Tuesday 30 May 2023

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The Challenge of Marking Student Papers

By Karen Taylor, PhD., Director of Education and of the Institute, Ecole Internationale de Genève

It’s that time of year again. For the last three weeks one of my activities has been marking student papers for an MA module on the PGCE programme offered by Durham University. Ecolint’s PGCE (International) cohort undertake the module on “Teaching and Learning in the Curriculum” with students from all of Durham’s various initial teacher education programmes. 

The core assignment for this module is a 5000-word essay which requires the student to incorporate three component parts: (1) the concept of a successful learner, (2) the research in a given domain which (3) must then be integrated into reflection on one’s own teaching practice. The assignment has been carefully honed over time, the moderation process is rigorous and I can say with confidence that the assignment objectives are clear and serve as a focus of discussion in our seminar groups. All good then, right? And yet each year I feel unsettled and I would like to share my reflections on the marking process, hoping that it resonates with you. 

Like others, when I read an essay I take notes with the component parts of the essay in mind, after which I sit with the rubric and try to place that student’s work in the appropriate markband. I then write detailed feedback. Despite the detailed rubric, this is not always as evident as one would expect. 

Take two of my students this year for example. Both are English Language Learners from non-western countries. Both students clearly understood the component parts of the essay and had read widely. They each outlined their case studies and provided observable evidence of student learning that allowed them to integrate reflections on their developing practice into discussion of the research. In both instances, their essays failed to meet the required mark (50) to pass the module. (They have the opportunity to resubmit). So what was missing? 

In both cases the discussion of research on, in this instance self-efficacy, remained on a descriptive rather than the critically evaluative level which is required of the essay. Each student was familiar with key concepts in the research on self-efficacy and had read widely. However, the assignment clearly calls for students to evaluate that research, to explore the value and limitations of the specific studies they reference. These essays outlined the basic arguments of major theorists but did not call into question their methodology. The students knew the material but the research was accepted as authoritative. Although both students were able to communicate clearly, there were passages in each essay that one might describe as slightly awkward in terms of phrasing. Something was just a little bit off. 

Like the other tutors on this module, I adhere to the marking criteria. I ask my colleagues to read those essays over which I hesitate. In the end, I stand by the marks I awarded but there is still something gnawing at me. Were these students disadvantaged by the challenge of writing at the MA level in a non-dominant language? What might we do in the future to ease that challenge? Did the awkward passages reflect lack of understanding or lack of ability to clearly articulate the nuances of their thinking about the research? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, their acceptance of the authority of research could be understood as being culturally informed. 

There is a range of research which looks at questions which fall, generally speaking, into the domain of the sociology of knowledge (e.g. S. Costa, F.M. Collyer, C. Montgomery among others). How is knowledge deemed legitimate (authoritative)? Is it informed by a dominance in scholarly discourse generated by the Global North (in itself a contested term)? I can’t honestly say whether or not these two students are capable of critical evaluation. I suspect they are. I suspect, too, that the cultural background from which they come values a student’s ability to demonstrate the assimilation of knowledge (I learned what the major theorists said), rather than encouraging those students to challenge those theorists. 

I think rather a lot about what I believe culturally and linguistically sensitive pedagogy should look like. I suppose in my periods of self-doubt, I am questioning whether or not I am inadvertently supporting power relations that favour hierarchical thinking about research in education that is dominated by a Western vision of scholarship as well as student performance. This is a topic I will continue to question and reflect on wherever possible in our quest towards inclusive pedagogy and assessment.