Marking time: how should lecturers judge students?

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Sunday 29 October, Church House, London


If once university and college lecturers were trusted to use their critical faculties, judgement and erudition to grade students, today they are regularly issued with template marking schemes to grade their students’ academic work. Indeed, in some educational settings, algorithmic assessments are seen as the most reliable measure of worth. It is argued that lecturers can’t be trusted to be impartial; that subjective and unconscious bias could skew judgements and marks.

Meanwhile, students are told that they need protection from frank but harsh critiques, whether in crits, tutorials or coursework marking. Indeed, the idea of discrimination now seems to assume only negative connotations, with educators being discouraged from using the concrete judgement of their red pen to determine right from wrong. Surely objective, criteria-based assessment is fairer than relying on one grouchy don’s views – or another woke lecturer’s hostility to ‘unfashionable’ political outlooks?

For some, this demonisation of judgement has undermined confidence in the idea of personal and professional discrimination. For others, a move away from old-fashioned judgment and criticism shows a new sensitivity to students, and a self-awareness of one’s own biases. But is this a demeaning view of thin-skinned students unable to cope with feedback? Some argue such changes are doing students a disservice as their work is, in effect, managed by administrators and pre-approved metrics that perpetuate the idea of ‘teaching to test’. What if a student considers an academic’s judgement as biased, or even bullying? Some institutions have predicted such complaints and have set up processes for student appeals – even litigation. Are academics right to be wary of students; to protect themselves from accusations? Or does that normalise suspicion of others’ motives and self-doubt about one’s own?

What is wrong with creating a better model of evidence-based objective assessment? Can the art of criticism ever be a constructive process? Or is it inherently subjective, and open to abuse?

Matilda Martin
English student, University of Oxford

Dr Vanessa Pupavac
translator; senior lecturer, School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham; author, Translation as Liberation

David Swift
historian; author, The Identity Myth and A Left for Itself

Austin Williams
director, Future Cities Project; honorary research fellow, XJTLU, Suzhou, China; author, China’s Urban Revolution; convenor, Critical Subjects Architecture School