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Do Professors Like Anonymous Grading?

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34 Responses

  1. I agree to the extent that if there are “shortuts” in an answer – terse language, etc., you might take that differently from someone who you know to be an excellent student than from someone you know to be a poor student.

    That said, if you give the incompetent student a B+ and you really didn’t think it was deserved, then there is a problem in the assessment methodology:

    1. Not enough downgrading due to “incompetence” in class
    2. Too much emphasis on the final exam, which allows people to slack and then cram (though in my experience, the people who are consistently unprepared do not get good grades)
    3. Testing in a way that doesn’t measure true understanding of the material (to the extent the incompetent student who gets a B+ did not cram).

    So, I would say the problem (if there is one) is not the blind grading (which I like a lot), but in what’s being graded and how.

  2. I agree to the extent that if there are \\\”shortuts\\\” in an answer – terse language, etc., you might take that differently from someone who you know to be an excellent student than from someone you know to be a poor student.

    That said, if you give the incompetent student a B+ and you really didn\\\’t think it was deserved, then there is a problem in the assessment methodology:

    1. Not enough downgrading due to \\\”incompetence\\\” in class
    2. Too much emphasis on the final exam, which allows people to slack and then cram (though in my experience, the people who are consistently unprepared do not get good grades)
    3. Testing in a way that doesn’t measure true understanding of the material (to the extent the incompetent student who gets a B+ did not cram).

    So, I would say the problem (if there is one) is not the blind grading (which I like a lot), but in what’s being graded and how.

  3. Adam Benforado says:

    Michael, Thanks for the note!

    A couple of response:

    First, the reference to the B+ awarded to the incompetent student was a bit hyperbolic. Consonant with your experience, I, too, have found that students “who are consistently unprepared do not get good grades.” And, in general, I find that my blind grading is quite consistent for students across courses and strongly correlates to classroom performance. All the same, there is an occasional outlier.

    Second, and more importantly, as I tried to emphasize in the post, my real “discomfort” has to do with the (un)fairness of the process, in particular the act of separating the author from the text. Although your proposed assessment improvements may impact the grade a student ultimately receives, none of them really address that issue.

  4. Mr. Wallace says:

    “What’s so fair about denying a student the right to shape the meaning of her words on an exam?”

    They’re not being denied the opportunity to shape the meaning; they have the opportunity during the exam. However, it might be worthwhile to ask a student to expand on what she has written, in the same way judges question attorneys during arguments on motions. None of this requires that you know the student’s identity, however, since follow up could be done anonymously.

    “[I]t is worth considering the fact that lawyers almost always sign their names to work they submit for assessment, whether it is a motion or amicus brief or a memo to a client. Knowing the identity of the author is important enough to outweigh other concerns.”

    Actually, the “author” may not be the person who signed the brief or memo, particularly if a law clerk or summer associate drafted it. Also, you sign a brief so that the court can hold someone accountable for misrepresentations and you sign a memo so that clients can have someone to contact. This has no application to law school exams.

    “We have all had the student that we think is bound for great things do poorly on our exam and the deadbeat student get a B+ (or even an A-).”

    If the deadbeat grasps the law better than the chatty student you think is “bound for great things,” then the deadbeat deserves the A-. Why wouldn’t he? Perhaps you are sensitive that your teaching doesn’t necessarily add a lot to students’ knowledge of the law?

  5. Mr. T says:

    Couldn’t disagree more. The exact reason blind grading is necessary is that chatty students would be rewarded while students who don’t feel comfortable participating and/or feel it is more worthwhile to read the material AFTER the lecture would be penalized even though they are actually better students.

  6. 3L says:

    As a student, my concern is that most professors aren’t quite as high-minded as we would like them to be when they determine who they “think is bound for great things”.

  7. PrometheeFeu says:

    “Part of this phenomenon has to do with the realization by many legal academics that blind grading can result in some “unfortunate” outcomes. We have all had the student that we think is bound for great things do poorly on our exam and the deadbeat student get a B+ (or even an A-).”

    I could not disagree more. Anonymous grading is essential if you are going to allow students a second chance. (And give them a reason to seek it) A student who is off to a bad start has no chance of recovering if you grade him/her based on their past behavior instead of their current behavior.

    Also, if you have effectively decided what grades are possible for which student before you give them the exam, why bother with the exam at all? Just grade them based on their class participation or an earlier paper and disclose that.

  8. Orin Kerr says:

    I strongly disagree. Blind grading is essential because professors are only human. After teaching a class for a semester, professors often grow to like some students more than others. Providing names with exams is only an invitation to let such personal bias influence grades.

    It is true that lawyers sign briefs, but I don’t see how that is relevant. Lawyers sign briefs because the court communicates to the parties through their lawyers. If the clerk has a question, or the judge wants to get the lawyers together for a status conference, they need to know who to call. The idea isn’t that judges should want to rule one way or another based only on the identity of the lawyers.

  9. bobgorsky says:

    “What’s so fair about denying a student the right to shape the meaning of her words on an exam?”

    This strikes me as nonsense. One can “shape” the meaning of his or her words(or, I should say, their answer as a whole) by knowing what words mean and using them properly. In most law classes, a great deal of time is spent studying the meaning of specific words, from “harmful or offensive contact” to “reasonable doubt”, etc.

    I agree with the redemption comment above, and add how perplexing this modern trend against anonymity is. Writing is difficult; judging writing is no less difficult. It strikes me as a cop-out to believe past experience with an author will somehow “inform” that writing. To be sure, I think it will make grading seem a lot easier (it would have been a lot easier to dismiss the Federalist Papers if Alexander Hamilton’s name was attached to them). But if a writing does not stand on its own, it’s just not very good.

  10. bob says:

    you just want to give more affirmative action

  11. John Steele says:

    I’m thankful for blind grading.

    I didn’t quite understand the basis of the post anyway. What is this “bound for greatness” criterion that you want to reward through non-anonymous grading? I presume it’s not “choosing people I like,” or “play king/queen maker based on personality.” If it’s “thorough preparation and thoughtful participation in class,” every school permits the prof to tweak those students’ grades, right? If “bound for greatness” is something else, what is it?

    I also find this question — “What’s so fair about denying a student the right to shape the meaning of her words on an exam?” — to be confusing. Don’t students “shape the meaning of their words” by choosing what words to put down in their answer? Or are you getting at something else?

  12. I, for one, appreciated anonymous grading as a professor.

    My class grades were comprised of class participation + various writing projects over the semester + the final exam.

    I found that in an average class, had I *only* graded on one of these criteria, and gave the others no weight, for the most part the students would not have changed ranking positions. There were always a few anomalies, one student who popped up in the B+ portion of the curve, who got a C in class participation, and another who got an A in class participation, yet got a C at the end of the semester. But, for the most part, the exam grade was predictably tied to the class participation grade.

    However, with the exam representing 70% of the grade, it was (mathematically) the most important component. And, when you inevitably got the “why didn’t I get a good grade” calls — it made my life a lot easier to have anonymous grading to fall back on.

  13. Edward Swaine says:

    Count me among those who strongly disagree. I like blind grading because it diminishes any doubt I might have about the basis for my marking, quite apart from whether it satisfies anyone else on that score, and makes the whole process (which invariably inflicts pain, regardless of whether it is fair or just) slightly easier to stomach. I would be surprised if there were any faculty-student divide on this question, and anyway I’d think you need compelling reasons to overcome a strong student preference.

    The stuff about authorship of a text — in relation to a timed, one-off, question-dictated essay with relatively little emphasis on originality — strikes me as attenuated.

  14. anon says:

    Ditto what Swaine said. Could not have said it any better.

  15. dave hoffman says:

    I agree with Swaine. Plus, anon grading disincents mindless student deference and flattery, which is to the good.

  16. I also strongly disagree. I don’t think I can predict how well a student (one of 70 in my Torts class) is bound for anything based on hallway/office conversations. I would hate to think that I might guess wrong based on my bias for people who seem like me when I was younger/people who like law and economics/people who like Grey’s Anatomy. I tend to think that pure performance is the best equalizer. As for separating the author from the writing, I’m grading the writing based on the law, not conducting literary criticism. I’m comfortable with working in a vacuum, and I’d be uncomfortable otherwise.

  17. Bruce Boyden says:

    I think it’s important to keep in mind that nothing when it comes to grading is the perfect measure of student quality, including exams. So, I think the worry that crosses any professor’s mind when they see a seemingly good student do poorly (or the reverse) is that their exam was a bad measuring device. I’ve certainly worried about that myself.

    But I also worry that I may be unable to arrive at a reliable determination of student quality based on class discussions, and that any breach of the anonymity shield could poison the entire well, to mix metaphors. I do my best to design good exams, but the failures of one-time exams are well-known and difficult to eliminate in law school. But in non-paper classes I can decisively eliminate the subjective component of grading mushiness through anonymity. I therefore do my utmost to preserve anonymity even when the students don’t seem to care.

  18. Joseph Slater says:

    I’m normally not as rabid a defender of annonymous grading as some in legal academia — after all, many undergrad and grad schools don’t use annoymous grading, nor do some law classes that focus on papers and not exams. But I too find the post unpersuasive, for many of the reasons others have given. Especially troubling is the idea that the opinions of law profs as to who is “destined for greatness” should outweigh actual performance on an exam. If a student does well in class discussions but poorly on an exam, give a bump for participation, re-think your exam questions, or maybe even re-think the model of having most-all the grade be on the final exam. And you can write a recommendation that explains why the student performance doesn’t reflect thier true talent. But don’t allow your biases or preconceived notions to win out, especially on a matter of such importance to students. That’s why they play the games in sports, instead of relying on preseason rankings.

    As to the text and the author, in addition to what others have said above, the best reason I can think to know who the student is when you are grading is when you are evaluating a series of works for improvement or to give specific comments. “Yes, you’ve really improved in X area . . . ” But that would apply to a series of works, not a single final exam.

  19. Adam Benforado says:

    Interesting comments; many thanks to you all – especially the anonymous posters (although I wish someone had posted with his exam number) ;-)

    A few thoughts before I head off to our holiday party:

    1. Dave, I agree about the benefits of disincentivizing mindless student deference and flattery (I much prefer “mindful” deference and flattery).

    2. Edward and Christine (among others) bring up the good point that the “blindness” of the grading makes it all feel more fair and objective. I’m just curious whether it actually is. No one really addressed the question of whether, even when the exam is anonymously submitted, professors naturally and implicitly (that is beyond conscious awareness) imagine an author (e.g., this was written by a woman, this was written by a Republican, this was written by Danny Fischer, etc.), and whether that “faux author” then influences the interpretation of the text.

    3. Concerning Edward’s other comment about the fact that the authorship concern is less implicated in the law school exam context, I think that’s possible, but one might argue that because things are so brief and it is a one-off scenario, the impact of authorship is actually heightened. An anonymous author with many days and many pages to fill has a significantly greater opportunity to clarify what the words he chooses “mean” and what they do not mean.

    4. Orin, I take the point that the official reason that lawyers sign briefs is for communication purposes, but I don’t think that takes away from the fact that our legal system accepts a non-blind process. In practice, the names are not only relevant for communication purposes. When you clerked, did you ignore the names and law firms on the briefs? My experience clerking was that law clerks in D.C. were keenly aware of the legal players involved in appellate and Supreme Court advocacy.

    5. Finally, to clarify for several readers, I definitely was not advocating just using classroom participation to determine whether a student was “smart” or not and then adjusting their exam grade to reflect that fact. My focus was on the potential benefits of knowing the identity of the author and all that that entails (her background, experiences, previous comments, performance, etc.). In addition to some larger courses, I teach a seminar on law and mind sciences and we cover some controversial topics. Inevitably, students say things that written on a piece of paper and submitted anonymously could be viewed as insensitive, and even offensive. However, in the classroom, these words are mediated through everything that we know about the speaker and, as a result, we all receive something closer to their truly intended meaning. I’m still thinking all of this through and don’t yet have a firm opinion on any of this, but it seems possible that we are denying our students the same benefits when it comes to final exams.

    Okay, that’s all I have time for now – thanks, again, to everyone for the great comments (and apologies to those who I didn’t have a chance to respond to)!

  20. kim says:

    Your exams must be AWFUL if you can detect gender and political party affiliation through them, and of course mark off accordingly the more maler and Republicaner they are.

    Anonymous grading, in addition to being the most fair way to grade classes with a hard curve and 1 exam, limits the verbal diarrhea in class. Intelligent students know that running their mouth wastes valuable class time. They are self aware enough to know that as law students they have no insight and their personal anecdotes are meaningless. If they know you are going to hammer them for displaying their intelligence, class will come to a screeching halt and everyone will have their hands raised to give inane responses.

  21. dd says:

    “I tend to believe that texts ought not to be separated from their authors. It is authors as much as words that mark our paths through emails, essays, articles, short stories, and exams.”

    Unlike the other forms of writing you mention, exams are a metric designed to measure performance. By “adjusting” those results, you ignore an exam’s raisons d’etre.

    You reason that including an author’s identity is appropriate because that’s what happens in practice and “the names are not only relevant for communication purposes.” Yet, you do not describe those purposes or if they are valid or desirable.

    If one purpose (other than communication) of including a firm’s or lawyer’s name is to give an argument more clout or meaning than it would otherwise have, that, IMO, is a shortcoming of legal practice that law school should (and does) seek to avoid, not mimic.

    also, FLAME

  22. Obi Wan says:

    Autoadmit . . . You’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.

  23. A.J. Sutter says:

    Odd that no one has mentioned that bar exams, including essays and performance tests, are graded anonymously. Also I question the sting-of-the-B+ argument: maybe the sting is deserved? At my law school during the ’80s, grades were based 100% on the exam. In one class, the prof had fallen far behind in his syllabus and wound up dealing with a key topic, which occupied at least 20% of the syllabus and 33% of the exam, on the last day. I had been cutting his class, focused on the syllabus in blissful ignorance, and wound up with an A-. In Evidence, I got the highest grade in the class despite having cut from the second week onwards, because I studied the heck out of the codes. My prof looked daggers at me whenever we passed on campus during my third year (quite stupidly I’d been pretty outspoken during my week or so of attendance), but really, who was to blame for making his lectures so superfluous?

  24. cm says:

    Your statement about ‘unfortunate’ outcomes is disturbing. Consider that such an ‘unfortunate’ outcome may serve as a counterbalance to poor judgement on the professors part. A legal professor may not actually have omniscient critical faculties. Such ‘unfortunate’ outcomes create the opportunity for you to exercise introspection and realize that perhaps you were wrong. On the other hand, maybe the student you’ve correctly identified as ‘bound for great things’ just screwed up or was unable to study for a variety of reasons such as the breakdown of a romance. The possibilities are as seemingly infinite as humans are fallible.

  25. Mr. Bojangles says:

    “I’m just curious whether it actually is. No one really addressed the question of whether, even when the exam is anonymously submitted, professors naturally and implicitly (that is beyond conscious awareness) imagine an author (e.g., this was written by a woman, this was written by a Republican, this was written by Danny Fischer, etc.)”

    When I’m taking exams, I always purposely put in certain grammatical errors that I think will make the professor conclude I am a non-native English speaker. It has worked like a charm so far.

  26. janice l. says:

    It seems as if you’re saying Drexel law students have poor written communication skills.

  27. Joseph Slater says:

    This post has obviously met with a lot of criticism, including some from me. Since so many are having problems with your arguments, perhaps you could give an example or even hypo. When, specificlly, do you think it would be justified to give a student a higher or lower grade on an exam (or more or fewer points for an answer to a question) than you would if grading annoymously, based on your knowledge of who that student was? Aside from points for class participation raising the overall grade, I can’t think of any situation like that myself.

  28. Anonymous Coward says:

    For what it’s worth, I have a 3.8+ from a top 10 school. I choose not to prepare in advance for class. I skim over an outline as class starts in case I get cold called so I can give a passable answer, but nothing more. After writing down what the professor seems to think is important, I do all of the reading and outline extensively.

    Professors should be mindful of the fact that not everyone feels that they learn the material by spending 3 hours pouring over cases and then attending a lecture; the reverse is true for me. I get much more out of the reading _after_ I’ve attended a lecture.

  29. “Inevitably, students say things that written on a piece of paper and submitted anonymously could be viewed as insensitive, and even offensive.”

    translation: “They could inexplicably come off sounding like a Fed Society member when I know they worked in the Obama campaign.”

  30. Adam Benforado says:

    Thanks to all those who posted feedback (slightly less thanks to those who cursed my mother, etc., although there is something rather fitting/amusing, given the issues involved, about the author being disparaged by anonymous posters attacking his supposed identity, background, and agenda).

    In truth, the purpose of this post was to raise a potential issue, ask some questions, and gauge how people felt, rather than to advocate for change to nonanonymous grading (thus, why I made clear in the original post that I was “not sure” how important knowing the identity of the author was in comparison to other concerns and wanted to know what others thought). The comments here suggest overwhelming support for anonymous grading.

    In the end, I think that the prototypical situation that I was imagining was quite different from the one most commentators imagined.

    I was thinking of something along the lines of the following: on a policy question, asking students to weigh in on a potential alteration to a corporate statute, a student offers a strong argument based on fairness and other concerns. However, the student leaves out any discussion of potential implications concerning economic efficiency, a major emphasis in the course. It turns out that, in previous discussions in class, the particular author focused his comments solely on law and economic analysis and appeared not to understand counterarguments and theories. In an anonymous regime, this student might be marked down on both components for incompleteness and an apparent inability to engage and understand counterarguments (a very important skill as a lawyer). However, in a nonanonymous regime, the essay’s meaning is changed: this is not evidence that the student has been unable to comprehend all of the perspectives and approaches in the course (indeed, quite the opposite, it shows that he has mastered the breadth of the covered materials); this is rather a sign of likely essay structuring or time management problems.

    With yet another candidate interview in the wings, I’ll leave it at that; thanks again for the lively discussion.

  31. Guest says:

    True Story:

    I took antitrust my third year of law school. Learned the material cold. Love it, still do. Knew the Hovenkamp treatise by heart and read Posner’s treatise as my bed time literature. I was also known as the exam psychic. I predicted two and one half of the three questions on the final. I asked the professor how he would approach these two and one half questions earlier in the semester. I gave the professor his own answer on the final exam–how much more better can it get. We’re supposed to have anonymous grading, but I don’t know how the professor knew the author of my final exam paper. I got a grade I didn’t like… so I did a grade check… the prof’s response was: well your answer is solid, but it reflects a lack of firmness consistent with your demeanor in class.

    The dumb air-head and yappy dee doodle dumbskull who was quite confident always answered: it’s an antitrust issue because we want capitalism, which gives competition. Doesn’t know the difference between supply versus demand curves. A+++. I guess the yapsters rule for some profs.

    Go figure.

  32. A.J. Sutter says:

    Adam, your hypo begs the question of how to attribute causation to a particular student’s performance. Why couldn’t an anonymous student also have essay-structuring or time-management problems? Yet you seem, at least from the way you state the problem, more likely to jump to the conclusion that an anonymous student’s problem is lack of comprehension, rather than time issues. Another approach is not to allow that distinction to make a difference to the exam grading, and not to weight the exam 100% for the course grade.

  33. Anon says:

    Justice wears a blindfold for a reason, and eliminating blind grading should always be a dubious proposition just from elementary considerations of fairness alone.

    It’s an especially dubious proposition right now, when law school faculties are so ideologically imbalanced. At my top 14 school, for example, we had one openly Republican professor among the tenured faculty.

    Even with blind grading, conservative students are already afraid to speak out lest they alienate professors they’ll need for recommendations, paper topics, etc. See this thread:

    http://blackbooklegal.blogspot.com/2009/11/is-law-school-non-partisan.html

    As Madison said, if law students were angels no grades would be necessary. And if law professors were angels, no external or internal controls on them like blind grading would be necessary.