Marking Experts

Earlier this week, I published a blog about the application of behaviourist principles to education, and in there, I mentioned that I was going to blog about expertise.

Within the context of my blog, I was talking about expertise in marking. I think that scholars who spend their lifetimes studying a topic become experts, however, I have serious doubts about those same scholars becoming experts at marking students‘ work in their respective fields.

There is good psychological research on gaining expertise, and if we have a look at some of it, becoming an expert entails more than being assigned the 11:00 a.m. slot on Tuesday mornings for the next 12 weeks to wax lyrical about your favourite subject. The acquisition of expertise is a complicated process.

First of all, it takes time. In The Cambridge handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, Ericsson estimates that it takes about 10,000 hours of doing something to become an expert. It isn’t just the time element that makes you an expert (Ericsson & Lehman, 1996), there are other elements as well.

Just by the first requirement, the number of years that it would take to become an expert teacher is high. If I teach a class for 45 hours/semester (3 hours/week for 15 weeks), I would have to teach 222 classes to reach the 10,000 hours of teaching. Over a 40 year career, that would be 5.5 classes per year. I know that there are lecturers who teach that much, but that means that to become an expert takes 40 years. And that’s becoming an expert in teaching, not an expert in marking.

Every year, as the semester draws to a close, I have a significant amount of marking to do. It feels like it takes at least 10,000 hours every year, but if I look at it objectively (difficult to do in May), I really spend around 40 hours each semester marking my students’ work. That means I need to have 250 semesters of marking to reach the number of hours required for expertise. I won’t live that long, nor do I think I would want to live that long, given the excitement involved in marking just one more script.

That’s just the time element. The practise element makes me certain that there are very few real experts at marking out there. One of the hallmarks of expertise is the “…seek(ing) out particular kinds of experiences, that is, deliberate practice” (Ericsson, Krampe & Tesch-Romer, 1993). I have never had a colleague ask if they can do some of my marking just for fun, or just because they want to gain more experience. Starkes & Ericsson (1993) note that deliberate practice is one of the primary predictors of the attainment of expertise. I have a number of colleagues who have urged me towards expertise by offering me the opportunity to pick up a bit of practise with their marking loads (although grateful for their thoughtfulness, I have always politely declined), but I have never really met anyone who has sought out opportunities to mark.

We may have expertise in our fields of study, but we certainly are not experts at marking work. In my previous blog, I talked about how really difficult marking can be.

In a typical essay, we are expected to make observations on a number of dimensions of writing. This weeks example included: a well structured argument, use strong sources, show evidence of critical thinking, throw in a bit of originality, write with an easy to read style, use proper spelling, punctuation and grammar, and get the content right. As I said, marking then entails judgement on a hypercomplex problem, providing a simultaneous evaluation on the multifaceted dimensions, and awarding an appropriate level of credit for the work.

Besides the fact that, cognitively, we really can’t do this – we have e very real limit on the number of things we can hold in our minds at the same time – we don’t spend time willingly engaged in the process so that we can become much better. At best, we become good at the job, and at worst, we just get through any way we can.

We are forced to make simultaneous judgments on the work, simply because the individual elements that we evaluate are interspersed and woven into a complex piece of work. The research shows us that reliability between markers is low, and we try to find ways to increase it (e.g. better marking criteria). When are we going to admit that we are never going to be anything better than okay at marking.

Going back to my previous blog, if we isolate behaviours we want to focus on, and the simply focus on one or two of them, we could do the job, and the students would learn in a more focused manner.

Given the difficulties in marking, I am always relieved to find, year after year as I attend examination boards where the work of individual students is reviewed before they graduate, that the grades awarded across the variety of classes, assessments and years, ends up being fairly closely related. Even if we aren’t experts, we do a pretty good job of picking out the good, the bad, and the ugly.


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