On second marking

Ah, second marking. Those reading from the UK will be heaving out a huge groan right about now; second marking, scourge of all our ends of term. For those not familiar (you lucky so-and-so’s!), second marking is the practice, common in the United Kingdom, whereby each paper or exam worth more than 50% of a student’s final grade in any given class must be read by a second teacher, assigned a second provisional grade, and then a final grade agreed by both parties. Sounds onerous, doesn’t it?

Yes, it’s absolutely onerous. And I’ve been complaining loudly about second marking to all my Canadian colleagues this spring, enjoying (in a slightly masochistic sort of way) the pain that spreads across their faces as they think about what that might mean: a whole extra load of papers to grade at the end of every term. Madness!

This week, however, I had a really good second marking experience. I was working with a colleague whose load consisted of just a handful of papers, but long-ish ones. They also weren’t in a traditional paper format, arguably making both their writing (for the students) and their marking (for us) tricky. I collected the papers from our school’s secure server, read them on my flight home from Vancouver, and was slightly surprised to discover that, in a number of cases, I disagreed with my colleague’s assigned grades. (Not enormously, but enough to make a difference to the students in question, for sure.) This disagreement didn’t have anything to do with the quality of my colleague’s assessment or feedback (both of which were excellent), but, I think, rather resulted from my bringing a quite different disciplinary perspective to the materials at hand. I simply may also have been in a different frame of mind than my colleague when marking: I’d just spent a few days with good friends at a conference, and two days on a proper holiday. There’s something to be said for a genuinely ‘fresh’ perspective!

I sent my thoughts to my colleague when I landed, and she then had another read of all the papers, taking my comments into consideration. Later, we swiftly and congenially agreed marks that took both of our perspectives into account. As a result of this – the second marking process at its best – her students can be confident that they received extremely fair grades and thorough feedback, and both of us can say we had a positive, indeed even generative, second marking experience.

Of course it’s not always this way. Sometimes second marking means uncomfortable disagreements, or dealing with colleagues’ hard-headedness, or sometimes it can feel like an incredible waste of everyone’s valuable time. I’ve had perfectly fine second marking experiences as a teacher in the UK so far, but as a student at another University of London college, in the late 1990s, I had rather bad ones. (In that case, my college practiced double marking: students saw all the, often contradictory, feedback from both markers as two separate grades on the same paper. QM Drama’s practice is more sane: the first and second markers work together to agree both grades and feedback. In this sense, it’s properly collaborative.)

My experience this week got me thinking seriously, maybe for the first time, about second marking as one of the many tools in my ‘activist teacher’ box. I’ve been wondering: what does second marking do for us, both teachers and students? I’ve realised that I have long thought of second marking as administrative – a thing we have to get done and over with, like most committee work – but, of course, it need not be: even though much second marking isn’t directly experienced by students, it’s still a teaching and learning opportunity. It’s a chance to collaborate with colleagues, to share our feedback practices with one another, and to gain others’ insights into great marking techniques. It’s also a chance to see ourselves as markers – a role I sometimes too easily gloss over when thinking of my labour as a teacher – reflected in the eyes of a third, less interested party, someone who can help us to see what kinds of feedback are useful, and what kinds are unhelpful or even harmful. Students are rarely able to offer that kind of in-depth reflection on marking that affects them: getting marks and comments back on a paper is just too fraught an experience. Although the most intelligent and thoughtful of students (such as the one about whom I wrote in my first post on this blog, here) can take the time to separate themselves from the grades they get and approach the challenge of improving their work a bit more objectively, I am living, teaching proof that not all good students are good at that kind of labour. (As an undergrad, I would run into bathroom stalls in far-flung buildings to read my comments, so nobody I knew could hear the whoops of joy and wails of grief.)

I’d like to hear others speak to this  issue – teachers and students alike. Is second marking on your radar? Is it your scourge? Does it make a difference to you if your work is read by two professors? Do you find I’m overstating its potential value? I remain on the fence here: second marking takes a heck of a lot of time, and I’m not convinced it can ever all be valuable. Is it another instance of what my colleague Martin Welton calls “mission creep” in the academy, where instructors at all levels are increasingly called upon to plug enormous, systemic gaps in post-secondary institutions? Or is it exactly at the heart of our mission, as teachers and lifelong learners?

Curious to know your perspective,


2 thoughts on “On second marking

  1. Hi Kim,

    Thanks for this great post and for taking the time to chat with me at Congress. As a Canadian teaching and studying in the UK, I’m on the second marking fence right beside you! While I’m always eager to receive any and all available feedback on my own work as a graduate student, I found myself daunted by the second marking process during my first term instructing. Undoubtedly, there are many pros. What better way to learn about marking standards in a new system than by seeing how your colleagues give feedback first hand? Moreover, for the students, the system offers great benefits, particularly when the collective feedback provided is clear and contradiction-free.

    When it comes to the cons, there are the obvious issues surrounding the best use of a university’s time and resources as well as the fact that dual marking doesn’t necessarily guarantee infallible results. This being said, I’m not sure if nostalgia for my days as a student at UBC is clouding my judgment but the second marking con that keeps coming to mind involves my undergraduate experience.

    The one time I thought one of my undergraduate papers had received an unfair grade, I had to go to the TA myself and plead my case in accordance with UBC policy. This was a huge lesson for me in standing behind my work and finding a way to articulate my queries politely but firmly. I honestly can’t remember if the grade was shifted or not since it didn’t really matter. What stuck with me was the realization that I had a backbone and could use it. Though a brief moment in my four-year degree, contesting the mark was a seminal lesson in challenging the system instead of staying complacent. If second marking is a pre-emptive strike preventing students from contesting their grades, aren’t we depriving them of an important formative opportunity to assert themselves as young adults?

    Thanks again for providing this great forum on teaching!


    • That’s a terrific insight, Melissa! Arguing for the value of one’s own work is a key part of the university learning experience, and without question the second marking scheme makes it less likely students will perceive their grades to be unfair in the first place, regardless of gut feelings about those grades. I’ve noticed that my own first line of defence when students have queried their grades (it’s happened only twice to me in London so far) is: “this mark has been agreed by me and your second marker…” That said, I’ve also gone on to have active discussions with both students about their work – and productive discussions, too.

      To be devil’s advocate for a moment, confident students will probably query a grade regardless of the system (witness my two students, noted above), while students lacking confidence may never do so. Learning to stand behind your work, as you put it, is a skill we should be teaching students in any system, but probably aren’t. I suspect the best way to do this is not within traditional assessment frameworks (IE: write paper, get grade and comments back), but via peer-to-peer assignments, in which students must discuss their work in pairs or groups, mark one another, and then respond. What do others think?

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