Anonymous Grading Redux: Student Reaction to a Blinded Grading System
From the Department of Biomedical Sciences
College of Veterinary Medicine
Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA 24061-0442.
For several years I have been using a blinded grading system in the first-year veterinary courses I teach. In this "Anonymous Grading" (AGS) system students are randomly assigned numbers at the beginning of the course, and all exams and quizzes are turned in using only the AGS number. I do not know until final course grades have been announced which student is using which number. The mechanics of doing this were discussed at length in a previous paper (1), written at a time when I had been using the system for approximately one and a half academic years, and was teaching 4-week courses in a systems-oriented "block" curriculum. In 1989, the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine (VMRCVM) underwent a curricular transition to traditional discipline-based, semester-length courses, and I was assigned to teach veterinary histology in the first semester of the first year. The original intent of the AGS was to foster objectivity in grading essay questions, but in the post-1989 histology course, all exams are given in practical form (i.e., identification questions on microscope slides, with a follow-up "book" question at the same station) and in most cases in the multiple-choice format. Although such questions are usually pretty much cut-and-dried propositions, I continued to use anonymous grading because: 1) in practice it reduces the instance of students arguing about the semantics of the questions; 2) it provides a means to avoid even the appearance of bias in grading; and 3) while it adds to the paperwork involved in course record-keeping, it does simplify some of the mechanical tasks in grading and sorting exams.
I have now collected the comments and suggestions of four classes who have been through my course and graded in this way. Student approval of the system is very high, and despite some complaints it has proven to be an effective means to facilitate instructor-student interactions and to lessen stress levels.
The VMRCVM's classes of 1993-1996 were all surveyed for their reactions to the system. The first three classes were surveyed simultaneously in the Spring '92 semester approximately eight weeks after the Class of 1995 had completed the histology course, and two years after the Class of 1993 had done so. The responses received from these classes prompted a follow-up survey for the Class of 1996, which was administered in February '93, about two and a half months after that class had completed the course. Each member of each class was asked to answer the following question: The anonymous grading system should be a) retained as is, b) abolished, c) modified.
Students who chose the last alternative were asked to indicate what modifications they would like to see in the system, and all respondents were encouraged to make whatever comments they liked, and to be as frank as they cared in doing so. Even though "No Preference" wasn't an option, some respondents stated that they didn't care one way or the other, and those who did this usually wrote in "No Preference" or "I didn't care one way or the other" or some similar phrase, and/or checked none of the three "official" options. Class size varied from 78 to 83 students, and a total of 330 questionnaires were distributed. Of these, 152 (46.06%) were returned to me. The results are summarized below. No attempt has been made at statistical analysis of this information; the numbers alone do not give a complete picture of how students feel about the method. Most respondents made no comments, or made terse and uninformative remarks, but some of them were quite willing to make their feelings known. The comments below are abstracted from the survey sheets, and in all cases are reproduced verbatim; where emphasis is indicated, it was present in the original comment.
As can be seen, the great majority of students approved of the system, with 80% of those who responded indicating they wanted no changes. Only 12.7% disliked the system, and 7.6% felt it made no difference. While these numbers are fairly straightforward, the reasons students gave for their choices were sometimes more complicated than expected, and not always predictable based on the choice of answer. There were some who disliked the AGS but felt it should be kept; some who liked it thought it should be modified or abolished.
The most frequent suggestion for modification was to eliminate the AGS number and use the social security number instead. The SSN, however, is not really private, and many people have access to SSNs through employee lists, enrollment forms, etc. Three students who touch on this remarked:
I know that several classmates have access to SSNs of fellow students, but I am unfortunate enough to be the only one in my class with a "different" SSN (starts with 0!) and it is well known that I am not originally from VA-bottom line is my # and therefore grades are fairly widely known.
I appreciate this rare instance in which I do not have to advertise my social security number to the world.
Personally I liked the system, in part because if I'm going to be reduced to a number I'd rather it not be my social security number.
Of the reasons given for disliking the AGS, by far the most common was that it puts distance between the students and me, and even some of the people who voted to retain the system felt this way, often very strongly objecting to it. Several students who indicated "No Preference" said:
. . . as a rule, I disapprove of the system. As a professor, I feel it is your responsibility to be objective and also be aware exactly how each student is performing so that you can offer assistance along the way for those in trouble. You have compromised a tremendous amount of my professor-student relationship with this system.
. . . the professor cannot identify students who need extra help when this system is used (I realize it is the student's responsibility to ask for help, but if the professor knows who could use help, he/she could offer assistance when walking around the lab). . . . I do not think the AGS had any negative effect on how I felt about the course.
This drawback was also perceived by some students who felt the system should be retained without change:
I liked the grading system for confidentiality between students. However I felt like it was in the way of student-teacher interaction leaving all the pressure on the student to make sure they can approach prof without revealing identify. In other words there is good and bad. . . .
Some students who felt the system should be abolished felt the same way:
The AGS doesn't allow you to provide encouragement to those who would have really appreciated some. . . one person comes to mind. . . who was really trying to understand and. . . put forth a great deal of effort. I know that person was intimidated by the AGSãperhaps others were, too. I know that you stressed that you were available for questions but maybe abolishing the AGS would make people less reluctant to ask.
The only person in the Class of '96 who felt the system should be abolished said:
I basically feel that any system that discourages interpersonal relationships between professors/students is wrong.
But most felt that the system, even though it presented some logistic difficulties, wasn't a hindrance to interaction:
I in no way ever felt disadvantaged by the AGS in your courses. Yes, it made talking to you about specific answers on tests a little tricky but. . . the AGS does not distance you from the students. It should make everyone more comfortable in dealing with problems and questions.
I really had no specific problems with the system. I feel it probably helps you in being fair when grading and interacting with students. It was no inconvenience.
Paradoxically, the distance between professor and student was also perceived as a major benefit. Of all the reasons that students seemed to like the system, it was the idea that the professor couldn't compare an individual's performance with that of others that seemed to strike a chord most often. Virtually all of those who supported the system and added comments made some remark about the benefit they personally felt they derived from anonymous grading, often referring (directly or indirectly) to their embarrassment at not doing well in the course, and their relief at being able to hide that fact when asking questions. Typical examples:
With this system all students are treated equally because the grading is anonymous. "A" students are not (for example) called on more often or made examples of, and "C" students are not "shunned"! It would seem that the only students that would want this policy changed are the "Straight A Teacher's Pet Types" that would like faculty members to know his/her gradesãmy opinion only. Signed: A "B-" Student.
At the beginning of the year I didn't like this system. . . when I found myself making 50's, 60's and 70's on the quizzes I was glad to have the anonymity. . . I felt that I was shielded enough to talk to [you] like a human. . . .
I thought the AGS was a great system. . . It may have made the class less stressful in the sense that if a student really messed up on a quiz or test, it was a relief to know that the professor wouldn't know exactly who did poorly. On the other hand, the student must still own that grade, so the stress of knowing that the professor will know could be a motivation to work really hard.
I think the AGS is a wonderful idea because it eliminates the possibility of favoritism towards students reflecting in grading.
I taught several years. . . and I'd have used your system if I'd thought of it. It also give the professor the chance to react with students on a more "honest" level.
I personally thought this was an excellent system. . . avoiding any differences in opinion between you and students; maintained total anonymity; prevented any feelings that one student was a favorite.
I like the AGS idea. I think (especially as a freshman) it allowed me to write answers when I didn't trust myself that I may not have written if I thought they would be associated with my name. . . I have missed quite a few points on exams without the AGS system! (I certainly did in other classes before my self-confidence increased.)
I think this is a great system. I can't believe that most professors would alter their opinions of students due to grades, but I think this helps the students to minimize their paranoia and also protects the professor from being accused of subjective behavior towards students.
I found it reassuring, especially during our first semester. . . to know that at least one instructor's opinions of me would not be unduly influenced by the grades I was making in his/her class.
. . . I think [the AGS] prevents persecution of a student by peers or other instructors.
Another objection was that it made it more difficult to question items on exams (to preserve anonymity, this is normally done by having the students write me notes about specific questions). This objection was voiced by both supporters and opponents of the AGS:
When the professor assigns us all numbers, so that he does not know who we are, it makes it difficult to discuss one's individual problems. . . the AGS is simply too anonymous for new students in an unfamiliar and overwhelming environment like vet school.
One student who voted to retain the system said:
I believe that students should be able to argue any questions from a quiz or test in person. It can sometimes be difficult to get one's point across on paper, but if they discuss it with you it would ward off any situations of discontent. By keeping the AGS system it would allow those students who want to remain anonymous to do so. They can still write you notes if they wish to do so. However people need to be aware they can talk to you otherwise you will become distanced from your class.
A frequent comment from those who liked the AGS was that it should be used in all courses. Thirteen respondents (8.5%) specifically remarked that the system should be extended to other courses, and several others, without saying so specifically, implied the same thing in their remarks. Typical comments included these:
I think that this system should be required to be used by all professors. It really serves as a protection for the professors and eliminates the argument that "I got this grade because Dr. X doesn't like me."
I think that it is a very objective means of grading that protects both the student and the professor against unwarranted accusations. I also think it should be used by all professors in the vet school!
A surprising-and somewhat disturbing-theme in a few comments was the idea that the system was instituted because of a known bias on my part, i.e., that without an AGS there was little or no possibility of objectivity. In some cases this was phrased in general terms:
If a professor feels the AGS system would help him to grade fairly then it must be used to ensure non-biased grades.
and sometimes in considerably more personal ones:
It seems the reason for implementing such a system was based on your preferences. If you feel that grading this way is more fair to students or if you have a tendency to treat students differently in any way because of their grades, then it should be retained.
You've already admitted that your personal preferences may affect your grading.
Obviously you can't be objective when grading, so it should be kept.
Finally not a few students complained not about the AGS, but about their fellow students' reactions to it! These were remarkably unanimous in their assessment of those who wanted the system abolished, although it was impossible to determine whether that assessment was correct:
I believe the anonymous grading system eliminates the act of "begging for points". In your system the student who has a question must state his case on paper instead of making a personal, emotional, up-close attempt at gaining points. I don't believe it causes any problems (having the AGS) and I believe the people who complained were those that liked "begging for points" (something I abhor and refuse to do).
In my opinion, the students expressing dissatisfaction with the system are probably those who did not do as well as they would have liked, and are using the grading system as a scapegoat for their frustrations. Why would anyone have a problem with a system that treats each individual equally, unless he or she like to "brown-nose"!?
I think the AGS grading is very effective in reducing stress. I believe those that complained had high grades and were merely in search of an ego boost by you.
There are those of us who are very aggressive and are borderline between really wanting to learn and "brown-nosing", and then there are those of us who, while assertive about learning, tend to stay out of the spotlight and quietly absorb, digest, and problem-solve to ourselves or with others. The AGS takes the pressure off of those who feel the need to make themselves very well known to the professor for whatever reason, and off those who don't feel this need but wonder if it will affect them in some fashion. There ends my essay.
This is a way to assure impartiality. . . and I think it is fair. This way we know that our grade is based on performance, not bias.
I made no attempt at statistical analysis of the results of this survey, because the written responses would have made such number-crunching a meaningless exercise. Students are complex and often contradictory creatures, and their perception of an instructor's policies and the reasons for them are usually viewed through a narrow frame of reference. Nevertheless, the overall feeling of the classes surveyed is clear: most students like the system or at least perceive no serious disadvantages to it, and not a few feel quite strongly that it works in their favor-as, in fact, it was intended to do.
After 4 years of active use of this system, and after reviewing all of the student reactions to it, I am convinced that it is of considerable value to both professor and pupil, and that some of the criticisms made of the system, while valid, are nevertheless also indicative of its strongest points. First, it does in fact put some distance between the instructor and the students. In a narrow mechanical sense, it makes it somewhat more difficult for a student to question a grade or the wording of a question, but the method of communication by note on such points works well, and is of positive value. Requiring requests for reconsideration in writing compels a student to marshal thoughts and arguments in a clear-cut, logical way. It also imposes the same necessity for logical thought and clear presentation on me, and satisfying a student's questions about a specific test question is actually easier on paper than verbally. And distance does cut down considerably on "grade-grubbing" -something any beleaguered faculty member must view as a blessing.
It doesn't seem to have any adverse effect on overall grades, however. There has been no perceptible difference in average course grade between the classes in which I've used the AGS and those in which I didn't.
Perhaps the biggest fault of the AGS is that it does make it more likely that a student who is in trouble and refuses to seek assistance will be missed, but several years of experience have shown the way around this difficulty is to have the departmental administrative assistant keep the list of matched names and numbers; she compiles it immediately after the system is set up for the year, and keeps it in her confidential file. If a student in trouble refuses to come forward, the Associate Dean for Instruction is notified about the situation through the departmental office, preserving anonymity. In most cases, a note to "Please see me" on a returned quiz is sufficient to bring the student forward and as a practical matter this rarely compromises anonymity, because if there are even two such students, I never know which is which.
The greatest benefit seems to be the reduction of tension that many students have about how their instructors "feel" about them, clearly indicated in many of the responses. Most veterinary schools are relatively small places, and physically compact. The day-to-day proximity of students and faculty is conducive to the development of interpersonal relationships beyond those of the classroom environment. This can be both good and bad. Casual contacts foster concern and a willingness to help, both of which speed learning if those relationships are unthreatening. This becomes much more difficult if such contacts are colored by mutual misperceptions about a student's abilities and/or a professor's "secret opinion." Anonymous grading provides a means for isolating the personal and professorial interactions from each other, so that both can develop to the student's best advantage. It facilitates nonjudgmental and nondidactic learning, and neither the professor or the student need be concerned with anything beyond the passing of knowledge from one part of their mutual profession to another.
References and Endnotes
1. Caceci T: Experience with a blind grading system in first-year veterinary courses. Jour of Vet Med Educ 16:34-35, 1989.