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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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5. Discussion



This chapter discusses the findings reported in the Results chapter in five sections. The first section considers the findings of the study in relation to the previous research on the rating of writing that was reviewed in Chapter 2. The main areas of consideration are the text features that the assessors focussed on, and the variability and severity of their marks.

The next two sections are concerned with explaining the results of the study and discussing their implications; that is, why assessors responded differently to the NS and NNS essays, and why there was so much disagreement in their judgements. To do this, section two considers the differences in assessor responses to essays that were associated with essay language group, the results indicating that there were differences in the basis of assessor judgements of the quality of the NS and NNS essays. This finding points to the problems that are implicated in the broader issue of assessor disagreement – the outcome of which is the high level of disagreement over marks that was seen in this study; hence, the third section of the chapter examines the problem of variability in assessors’ interpretations of criteria and standards. The problems of poor inter-assessor reliability, and the likely reasons for it, are discussed in relation to aspects of the current HE environment in Australia, first raised in the introduction to this book; namely: changes towards mass provision of HE, growth in the number of international students, and new demands...

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