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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 B: Instructions to assessors


In this study, I am interested in finding out what is important to you when you are marking student essays. To do this, I am going to ask you to talk about what goes through your mind while you are marking essays written by students in the [Course Name] course in a previous year.

You will mark a total of 10 essays over two sessions. Please try to mark the essays in the usual way, using whatever approach is normal for you. Please also complete the assignment feedback sheets in the usual way.

As you know, marking requires great concentration and can be tiring. For this reason, I would like you to take short breaks when you need them. However, you should still aim to complete all 10 essays over the two sessions (with each session lasting a maximum of 2.5 hrs).

‘Verbal reports’

While you are reading and marking the essays, I want you to say all of your thoughts out loud. This may feel strange at first, but will become easier when you settle in to the task of marking the essays. Don’t worry if you speak in incomplete sentences, feel unsure about something, or change your mind about things you say – this is to be expected because what you say in a verbal report is spontaneous and unplanned.

Your verbal report might include comments on what you notice while you are reading, and the things...

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