Naming no names: the anonymity debate

Managing anonymous marking has cropped up a lot in our discussions about EMA. There are however a wide spectrum of institutional views on this issue. In response to our online questions almost a quarter of respondents (23%) said this area was ‘very problematic’ whilst a similar number (24%) said it was ‘not a problem’. So why is it a huge issue for some institutions and not for others? The answer seems to lie in differing institutional policies. Some institutions (often in response to student demand) have very strict requirements for anonymous marking to ensure fairness whilst others (generally again citing student pressure) believe anonymity has no place in the type of learning and teaching they deliver.

It is clear that a requirement for anonymity poses various difficulties in relation to the main commercial systems that support EMA e.g.

– being easily able to identify which students have not submitted where there is full anonymity

– students being required to use an ID yet still writing their names on papers

– identifying students with special needs or mitigating circumstances

– anonymity being lost once data is returned to the VLE

Various workarounds are being applied to address all of these issues but one of the big questions address at our Think Tank was – why bother at all? Does anonymity serve learning and teaching practice well?

Proponents of anonymity say that it is not a tool for policing academics but that it can be very useful in managing a small but real risk of unconscious bias. Students in favour of anonymity tend to be rather more forthright on the issue of trust and believe anonymity is essential to ensure that academics give them a mark based on what they have written and not how often they have been late for class etc. Many people, whether for against the practice, believe it is actually very difficult to achieve genuine anonymity on the basis that good teachers usually know their students.

Those making the case against anonymity claim there is no pedagogic basis for the practice and it may be merely a ‘comfort blanket’ that simply gives the illusion of being fairer. Many are prepared to say privately that their institution does not trust academics not to display bias, whether conscious or unconscious, in their marking and that they are using technology to address issues of potential prejudice. Students in favour of greater transparency feel more properly evaluated and supported when marking is done in a more contextual manner.

The Think Tank was presented with the interesting example of a professor who marked an essay anonymously and rated it as first-class. When he was told the student’s name the professor was convinced that the student hadn’t written their essay. Academic integrity checking showed no proof of plagiarism but the professor remained convinced that somebody else had written the essay for them. Was the professor’s academic judgement correct or was he simply biased?

Let us know your thoughts on the value of anonymous marking (click on this post to open it to see the comments box).

5 thoughts on “Naming no names: the anonymity debate

  1. Rachel Forsyth

    I don’t think it’s necessarily about institutions not trusting academics. It’s about making sure that academics are aware of their proven capacity for bias and that in the interests of fairness we should at least explicitly consider the possibility of this in relation to any given assignment. A good overview of the issues is given in Fleming, N. D. (1999) and it makes salutary reading.

    However, this awareness is probably adequately served by simply masking the name during the marking process – I don’t think there is a need to make it impossible for staff to see a student’s name at any point in the process.

    It also helps if the marking criteria are clear and unambiguous, ensuring that the marker is focusing on what’s in the work and not what they know of the individual. I think I’d like to see more focus on that than on the anonymising!

    Fleming, N. D. (1999) In Assessment Matters in Higher Education (Eds, Brown, S. and Glasner, A.) OUP, pp. 83-92.

  2. Gill Ferrell

    Good points Rachel although I guess it matters whether we are talking about formative or summative e.g. when you say ‘It also helps if the marking criteria are clear and unambiguous, ensuring that the marker is focusing on what’s in the work and not what they know of the individual.’ That’s not quite the case if you’re trying to take an ipsative approach: two students might get the same mark and one needs to see what they have done that is so much better than last time whereas another might need gee-ing up because it’s not their best work.

    1. Rachel Forsyth

      Indeed – ipsative assessment is very challenging when we are marking summative work using outcome-based criteria. In terms of design of a system, I think the only factor is probably that there should be an option to turn anonymity on or off for individual assignments.

  3. Philip Styles

    There is a paradox at work with anonymity and bias: if the academic knows the students well enough to have formed biases about them, it’s likely they know them well enough to recognise them from how and what they write.

  4. Mira Vogel

    A good summary of the situation, Gill. Unconscious bias is widely acknowledged and very interestingly summarised this literature review from the Equality Challenge Unit, for example).

    My institution’s commitment to anonymous marking was strengthened last week when a project reported on the experiences of BME students (and I know that its recommendations are widely relevant beyond my institution). So for us, anonymity is not going away – but it is one of several interventions to avoid bias, others being second marking, moderating, external examining and last but not least, equality and diversity initiatives. Having just produced guidance on the marking scenarios available to staff within our draft Marking Policy, it’s clear that while anonymous single marking is fairly well supported by (in our case) Turnitin and Moodle Assignment, anonymous second marking processes are not – especially where the second marking is intended to take place after students have received their first marker’s feedback (timely feedback being an educational priority, and probably more educationally important than a normative final mark). Throw blind second marking into the mix and you’re doing somersaults.


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