Thursday, 18 April 2019

Illusory transparency

Nobody thinks nepotism is a good idea - except the benefitting nephew. You hope and expect that the best qualified candidate gets the job; that only the competent students pass the exam; that the marks in some sense are a predictor of ability. In all the examiners meetings I have attended, the objective truth of the marks has been tempered by common sense (=prejudice and expectation). I can't remember a case when a student was done down unfairly rather than raised up without justification: but my neighbour John described one from Durham U thirty years ago.

In 1st and 2nd year college it doesn't matter what mark the student gets; so long as they achieve a certain minimal standard in the learning outcome department. Of course it can give some students a bit of a boost to morale if they do unexpectedly well, and that is no bad thing. At the end of their course in science, most students will carry out an independent research project. In The Institute, about 25% of the hours allocated to our final year students are devoted to project work and the marks are are equivalent; so the mark matters. A few years ago someone distributed a marking scheme with the implication that everyone would follow it to ensure equity, transparency and an audit trail in case of a dispute:
  • 50% Written report:
    • Presentation
    • Methods
    • Results
    • Understanding of topic
    • References
  • 30% Performance in Lab
    • Planning and organisation
    • Dedication and initiative
  • 10% Literature Review
  • 10% Public presentation
This damned form really didn't work for me. Like marking weekly lab reports our of 10, nobody is going to get 10/10 or 0/10 for understanding of topic, so the marks tend to normalise at about 65%. Then I found myself sub-consciously deciding on the final mark and massaging the incremental figures so they added up to The Sense of the Meeting. Nevertheless, each year I dutifully filled in a form for each student and sent it in to the Project Liaison Officer. A while ago, this feller, about my age, told me that he never bothered with the official form: "This chap is a solid II.2" he'd think and plunk 55% confidently in the mark book. Could do worse by the students. Each project is double marked but only the supervisor was present for 30% Performance in Lab, so that section is only marked once. If you care enough, you can probably bully the other marker to more of less match your assessment.

I'm reflecting on this [again] because I was asked to mark student presentations at this week's environmental science colloquium meeting using these criteria:
  • Slides 30%
  • Presentations 30%
  • Time keeping 10% deduct 2 marks for every 30 seconds over
  • Questions
  • Science 20%
  • Total 100%
I found my fellow session-marker at the previous coffee break and asked him if he was any sort of  obsessive about the goddamn form. Asked this passive aggressive leading-question way is quite "have you stopped beating your wife?" but the answer was No. In any case we only had one student who was eligible for a [monetary] prize, so after the session we put our heads together and agreed that the talk was pretty good for an early-stage scientist but not stellar. He gave 'them' [pronoun alert] 65% [solid II.1] and I had 'them' at 62%, so it looked less like a stitch up. We then herded unto a quiet room with the other judges where the data for all the talks for all the students had been gathered into a spread-sheet [displayed transparently on the white wall]. The out-going chair of the organising committee announced that Student Z [91%] had won the big prize. Another poor sap had scored 89.5 and got nothing in the Harry Potter Winner Takes All society we live in. The marks of two candidates for the prize for tree-hugging were tied at 87. The out-going chair and the in-coming chair announced that the prize was awarded to the bloke . . . "the fact that the other contender was a final year undergraduate was irrelevant" and the fact that she had XX chromosomes of course didn't enter into the equation. As it happened I'd attended the session where these two talks were given, and I agreed with that assessment - the bloke by a nose. But I would think that because I am The Patriarchy with an unconscious bias for XY up-and-comings. What aggravated me was the charade of making grown people filling in forms to an obsessive level of detail and then throwing them all in the bin when there was a difficult case.

With 20:20 l'esprit d'escalier I would have split the goddamned prize and given half to Mr Harry and half to Miss Potter  . . . partly because we can therefore ♬cue Katie Melua♬. Well, it's not my gig or my community and I won't be going to next year's meeting, so I don't really have locus standi on the high moral ground here.

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