Making it through the first written assessment… the unanswerable questions
In this, my first year of teaching, I was tasked with guiding a group of students through their first ever university essay. I soon realised that I was just as anxious, if not more so in some cases, about the assessment as the students. The questions never stopped from the students or myself.
While I was thankful to see a number of students take the opportunity to come to my office hour to talk about their essays, I quickly saw that I was answering the same questions over and over again. My initial concern had been that the students would ask specific questions on certain articles or works that I was unfamiliar with and would therefore not be able to answer. Thankfully, this scenario didn’t arise. Instead, most questions were to do with the format rather than the content of the essay. Questions, repeated again and again included: How long should the introduction be? How many paragraphs should there be? How many references should I have? For each question they posed they readily gave their own suggestion which had the backing of their ‘fríend’. For example, a familiar story was that ‘a friend of a friend had said that tutor X had informed him that the introduction should always be Y number of words long.’
Besides recognising the dangers of the rumour mill, I could see that the students were asking for an exact, essay formula to help them succeed. While I was able to dismiss the somewhat more extravagant rumours and point the students in the right direction, I found myself recanting the same advice that I heard time and time again in my first year: ‘There is no definitive answer’. Despite the pressure for me to give them the ‘correct’ answer, I instead focused on explaining that while each tutor may have a preference, it is the structure, argument and evidence that will secure them top marks.
It wasn’t only the students who had lots of questions. When it came to actually marking the essays I felt myself to be in a similar position to them, as I was dealing with the unknown. Far from being an expert on the variety of topics encompassed by the module, I questioned whether I was even capable of marking these essays. How would I know what grades to give? Would I be too lenient or too harsh with my marking?
To be honest even after the experience I’m not sure I know the answers to these questions. However, the three top tips that helped guide me through this first experience of marking essays were:
- Have the marking criteria set out in front of you at all times.
- Talk to your peers and if still in doubt don’t be afraid to talk to the module convenor.
- Be strict with the time you spend on each essay.
I decided to group the essays into topics, which proved helpful for making comparisons. However, I still spent ages at the start poring over the essays, reading them a number of times in an attempt to understand what they had said, and what mark to give them. Some essays marks were fairly obvious, others were trickier. However, having the marking guidance set out in front of me at all times and with the key bullet points for each grade underlined, helped me work out the differences between the marks. As I read more of the essays, each being of different quality, and thought about feedback, I realised that I did have an understanding of what makes a good and bad essay. While marking schemes help to an extent, having faith in your own judgement is essential. My confidence was reinforced when I spoke to my peers, realising that we were dealing with same issues and giving the same marks. In a case where I was really struggling with one mark, I decided to go to the module convenor to discuss it. They agreed with the mark I had given and the way in which I had approached the task. This experience gave me faith in my own ability and helped me to be stricter with the time I was spending marking the essays.
I have been assured that marking gets easier and quicker in time. What is certain is that in marking their first assignment the learning curve was just as big for me as it was for my students.