How does marking work?

By Gordon Rugg

Humour alert and disclaimer: This article is humorous, with the occasional flash of sensible content. It is not intended to be a guide to exam or coursework technique, so if you try appealing your mark by blaming this article for leading you astray, then you have even less chance of succeeding than with the excuse of only having burnt down the cathedral because you thought the archibishop was inside at the time

I’ll start with a marking criterion that everybody knows, namely that markers don’t like Wikipedia very much. Here’s one example of why we feel that way.

dikdik humour

(Used under fair use terms, as a humorous academic article.)

In case you’re wondering whether that’s just a neat bit of Photoshop, I’ve seen equally interesting claims on Wikipedia, such as an article stating that an ancient Roman politician was married to Marilyn Manson.

So, markers have reasons for mistrusting Wikipedia. What else is going through their minds, and why?

I’ll start with the legends about how marking worked in the old days. There’s a cynical view that we threw the courseworks up the stairs, and gave the highest marks to the ones that went furthest, on the grounds that they were heavier and therefore had more content. This is a gross travesty. We know as well as anyone that a lot of heavy courseworks consist of content-free padding…

There’s a more plausible legend that marking worked was based on the following half-dozen principles.

  • Zero to just failed: Could have been written by a passer-by who has never studied the subject.
  • Just failed to 2:2: A few technical terms from the lecture handouts.
  • 2:2: Has worked diligently.
  • 2:1: Either bright or hard-working.
  • Distinction: Bright and hard-working.
  • High distinction: Some of the concepts in this work are going to surface in the marker’s own publications at some point…

Again, this is inaccurate. Some of the more memorable fails could only have been produced by someone who had studied the subject, and who had long ago given up any pretence of caring…


(Used under fair use terms, as a humorous academic article.)

However, there are some grains of truth in that apocryphal marking scheme. I’ll focus on one that offers particular scope for many students to improve their marks significantly without much effort. It’s the one about marks that are in the failing range because the assessed work could have been written by a passer-by who has never taken the course.

That’s a surprisingly common reason for low marks. Sometimes, it’s because the student never did study the subject, for whatever reason, but often it’s either because the student’s mind has gone blank due to exam nerves, or because the student has become utterly focused on telling the marker The Truth, as opposed to showing the marker their knowledge.

If you have exam nerves, then it’s well worth investigating your university’s support services. They’re usually good at helping with exam nerves; there are many effective ways of handling nerves, in a gentle, manageable way. I’ll blog about this in more depth in a later article.

Today, though, I’ll concentrate on the other reason for failing marks, namely not showing the marker your knowledge because you are instead telling them at great length about your personal convictions on the topic. This often happens, paradoxically, because the student is keen and knowledgeable about the topic.

The typical pattern goes something like this. I set an exam question which gives students the opportunity to show knowledge of individual facts, of “big picture” understanding of how those facts fit together, and of understanding the practical implications.

The phrasing about “giving students the opportunity to show knowledge” is important; that’s the purpose of the exam.

So far, so good.

Where it sometimes goes horribly wrong, though, is when the question mentions something that the student is passionately keen on, and the student focuses on telling us everything they know about it to the exclusion of everything else in the question (and in the rest of the world, come to that). The resulting answer may be the product of passion and knowledge, but if it doesn’t answer the question that’s being asked, then all that passion and knowledge is going to be wasted.

A related issue is that often these enthusiasts’ answers are phrased as if they were writing a helpful email to a friend, instead of writing a piece of assessed work. What they write may be true, but often it contains no evidence of knowledge from the course, as opposed to the knowledge that would be expected from an amateur hobbyist.

So what can you do to improve your chances?

One obvious good strategy is to make sure that you’re answering the question that’s being asked. The details of how to do that will vary between disciplines, levels, and departments.

Another good strategy that you can use in addition is to make sure that you’re showing your knowledge from the course, as opposed to what you learned on the Internet in your capacity as a dedicated fan. There’s a simple way to do that. It involves using an imaginary highlighter.

The example below shows how you do this. You go through the text, highlighting the parts that could only have been written by someone who had been on the module or course that’s being assessed. Here’s what the sample text looks like at the start. It’s from one of our other articles; the part in italics is a hypothetical sentence with fictitious references.

showing knowledge1

Here’s the same text after the highlighting.

showing knowledge2

The parts in highlighter are evidence of knowledge that should get you marks (assuming that those parts are relevant, true, etc…)

The sentence in italics is not exactly exciting prose, but it’s densely packed with knowledge-rich content.

The linked article above explains this concept in more depth. It’s not the whole story of how marking works; there’s also professional judgment about relevance, insight, coherence, etc. However, it’s a reassuringly simple and effective start.

On which cheering note, I’ll end.

Notes and links:

You’re welcome to use Hyde & Rugg copyleft images for any non-commercial purpose, including lectures, provided that you state that they’re copyleft Hyde & Rugg.

Overviews of the articles on this blog:


One thought on “How does marking work?

  1. Pingback: Making the most of bad bibliographic references | hyde and rugg

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