When it comes to students’ progress, we teachers are placed in a bind. On the one hand, we’re responsible for delivering instruction, and structuring classes so that students can effectively absorb and retain new content. On the other hand, we then set and mark exams which evaluate how well students have absorbed and retained information. In other words, teachers are in charge of determining how well they’ve done their jobs. This is a somewhat peculiar arrangement. While many workers have performance evaluation procedures that involve employers and managers listening to their input, the degree to which a teacher’s professional reputation is formed by their students’ grades is unusual when compared with other professions.
I’m sure that every reader can remember, back in their college days, contorting their schedule to take a class with an “easier” professor–that is, a professor whose grading practices were seen as more lenient than others’. Likewise, I’m sure that most teachers can recall a colleague whose instruction bore only the faintest hint of resemblance to learning standards or learning objectives, but who was a favorite of students and school leaders thanks to a loose grading practice.
Inconsistent grading can also hurt students. They can walk away from a class with an unrealistic impression of their own mastery of its content, which can hurt their long-term academic progress (on the flip side, they can walk away from a class unnecessarily discouraged by their perceived lack of mastery). Likewise, parents are often taken aback when a student’s year-to-year grades look significantly different. Every teacher I know has had to have that difficult conversation with a parent that starts with, “In this grade, expectations are a lot higher…”
Inconsistent grading can also give school leaders an imprecise idea of where their teachers are excelling, and where their teachers might need further support or resources. This can create tension between teachers and school leaders; leaders think they’re meeting everyone’s priorities, yet teachers are frustrated that their real struggles aren’t being addressed. Circumstances like these can place conscientious teachers in an uncomfortable position, with students, parents, and school leaders. Fortunately, there’s a relatively straightforward solution.
Double-blind marking can assist all stakeholders in a school community in getting a clearer picture of student learning. It involves two sides:
On the first side, teachers in a department aren’t shown whose exam they’re marking. Ideally, this means that teachers may not even be marking exams from students in their class or section, but implementation will vary based on the size of the school and the department. This keeps marking impartial and focused on students’ mastery of the content, preferably against a rubric. (Who among us hasn’t found a couple extra points to give a hardworking student who nevertheless is not quite there? It’s a well-intentioned idea but it does a disservice to students in the long run.)
On the second side, students aren’t informed which teacher in a department marked their exam. This helps students focus on the substance of their feedback on an exam, without resorting to unhealthy coping scripts like “Of course Kaufman gave me a C. Everyone knows he’s a tough grader.” The procedure is blind in both directions, so the focus is always on the content and students’ mastery of it.
Double-blind marking helps teachers; it keeps grading expectations clear and consistent across a department, removing interpersonal stress and reputational competition for teachers. Double-blind grading helps students; it keeps the focus on learning and mastering the content, not on manipulating or complaining about instructors. Double-blind marking helps parents and school leaders; it provides a consistent, schoolwide expectation of excellence, and what that excellence looks like.
Of course, the practice removes the personal element from assessment. In that way, it is a harsher system than other approaches to grading. However, there is not much compassion in empathizing with a student so much that they are given the impression they understand content which, in fact, they do not. That can lead to a serious gap between their performance on in-class grades, and large-scale assessments. And when teachers award participation and effort marks, students are effectively rewarded for their personalities, not their mastery of academic content. At worst, this leads to a situation where students discover the gaps in their education during the college application process, when it’s often too late to dramatically catch up. It’s far kinder, instead, to ensure that our grading practices are accurately identifying areas where the student needs extra support and delivering that support early and often.
Double-blind marking can improve the performance of a school as a whole. Adopting it into your own school’s practice can improve the learning environment for students, teachers, parents, and school leaders alike.
Tristan Reynolds works as the English Department Head for VIS Experimental International School in Taipei. He holds a master's in education from Johns Hopkins University and is a 2021 Teach For America alum. He writes an education-focused newsletter called Continuing Education with Tristan Reynolds.