That’s not fair! The subjectivity of marking essays


You have to write a 4000 word report. The course handbook states what makes a first, pass and fail, and the guidelines leave it to you to choose what sources you use. You work hard, submit the report and feel great…until you receive your grade. 

Your work gets crushed, which you didn’t expect. There’s some feedback given and, from what you can tell, the work was moderated by an academic you don’t know. You don’t agree with your grade and you think that it was marked unfairly, so you decide to see the course leader. Does this sound familiar? 

An ethical question

A question I ask my students during Ethical Decision Making classes is this: would you forgo the assignment if I gave you all a pass (the equality option), or would you prefer to do the work and be rewarded on merit (the equity option)? Some students’ eyes glitter with the idea of not having to do a thing to pass, but they’re always in the minority. Most want to be graded based on their submissions.

Yet each year grades vary enormously and a chunk fail due to plagiarism, sloppy work or misinterpretation of what was required. Perhaps they should have gone for that pass?

Would you settle for a pass, or risk it for a higher mark? Let us know in this thread! 

For more university discussion, visit the university forums

In theory, the grade that you receive is based on a carefully designed assessment. A team of academics decided that since you study a BA or BSc, you need to do a set of courses to form a portfolio that represent knowledge and know-how - so that, if someone hires you based on that degree, they can expect you to be able to perform particular skills and abilities. 

A necessary evil

Until the day that we can plug a USB stick into the back of your head (it will happen, you know), academics need a way to assess if you’re worthy of that degree title by your name. Some relate to creative stuff like being able to design a pattern or write poetry, others relate to the ability to write code or perform a medical procedure that doesn’t end in bloodshed. All of it needs to be rewarded with a grade. That’s why academics don’t understand when you submit a sloppy, incorrect or plagiarised piece of work: you’re doing it for you, not for us. Many academics would rather not have hundreds of essays to mark during their weekend!

Usually, the university will have a policy in place for fair marking: the course leader sets the task which is checked by others (internally and externally) and the work you submit is marked and moderated by someone within the academic team. But hey, you find that you got a 2:1 for original analysis, and your friend, who gave a similar analysis, got a first. So time to kick up a storm, right?

Well, maybe. Look, academics are human. If there’s evidence that the grade isn’t fair, you could make an appointment with the course leader. Bring the report and argue your case accurately and politely. This doesn't mean tossing the script on the desk demanding a ‘re-mark’. But, in theory, you have the entitlement to appeal. 

A clever appeal

I’d advise you check the course and university guidelines first. If it’s difficult to make an appointment, then point out that those guidelines state you are entitled to see the course leader for a discussion. Read the feedback again and check this against the instructions and any grade descriptors that were provided in the course handbook. If you can complete this sentence: ‘the requirements of this task were X and I fulfilled those requirements in section A, B and C’, or if you can say ‘the feedback states X and that Y was not done but please see here and here, perhaps it was overlooked?’ then you may have a case. 

If you demand a higher grade without any evidence or carefully constructed argument, then you’re likely to hear that the marking involved moderation and that an external examiner monitors fairness so, no, no re-evaluation for your piece of brilliance. 

PS. As a student, I once had a case where the points allocated to my work weren’t tallied up properly. The tutor made a point to recalculate twice before admitting, almost reluctantly, that a mistake was made and the script went from a fail to a very good grade. I didn’t take it personally, I just learned to check, double check. Always.

Nathalie is a senior lecturer at Middlesex University. She guest blogs for TSR on topics that are important to university students. If you'd like to help Nathalie with her latest research, you can fill in her survey on culture, citizenship and fitting in (external link).