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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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The Marking Camel

Sunday, June 13, 2010

No, the above title is not a reference to myself, ill-tempered though I may have been as I was buried under a pile of exam papers this past fortnight. Rather, it is a reference to a peculiar quirk of my marks' outcomes this year. When I marked last year, I noted in my post on An Examiner's Perspective that it is tempting to try to mark predictively according to the neat bell curve, that sees a few marks in the 2:2 range, more in the first, then the majority towards the upper middle. Although we may instinctively want to rail against The Mismeasure of Man by this omnipresent graph, like it or not that does seem to be the way in which students fall, even if one tries to mark without statistics in the back of one's mind.

Except this year, and illustrating the dangers of presumptuously assuming the bell curve will always appear, my marks seem strangely to have fallen more like a double-humped dromedary. They have taken on a hilly appearance, with a lump of marks around the high 2:2 or low 2:1 range, then another lump around the high 2:1 or low First range, with a body of marks missing in the middle. It is hard to know quite how to account for this phenomenon. Were it that all my marks were uniformly higher or lower than expected, it might be reasoned that I was marking unfairly or too leniently. But with them pushed to two poles, it is unlikely that I was alternately over-zealous and over-exuberant.

The only thing that can feasibly account for it is a quirk in the year group. It is hard to conceive how a year group can differ substantially from year to year at university level, such that a whole group of student consistently underperforms or performs very highly. Certainly, in the closed and fashion-pressured environment of schools, a particularly hard-working or lazy group of esteemed peers can conceivably pull an entire year along with them up or down a scale. We have all heard teachers complain about horrible year groups, and celebrate brilliant ones. However (and maybe I am being na├»ve here), my belief is that at university students are largely independent learners, and come with more independence to pursue their self-set aims. Whilst one is pushed into attending school, one opts to go to university, and is less likely to be subject to the pressure of a group of peers not to do as much work as one might independently want to. So why so much variance between the able and the less able, or the hard workers and the less hard workers, as apparently testified by my marks?

One other potential explanation presents itself. This is that A-Levels are decreasingly valuable as preparation for university study. Although virtually every student will be coming to my university with three As, that letter encapsulates a range of abilities, rather than the minority elite as it once did. On the other hand, being a well-established and top-ten university, it will attract people who have genuine talent and ability (as well as, more likely than not, a background in private or grammar-school education). These students might be expected to perform very highly indeed. But there might also be a tranche of students who are less capable performers, who have still got in on the back of a three A grades. (Lest we be too pessimistic, it must be acknowledged that "less capable" here still means very good indeed. Even the low 2:1 essays that fell into the first of my humps testify to very good writers and literature students.) This split in my marks might be the first indications of the inability of A-levels to discriminate between the genuinely excellent, and the straightforwardly good, candidates.

Of course, the most likely possibility is that I am simply reading too much into a limited range of data. Almost all the essays I marked fell within the 60 to 70 range, meaning that there are only a few percentage points between what I would call a "low" grade and a "high" one. Having marked less than 100 scripts (which, let me tell you, is still a damn lot of essays!), this could just be a statistical blip - and one that gives the lie to the predictive value of the bell curve, except with very large numbers of students indeed.

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Posted by Alistair at 3:52 pm

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