May 10, 2013

Adventures in Education: Reducing Bias in Grading

Students taking a test at the University of Vi...
Students taking a test at the University of Vienna at the end of the summer term 2005 (Saturday, June 25, 2005). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
My final exam started at 8:00 am and took the full two and a half hours allotted by the university exam schedule. Most of the class finished after about two hours, but a few needed every minute they had. I suppose this is to be expected. After all, this was a comprehensive final exam in a graduate course, and it included no multiple-choice questions.

After sitting in the room for two and a half hours to answer questions that came up during the exam and deter cheating, grading would require the next four hours. I have a very particular method I use when grading these exams. It starts with preparing a detailed key in the weeks before the exam so that I know exactly what I am looking for when I evaluate students' responses to each question. Next, I place removable opaque tape over the students' name on each exam to prevent me from knowing whose exam I am grading. My colleagues make fun of me for insisting on doing my grading only after I am blind to the identity of the students, but I am convinced that it helps guard against unintentional bias.

With the necessary preparation out of the way, I grade question-by-question. That is, I read question 1, my response to question 1 from the key, and each students' response to question 1 before I do any actual grading. I grade those responses that clearly got the content I wanted first and progress to the responses containing significant errors or omissions. I take great care to make sure that each error or omission is treated the same way with regard to how many points it costs the student. And I repeat this process question-by-question until I am finished.

The process does take a while, but it strikes me as worthwhile. I want to make sure I am grading in the fairest manner possible. I believe my students deserve that, even if they might not always appreciate the final outcome. We all make mistakes, and we are all subject to bias. Because the bias to which we fall victim is rarely intentional - or even conscious - taking steps to guard against it makes good sense.

A Lesson for the Secular Community?

Perhaps there is a lesson for those of us in the secular community in here somewhere. When our decisions are biased in some manner, we are often the last to know. It might behoove us to take active measures to guard against bias. What might this look like? Here are a few ideas:
  • Slow down and ask where someone is coming from before launching accusations based on inferences about someone's meaning or intent that may or may not be correct. Assuming we know what is in someone's mind often reveals more about us than it does about them.
  • Wait until the initial flood of emotion has passed and we are thinking clearly before we write that post, make that video, or send that tweet. It is difficult to think clearly when we are angry.
  •  Recognize the possibility that we may be wrong and be willing to change course if this seems likely to be the case.
  •  Extend to others the courtesy we would hope they would extend to us, including the assumption that they are communicating in good faith. If they are not, it will be evident soon enough.
If nothing else, we would be modeling the sort of calm, rational behavior in which most of us claim to be interested.