Lecturers’ personal preferences get in the way of achieving high marks

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There is nothing more demoralising than getting a poor mark in an essay, especially if you weren’t expecting it. But have you ever wondered: if I had given this essay to a different tutor, would the mark have been better? How much of the tutors individual opinions and tastes come into the marking of your work, and should it be this way?

Many of us will have received essays back in the last few days and hopefully it was good news all round. However, if the result wasn’t quite what you had hoped, unless the answer is staring you in the face you find yourself wondering why. Comments such as, “you must improve your sentence structure” or “your paragraphing is incorrect” can be accepted easily as things generic and easy to improve on. But comments such as “it didn’t grab me” or “it was too predictable” do not sound quite as universal: they sound like personal opinion. How do you know that a different tutor wouldn’t have found your essay rivetingly interesting and original?

First of all, does this problem lie with the student or with the tutor? We complain, but maybe a fantastic essay is judged by all as fantastic and, regardless of personal opinion, an average essay is always judged as average. And I suppose tutors would argue that they try and stay as professional as possible, but it is very nearly impossible to mark an essay ignoring any personal affect it has on you. If it interests you, you’ll want mark it higher: simple. Or maybe if we do seriously believe that the tutor marks our essay on personal tastes, instead of complaining we should take this in our stride. For example, (focusing on my own degree, English Literature, however I assume it is the same in other degrees) if you know your tutor has socialist beliefs, maybe you’ll briefly mention how this line in this poem is reminiscent of revolution and the powerful, wonderful affect it has on people. If you know he/she is interested in theory, perhaps you’ll mention how this character’s close relationship with his mother could be construed as a Freudian Oedipus Complex (i.e. he wants to sleep with her, subconsciously). But, should we have to do this? Surely we students have enough stress having to the write the essay (and hopefully write it well) without having to worry about whether our style and content will interest the tutor personally.

I can’t help but think that when writing essays or doing exam papers, in any degree, putting correct information should be the most important. Of course I understand that, especially in Humanities but also in most other Degrees in some form, we are being taught how to improve the way we write rather than just what we write so that has to come into consideration too. But a major problem I see is that if coursework teaches us to write our essays to our tutors, then how are we going to cope in exams when we don’t know who is going to be marking our work? If we work out exactly what our tutors like and therefore what gets us good marks from him/her, how are we going to know what to write in our exam papers to achieve a high mark? We don’t know that our exam marker is a Socialist or a Freudian, he/she is faceless. If we decide that they only way round this problem is discovering our tutor’s tastes and writing to engage him/her personally, we may not discover how to write a truly good essay, which would be judged by everyone as good.

This article is littered with questions because, ultimately, this is a very vague problem, arguably not even a problem at all, and arguably nobody’s fault. Though perhaps one way to avoid it, and avoid crisis in exams, would be to introduce the methods of exam marking into essay marking: have two tutors mark your work. At least then if one found it exciting and one boring, the mark might hopefully even out to something good.

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