Equity in Action Spotlight #4

Faculty Info

Name: Brendan Cline
Academic Program: Business
Average Number of students per section: 35
Featured Course:

  • MGT 326: Professional Ethics (three sections)

What practice or technique have you implemented in your course?

For several years now, I have used anonymous grading for most assignments in my courses—especially exams and individual writing assignments.

Writing Assignments

I often assign longer papers, and/or a series of 600-1,000-word news analysis assignments (or both). For these, I require students to refrain from putting their name or email address on their submissions. (Some students like to include their Student ID numbers—but those aren’t necessary for online submissions.)

To help ensure that students follow this policy, I impose a 5% penalty on submissions that do contain the students’ name or email address. I don’t like using this penalty, but if there is no enforcement, then it would be possible for some students to try to obtain an unfair advantage by including their name. (For example, perhaps they have developed a good relationship with me, and believe that this might make me a more sympathetic grader.) I work really hard to place salient reminders to anonymize submissions, and virtually all students follow it successfully.

Exams

Back in the days when we had in-person exams, I would have students to write their Student ID number at the top of the exam. Then, after I’ve finished grading all of the exams, I would look up the ID # and write each student’s name on the exam as I entered the grades.

For multiple-choice parts of the exams that don’t involve any judgment calls, this is perhaps not as much of a concern. But my exams typically include a short-answer portion as well, and so I would require anonymous submissions.

Exceptions

I do not use anonymous grading for every type of submission, since it is sometimes unnecessary or unreasonable. For example, when students are giving in-class presentations, and I am watching them deliver that presentation to the class, I cannot pretend that I don’t know who is standing before me talking.

In some classes, I have regular in-class group assignments that are essentially graded pass/fail. If you show up and contribute, you get full points. Because it is easy to earn full points, and because attendance is really the key evaluative criteria, I do not grade these anonymously either.


Why did you choose this approach?

The main benefit of anonymous grading is that it helps ensure that instructors are evaluating student submissions based only on the submission itself, and not based on other irrelevant factors.

One core aim is to prevent implicit biases from negatively impacting students’ grades. Placing a student into particular racial or gender categories can impact the way that an instructor perceives the quality of that student’s work. And because implicit biases operate automatically and below the threshold of conscious awareness, it is not possible for instructors to voluntarily decide to turn off their biases, or to even know whether, and to what degree, implicit biases influence their perception of student work. So, the fact that you don’t want to exhibit bias is irrelevant to whether you will grade in a biased manner. And the fact that you don’t feel biased does not provide reliable evidence that you do not in fact suffer from relevant biases.

The research on this topic is complicated. But some of the most striking findings come from studies that use resumes. For example, one study (Moss-Racusin et al. 2012) sent out resumes for a lab manager position to science faculty members at several universities, and asked them to rate the applicants in terms of their competence, hireability, and how willing the faculty member was to serve as a mentor to the applicant. They were also asked what starting salary was appropriate for the applicant. The resumes were exactly the same, expect that half had a more traditionally feminine name, and half had a more traditionally masculine name. On all three measures, the faculty members (both men and women) on average tended to rate the resumes with women’s names lower than they rated the resumes with men’s names. The male applicants were also marked for higher starting salaries.

Implicit biases distort our perception of the work we are evaluating, and grading assignments anonymously prevents potentially biasing information from influencing our judgment of student work, supporting fairness in grading.

There are also other ways in which unfairness can creep in, aside from instructor biases. For example, some students seem to be more likely to contest a lower grade, even when it is well-deserved. There is a possibility that an instructor might be incentivized to be more lenient with such students, to avoid having to deal with the confrontation. Even if I would never intentionally let that influence the grade that I ultimately give, I might not be able to introspectively detect whether or not those considerations are influencing my evaluation. With anonymous grading, these thoughts do not have to ever occur to me, because I do not know who wrote the assignment that I’m evaluating.

Or perhaps Student A did poorly on an early assignment, or happens to be shier in class, while Student B is more outspoken, and did very well on earlier assignments. On that basis, an instructor might form a less favorable impression of Student A. And it might be possible that the instructor grades Student A’s subsequent submissions more critically than Student B’s. But I believe things like performance on past submissions and classroom discussions should not be factored into the evaluation of a student’s new, unrelated submission. And anonymous grading helps prevent those irrelevant factors from influencing one’s judgment.


How do you implement anonymous grading? Any tips?

With online submissions, anonymous grading is implemented through the university’s learning management system—for us, Canvas.

Canvas makes it very easy to grade most submissions very easily (see the attached images). All you need to do is:

  1. Open “SpeedGrader”
  2. Click on the “Settings” button at the top left
  3. Select “Options”
  4. Click “Hide student names in the SpeedGrader”

Then, Canvas will automatically mask the student’s name. You can move through the grades without seeing students’ names. And apparently, you only need to enable this function once. (After I set mine up, it stayed selected for all assignments in all courses. But I am also still new to Canvas.)’

Tip 1: If you want to grade anonymously and also use Turnitin to monitor for plagiarism, things get tricker. There is an anonymous grading function built in to the Turnitin-Canvas submission architecture, but I have had significant difficulty getting that to work properly. (In fact, the Turnitin anonymous grading feature automatically turned itself off on me, and it cannot be turned back on once any submissions have been received. So, tread carefully.) My inelegant workaround was to have two submission portals for each of these assignments – one to be graded anonymously in Canvas using SpeedGrader, the other sent directly to Turnitin for plagiarism detection. Not ideal, but functional…

Tip 2: I’ve now done anonymous grading at four different universities, using Blackboard, Moodle, and now Canvas. And one major weakness of Canvas is that even before all of the submissions for an assignment have been graded, faculty can easily look at the gradebook and see (a) whether a particular student has submitted an assignment, and (b) what score that student got. Indeed, it is possible to purposefully pull up a particular student’s ungraded submission. When you do that, it will be anonymized in SpeedGrader, but you will know whose assignment it is.

This is not good, because ideally, the evaluator would not have any potentially biasing information (e.g., I know that X hasn’t submitted, so this is not X’s assignment” or “I know Y has already been graded, and so this isn’t Y’s paper.” Knowing what Y got could also serve to calibrate your grading for the remaining assignments.) Unlike this system—which relies too heavily on trusting the instructor—Blackboard wouldn’t let you see any student identities until you had completed grading all of the submitted assignments. (But there are benefits of Canvas’s more lax system, too. For example, you can help a student figure out if they had successfully submitted the assignment.)

To make this work best, you need to intentionally avoid looking at the gradebook as much as possible. Instead, try to go directly to that assignment’s SpeedGrader, and keep to that window until all of the submissions are graded.


What are some challenges that come with anonymous grading?

I think that it is important to acknowledge that there are a few drawbacks to the use of anonymous grading.

For example, it is more difficult to track an individual student’s progress throughout the semester, because you are not reading their work as their work. I have never yet had time to go back and see who wrote which of the 100+ assignments I just got through, and so I miss out on this opportunity to spot growth, or learn more about each student’s particular personality and outlook. (But I do get some of that from other avenues.)

I also dislike imposing penalties on students for failing to anonymize their submissions. I’m usually more interested in their thinking and writing abilities, and not whether they follow precise formatting instructions. But I do my best to remind them to anonymize their submissions, and so I only rarely impose this penalty.

Using anonymous grading also adds small hassles for instructors. For example, if I’ve given particular students extensions, I need to wait until I’ve graded all of the submissions, and then go back and remove lateness penalties. Or, when I am grading physical exams, I have students write their student ID number on the exam during the exam session, and then when I’m done grading, I go through and write each student’s name on the exam as I’m entering the grades. That adds another extra layer of work on my end.

Anonymous grading can also impose obstacles to communicating with students about their work. For example, I cannot discuss a student’s submission with them until I have finished grading all of the class’s submissions. Also, if an assignment is submitted very late—days after you’re done grading everything else—then you might not be able to guarantee anonymous grading to that student, and that comes with a degree of unfairness. Similarly, while I don’t look at drafts on an individual basis in order to preserve anonymity, I am willing to speak with students about their assignment topics/ideas, because they do have a legitimate interest in seeking my advice and running things by me. I think it would be unreasonable for me to refuse to offer any advanced consultation. But that can undermine anonymity to a degree, depending on the circumstances. I try to navigate those exchanges in a way that minimizes the conflict, but it is an imperfect compromise.

Anyway, I think it’s important to acknowledge these drawbacks. They are genuine costs, to both me and to the students. But the important question is whether the benefits are worth it. And I think they absolutely are.

I’m up front with students about this. During our first meeting, I explain my policies to them, I explain the benefits of the policy, and I highlight some of the downsides. I explain that in my judgment, the benefits are worth the costs, and so that’s how my courses are structured. And they seem to respect that. I have only gotten positive feedback on this practice, and students regularly tell me they appreciate the commitment to fairness.


Which 3 resources and/or tools do you consider essential to effective virtual instruction?

I do not think I have a good answer for this one at the moment. My sincere answers are: more coffee and lots of CPU RAM. In terms of software and tools, I’ve been keeping things simple this semester, because I’ve been so crunched for time.

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