called scientists claiming that other races have IQ's lower than 100 is talking out of his arse from the off. Saying a country/society/race has an average IQ of less than 100 is like saying the metre there is 80cm long; it doesn't work like that. Although if they say they've marked student papers in that country, I can understand why they might feel like that.

I jest, of course. It's not a bad job, even if it does cut into an already overloaded postgraduate schedule. The lecturers and professors are busy with more important things, such as writing grant applications, shouting at postgraduates, and writing grant applications. But I actually grew to quite enjoy the whole process, to the point where I actually got complaints about my marking at one point. As a neuroscience postgraduate in a Psychology department, I got handed a lot of the marking for all the neuroscience and bioscience students doing psychology modules, of which there was a worryingly large number (worrying, in that I found it out after I'd agreed to do the marking). There were only two of us doing it one year, myself and my office mate. He was a great bloke, but more interested in doing actual research than marking the scribblings of undergraduates (which is unarguably the way it should have been for me too, but there we go). He was also French. Not just regular French, but French to the point of cliché in many ways. E.g. constantly playing the 'Amelie' soundtrack in the office, and having an authentic 'hee-hon hee-hon!' laugh. But more to the point, English wasn't his first language. His English was fine, better than mine in many respects, but when you're trying to read dozens of documents that you don't really care about, written by inexperienced authors using technical terms in a language that isn't your native tongue, I can't imagine your eye for detail is going to be that focussed.

I felt differently. I was a lazy student in my undergraduate years, to the point where if I could meet myself as I was back then I'd not hesitate to give myself a thorough beating to hopefully knock some sense into myself. Causality-violating autobeatings aren't an option though, so I have to do the next best thing; discourage that sort of behaviour in others via the medium of intense scrutiny in marking. This eventually resulted in a complaint being made about me to the course supervisor who, unluckily for them, was my PhD supervisor. Apparently, half the group of students were upset that the marks they were getting from me (overzealous and through) were lower than the others were getting from my office mate (French, busy elsewhere, didn't care). They felt this was unfair. The fact that there was an imbalance between the average marks they received and the ones who got the lower marks felt they were being treated unfairly to the point of officially complaining tells you everything you need to know about your typical British student. I'm not being deliberately patronising, odds are I would have done the exact same in their position. But I was the one who was following the marking scheme, so their objections to getting lower marks had no actual grounding for anyone to do anything about it. I never heard any more of this, presumably the students didn't bring it up again lest the focus turn to why the other group are getting higher marks than would be expected.

So I carried on marking, drunk on the insane power granted to me to directly influence the success of students who mimicked my own actions, in a veritable orgy of self-loathing and megalomania. Long may it continue.

And so, a lighter note to end on. In my experience, a typical piece of work is from an undergraduate student that falls into at least one of several categories. Marking is a long, repetitive and rather boring chore, but I you're keeping score with something that does help to break the monotony. So if you find yourself in the position of assessing students in this manner, make yourself a scorecard and see if you can fill it. Or even better, if you are a student who is writing something that is due to be assessed, check over your work and see if you fall into one of these categories.


The LOTL student is not necessarily a bad student, just one who doesn't really have a great deal of this 'application' going on. Typically, a student it equipped with handbooks and notes explaining how essays, practical reports and exams work once they're signed up to a course, and are regularly told important details and requirements for successful writing. The LOTL student will observe all of these requirements but completely fail to show any evidence of appreciating why they're necessary, or what they even mean in some cases. An integral study or report is cited, but after a vague or generalised section which is only peripherally linked to what that study is about. The report sections are all in the right order and format, but don't contain much in the way of useful information. Diagrams are presented in the specific, required manner despite having no bearing on the matter being discussed.

At some point in their education, a LOTL student usually just have an epiphany and 'get it', and become a reliable, decent student. Until then, they can be quite amusing to read. The best LOTL example I got was regarding references. This being a scientific report, it had been repeatedly explained how important proper referencing is. The issue of referencing websites had also been raised, and it was made clear that it's a judgement call, but it's unwise to use anything that's not properly edited or peer-reviewed for accuracy or authenticity. One LOTL student had obviously grasped the importance of the referencing, but not understood the whole thing about reliable sources. His/her references read as follows.

  1. [Main Module Textbook]


Maybe it's a side-effect of too many pro-plus, maybe some students find certain things far more interesting than others, maybe it's just genuine mood swings or varying temperament. Whatever the cause, some students display wildly varying levels of quality and care in a single piece of work. This is baffling, and a little distracting. A beautifully structured introduction section can be a followed by a methods section which is essentially them saying "this iz wot we dunn for the asperiment!" One question answered in an exam paper will be a work of genius, another could be just as worthwhile if written in crayon. It's possible that these students assume that the effort they put into one great section will drag the average up, so the other sections/parts don't need such thorough scrutiny. They're right in some cases, but the disparity itself will work against them. It's a seemingly unavoidable fact that any examiners that markers will always assess a piece of work in comparison to others they've marked recently. A very good section will only serve to underscore how bad the poorer sections are.

This is assuming that the piece isn't actually the work of two separate students, or one with a split personality. If the handwriting changes drastically as well, then it's worth considering these possibilities.


Writing at an academic level can be a bit of an adjustment, particularly for the scientific disciplines. You have to refine your style to be as neutral as possible, while including all the relevant information and sources, and you have to do this as accurately as possible. Any conclusions or declarations you make have to be shown to be the carefully thought out result(s) of all the available information, and your argument has to be justified in comparison to the alternatives. Gut feelings, opinions and emotions are not really something you can include. Some students take a while to realise this. This is when you get flashes of feelings and opinions in something that should be more sterile than an OCD sufferer's toothbrush.

I've seen questionable scientific experiments described as 'completely pointless', dubious government decisions described as 'undeniably stupid', ethical principle violators that 'really should have known better', and so on. I've not seen perpetrators of seemingly sadistic psychological experiments referred to as 'psychotic uncaring bastards', but several times I've read papers where I wouldn't be surprised to see it. It's hard, separating yourself and your viewpoint entirely from what you're writing about, but if we don't learn to do that, what would we end up like? Homeopaths, that's what! And there's plenty of them already, no need to further dilute the supply [insert your own inevitable dilution joke here, I can't be bothered any more].


I imagine this one is more specific to the science fields, and it's quite ironic that 'non-terminological' is not a recognised term for describing students. NT students do seem to understand what's going and what they're supposed to be talking about, but also seem to have a blind spot when it comes to remembering the accepted terminology for scientific or technical measurements. I've seen students that switch from metric to imperial within the same paragraph. Science reports have to be as consistent with their details as possible, and the details have to be accurate. So when I see a practical report which says 'the experiment is over when the subjects face stops dissolving', I tend to get a bit alarmed. It was a visual phenomenon experiment, where the transference of a motion after-effect from one eye to the other was investigated. Once the phenomenon had been induced, the students had to look at the faces of their partners and observe the 'movement', so to speak. At no point was a highly corrosive substance liberally applied to the face of anyone involved. Such a manipulation would have no bearing on investigation of the motion after-effect, even if ethical approval could be obtained. Which is couldn't. So don't even ask.

It's often apparent that NT students know what they're talking about and what they mean to say, but they hamstring themselves by not being able to make this clear in the accepted fashion. You could argue that this is more the fault of a rigid, dogmatic assessment system that values format and style over actual demonstration of knowledge and understanding. You may be right, but I'm not going to get into that here, lest I end up sounding like Patch Adams. As a doctor who also tries to do comedy, that's a constant fear of mine.


A tangentizer student is, by and large, a good student. Often a very good student. A thorough, thoughtful and dedicated student. They even, horror of horrors, do background reading, sometimes with sources that aren't listed as required reading on the course handouts! They go the extra mile, in other words. Thing is though, they really want you to know that they've gone the extra mile. And more often than not, that mile is a straight line in the wrong direction. Undergraduate students haven't really refined that ability to incorporate several studies into one seamless narrative (no reason why they should have, I still haven't). As a result, a tangentizer student will go to ridiculous lengths to direct the narrative toward the very impressive study they found all by themselves, even when it has little or no bearing on the subject being discussed. It's understandable, you go to ridiculous lengths to discover something nobody else in your group will have found, you're going to want to make sure that it gets noticed and appreciated, right? Otherwise, you'll have put a lot of work and effort into something for no reward whatsoever, and that's not fair, is it? …is it?

Welcome to academia, kid.


You were a good student at A-levels, you know you've got this University lark figured out, but suddenly they're using a lot of unfamiliar terms, these lectures are making no sense and they're making you write things that you've no real idea about. When in doubt, what do you do? That's right; bullshit your way out of it! It's a common tactic, used by everyone at some point, to just sound like you know what you're talking about, try to blend in, and hopefully people will assume you know what you're talking about and leave you be. In group situations or in situations where everyone is doing that all the time (e.g. corporate trading), you can get away with this. However, in situation where your output is being scrutinised by some misanthropic bastard with a grudge (i.e. me) it stand out like a flaming clown on an iceberg, and is just as hilarious.

I'm obviously coming at this from a science background, but I'm sure it's just as ineffective in every field (more or less). When students include big words, complex terms and profound observations to show they understand what they're talking about, they invariably give the opposite effect. It seems that they're under the impression that their work will be assessed by a bored secretary or fellow student who has as much understanding of the subject matter as they do. Desperation, wishful thinking, or some bizarre manifestation of the Dunning-Kruger effect? Do these students think they can get away with this because anyone who assess their work will be, at most, as smart as them? Do they genuinely think their surreal observations will go unnoticed? I imagine it varies between students, but it does occasionally provide an opportunity for a cruel, cynical laugh when you're marking your umpteenth paper in a row. My personal favourite was again the motion after-effect reports. Some TB student decided to end his/her report with the obligatory profound summing-up of all the data by saying the following.

"It is often believed, quite wrongly, that the eye that is open is the one we see with". That's not belief isn't wrong, that statement is. It's not one I would have closed with.


And of course, you get the ones who just don't do the work. They submit something for ever assessment and exam, but you do sort of wonder why they bother. Pretty much always hand-written, which isn't against the rules, but discouraged as a) it's much harder to mark, and your marker becomes resentful, and b) there are invariably dozens of computers and printers available for students to use, if they're willing to leave the house. The latter is often too much for some people though, so we get hastily scribbled reports and essays, which are usually slightly-reworded versions of the core text, or practical experiment reports with barely a paragraph for each section, and a pencil graph for which a half-chewed beer matt served as a ruler.

If you want to go to University and not do the work, fine. It's your money at the end of the day, it's not a mandatory procedure. But why embarrass yourself and infuriate your assessors by doing less than the bare-minimum of work required to even stay on the course. It is, quite literally, a waste of time for all concerned. Some people work hard to get into university and never make it, so if you're not going to take it seriously at all why not work out some sort of exchange programme like in the Prince and the Pauper? I won't have to mark shit work, and you might get a made-for-TV film out of it.

I swear once I got handed in a paper that had cat footprints on it. If it had been used to line a litter box, I'd understand. It was already covered in shit, might as well go for broke.

Email: Humourology (at)

Twitter: @garwboy

1 comment:

jimroberts said...

"NT students ... seem to have a blind spot when it comes to remembering the accepted terminology ... . I've seen students that switch from metric to empirical within the same paragraph."

Surely the accepted terminology is "imperial" measurements?

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