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Variability in assessor responses to undergraduate essays

An issue for assessment quality in higher education

Sally Roisin O'Hagan

Academic standards in higher education depend on the judgements of individual academics assessing student work; it is in these micro-level practices that the validity and fairness of assessment is constituted. However, the quality of assessments of open-ended tasks like the coursework essay is difficult to ascertain because of the complex and subjective nature of the judgements involved. In view of current concerns about assessment quality and standards, this book is a timely reflection on the practices of academic judgement at university. It explores assessment quality through an empirical study of essay marking in an undergraduate discipline where large class sizes and significant numbers of second language students are common. The study shows that assessors vary in their interpretations of criteria and standards and that this results in inconsistent grading of essays. The book contributes to a growing scholarship of assessment with an evidence-based explanation of why assessors disagree and a discussion of the implications of this for the validity of assessment practices at university.
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Appendix A: Verbal report characteristics


The table below shows, for each assessor, the characteristics of each verbal report in the order in which they were produced: the duration of each report (‘minutes’), total word count (‘words’), and number of words per 10 minutes. ‘Prompts’ indicates the number of researcher prompts given in each verbal report. Thus, the first report produced in Session 1 by Assessor 1 for example, was 20 minutes in duration, contained a total of 1,570 words uttered at a rate of 785 words per 10 minutes, and was produced without any researcher prompting. ‘Prompt type’ shows which of three types of prompt was given in each instance: prompts to ‘keep talking’, to ‘elaborate’ or to ‘be specific’. (Note details about purpose and wording of prompts are given in Chapter 3, section

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