March 31st, 2014

Commentary | March 17th, 2014
Please, don’t tell me your name
A TA’s plea for anonymous exams
Written by | Visual by Tamim Sujat | The McGill Daily

In 2010, Swedish House Mafia released the single One. The accompanying video is uncanny: it starts slowly, with shots of a sleek digital synthesizer, hands hastily adjusting controls, tweaking the sound until it morphs from a continuous buzz into a dropping beat. As the melody kicks in, hands clap, and the first lyrics resonate, “I wanna know your name.”

Except I don’t. Unlike Swedish House Mafia, I don’t wanna know your name. Please, don’t tell me your name. Or rather, don’t write it on your exam sheet. Because when you do, and I pick up your exam to grade it, I will recognize the name and remember: “Oh yes – you are the one who talks so much in class.” Or the one who never says anything. The one with those opinions. The one who looks like this. Or who sounds like that. The one whose last assignment was great (or was not). The one from office hours. The one who complained about their grade last time. Or the one who never comes.

And I might grade you accordingly. Not consciously, of course, because one strives to grade everybody equally. Nor will it necessarily affect your grade, but whenever there is an element of subjectivity involved – and in my faculty, Arts, there’s usually a great deal – knowledge of the candidate just might affect their grade.

Unlike Swedish House Mafia, I don’t wanna know your name. Please, don’t tell me your name. Or rather, don’t write it on your exam sheet.

This is not right. It certainly seems odd if you came to McGill from a university where all exams were anonymous, like I did. As an undergraduate, that was a given. Examiners only saw what you wrote, not who wrote it. Nor was it much of a hassle – certainly not as much as trying to grade McGill exams while overlooking names. Grab the exam from afar… try to cover the name… don’t look… open the booklet… The whole routine seems pretty silly, which is why both AGSEM (the union for TAs and invigilators) and Post Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) recently passed motions to “strongly support in principle that McGill move towards a system of anonymous exams, in order to protect the rights and interests of both [graders] and the assessed students.”

In the wake of the AGSEM and PGSS motions, the McGill Senate invited its Academic Policy Committee (APC) to consider the issue. The APC was not impressed: it did not consider anonymous exams either desirable or practical. In fact, it even castigated the Senate Steering Committee for the referral, asking it to “adopt a more judicious approach to accepting and referring questions and motions,” as if the issue were silly and redundant, a mere waste of the APC’s time.

Is it? The APC rejected the idea of anonymous exams for three main reasons:
1. Anonymity is not appropriate for all exams in all departments, and should not be imposed top-down.
2. There is no evidence as to whether bias actually occurs if the grader knows the candidate. In fact, anonymity might even compound bias, and is thus not unambiguously desirable.
3. Implementing anonymous exams “would be overwhelming and very labour-intensive.”

Let us take these in turn. The first claim, that imposing anonymous exams across the board is undesirable, is valid: anonymity is not possible, needed, or desirable for all kinds of exams. That, however, does not undo the more general argument for anonymity in many routine final exams.

Bias operates silently and is not without its victims; its individualized nature means it often travels invisibly.

The APC’s second claim – about the lack of evidence for bias – gets at the heart of the argument. There are, in general, two possible biases, as summarized by Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) in 2007:

“A series of studies in the 1990s is generally considered to have demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that bias in marking can occur […] The most significant reasons are [a] preconceptions about gender or race and [b] personal knowledge of the candidate.”

Even if ethnic and gender bias were limited, these studies note that personal knowledge of the candidate would “appear to be a much greater problem.” Perhaps for that reason, the British Psychological Society long ago recommended that blind marking should be universal. In a similar spirit (if perhaps with less expertise), the National Union of Students in the UK has long campaigned for blind grading.

In the face of such sustained concerns by students, scholars, and institutions, the APC should not have been so cavalier in its dismissal of blind grading. After all, anonymous exams do not prevent individualized exam feedback; nor, in fact, do they cost the world, as the APC very well knows, since McGill’s very own Faculty of Law runs anonymous exams (students use an exam ID, different from their McGill ID). The latest rumours suggest this system has not sent the Faculty of Law into financial-administrative disrepair.

This, then, is a plea for anonymity: not for all kinds of exams, not for coursework, and not to impose anything on departments, but rather to design a working system of anonymous exams.

Ultimately, of course, anonymous exams are no silver bullet. They don’t take the subjectivity out of grading, or remove all kinds of undesirable bias. They do have logistical-administrative costs, and require careful implementation, although these burdens are bearable, so much so that most British universities happily run anonymous exams every year.

Bias operates silently and is not without its victims; its individualized nature means it often travels invisibly. Next time you get a bad grade and think, “The TA didn’t like me,” don’t just blame the TA. Blame the lack of systematic protection anonymous exams would provide you, and which many other students across the world take for granted.

This, then, is a plea for anonymity: not for all kinds of exams, not for coursework, and not to impose anything on departments, but rather to design a working system of anonymous exams – perhaps based on the Faculty of Law’s model – which faculties can opt into. The APC should reconsider the idea if it is serious about its responsibilities. And if SSMU feels in the least concerned, it should follow in the tracks of AGSEM and PGSS to pass a motion on the matter.


Sidney Lawson is a pseudonym. To contact the writer, please email commentary@mcgilldaily.com.

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