It is no more fair to penalize a student’s written assignments for his or her lackluster attitude in the classroom than it is to inflate the grade of a mediocre paper because its author made a brilliant in-class presentation two weeks prior. Though one certainly hopes that professors do not conciously grade in such a fashion, I believe that such grading nonetheless occurs subconsciously on a daily basis. Studies have demonstrated that teachers’ preconceived notions of their students’ intellectual backgrounds could adversely affect students’ grades. These studies randomly selected students who were presented as intellectually gifted to their teachers at the beginning of an academic term and showed that they almost always received higher grades than other students who were presented as being lower-achieving. Thus the individual successes of students in the latter group were thwarted by their professors’ preconceived biases. In other words, if you tell a teacher that a student will do well, he or she will receive a better grade than his or her peers, independent of his or her inherent ability.
These results should not be particularly shocking; even within an environment in which we strive for objectivity in assessing others, our prior knowledge of their performance will subconsciously (and even overtly) affect our assessments. For examples, coaches attribute the failures of top athletes to chance, starting them on the court or the field even during a slump. Thus, time and time again, the coach’s romanticized notion of the athlete as a “star” is more of a deciding factor than his or her actual stats during games, matches or races. Similarly, a professor may dismiss an ordinarily well-performing student’s poor arguments in an essay as a fluke, assuming the paper’s weaknesses are not characteristic of the student’s work and grading less harshly as a result. I have certainly heard my fellow students say things like, “I don’t have time to put much effort into this paper, but the professor loves me, so it’s fine; I know I’ll do well.” Conversely, some students who underperformed in a given class may find it difficult for professors to recognize subsequent improvements.
Everyone has heard allegations of some professors “playing favorites”; if true, this tendency almost certainly stems not from overt biases, but from subconscious prejudices. Professors make inferences, and in turn judgments, about their students from the first few classes, long before the first assignment arrives on their desk. These impressions often prove impliable; it is almost as if a researcher were to explicitly inculcate within the professor the same sorts of biases instilled in the aforementioned studies. That student who demonstrates extreme proficiency in the material through long, insightful comments in the first class? “She’ll almost certainly write a good paper,” thinks the professor. The student who sits silently in the back, constantly texting? “His papers will be regarded somewhat more critically.” The problem worsens when more substantive evaluations arrive in the forms of papers and exams; these serve to quickly calcify prejudices of their own. The more significant the assignment, the stronger the potential for subsequent bias.
This problem would be rectified by anonymous grading of assignments. Anonymous grading would ensure that professors could never evaluate students’ assignments based on their pre-conceived notions of the student. A professor could not subconsciously factor class participation into grading an essay, because he or she would be entirely unaware of the writer’s identity. The practice currently employed by a few professors works well: Instead of ascribing their names to assignments, students attribute them to their student ID number. These numbers are far less easily remembered than names across different assignments, but are easily associated with individual students when it comes time to submit grades. This ease of association also allows for easy contact of students when a professor notices extreme trouble (e.g. sequences of missing or extremely poor assignments), but in most circumstances maintains a level of abstraction that effectively obfuscates students’ identities.
The College does not oppose anonymous grading, nor does it endorse it. In the interest of evaluative objectivity, I propose that anonymous grading on written assignments be mandatory, as is the case at many law schools across the country. Professors would be allowed to obtain waivers for certain courses, such as tutorials, in which students’ classroom participation constitutes an integral part of their submitted assignments, and vice versa. Nonetheless, these exceptions are rare, and opting out of anonymous grading should be difficult and extensively reviewed.
Accuracy is a principal virtue in academia, and it cannot exist without objectivity. Just as we cannot profess to accurately draw conclusions in publications without the fullest, most representative array of data available, we cannot claim to accurately assess students’ performance without the fairest, most representative evaluations possible. Anonymous grading would greatly increase the objectivity, and thus the accuracy, of professors’ evaluations at no cost. At the end of each term, students evaluate their professors anonymously in the interest of objectivity; it is only fair that professors should do the same for students year-round.
Julian Hess ’13 is a physics major from New York, N.Y. He lives in Morgan.