Heidi Yeandle is an AHRC-funded Ph.D. student based at Swansea University and working on a thesis on Angela Carter’s engagement with philosophical thought. She is currently on the editorial committee for the publication of the conference proceedings from Swansea University’s Arts and Humanities postgraduate conference, and she teaches on undergraduate ‘Gender Studies’ modules. You can find her profile on Academia.edu.
As a second-year Ph.D. student and seminar tutor, marking undergraduate essays is one of the many new challenges I have faced. In my first year I had a few practice essays to mark to check that I was giving the correct grade and providing appropriate and constructive feedback, and only a few months ago I was officially given my first batch of assignments to mark. My reflection begins with my initial reaction to this task, discusses the highs and lows of marking, and ends with a retrospective look back at the process; while I focus on undergraduate essays specifically, my reflection mostly relates to marking in general.
My Initial Reaction
Phase One – Absolute Delight! Being part of the team of markers meant that I had passed my practice marking and that my supervisor and the other academics teaching on the module were satisfied that I would mark the essays well and provide valuable feedback. I had enjoyed my mock marking as well, so it was rewarding to be formally given a bigger bundle of essays to mark. And of course this responsibility meant that my pay would increase for the module, another obvious bonus!
Phase Two – Daunting Responsibility! Once I was physically given my marking, it dawned on me that I had a responsibility to do well, and a bout of impostor syndrome caused me to doubt that I could fulfil this role to the necessary standard. While I knew that all of the essays would be second-marked, (meaning if I was extremely harsh or overly generous this would be rectified), I was concerned that my ability to mark would be questioned if this happened. I wanted to give high-quality feedback for this reason, but more importantly I wanted to provide understandable, constructive comments that the students could use to improve, especially as I was marking the first assignment for a first-year module.
Phase Three – Enjoyment, with a (generous) dash of frustration! As anticipated, I really enjoyed the challenge of marking, and found it rewarding. I had been warned that the enjoyment would wane, but I don’t think a collection of 20 essays was big enough to put me off. That said, it was quite time-consuming. I took about 40 minutes to read, briefly annotate, mark and write the feedback for each essay, (two or three times longer than I think it takes for seasoned pros). With more experience, I’m sure my personal best will improve.
I encountered a few difficulties during the marking process, which were predominantly related to being unsure or unconfident as to what to do in certain situations. Here I reflect on some of these problems.
Borderline Essays – I found essays that just missed out on being awarded the higher grade bracket (48, 58, 68) particularly disheartening, especially if they were very close to a 2.1 or a first. Frustratingly, it was usually a technical issue, such as referencing or presentation, rather than the ideas and the argument itself, that prevented me from awarding a mark in the higher class. These essays were the most time-consuming to mark, because I wanted to be sure that I had given the correct grade. Hopefully, with a bit more practice, I will find it easier to determine which boundary the essay is in – and in much less time!
Failed Essays – Failing an essay was something I hoped I wouldn’t have to do my first time round, but it had to be done in one instance because, quite simply, the essay did not answer the question. The difficulty then lay in writing the feedback for the essay, which both had to clearly explain their mark and also encourage them to perform better.
Repetitive Essays – While the students had a choice of eight essay tasks, the majority of the essays answered one of two questions. Of course this becomes a bit monotonous, but I found that either taking a short break before starting another essay or finding an essay on a different question eased this.
Silly Mistakes – On the basis of the frequency of spelling mistakes and typing errors, I assume that most of the students had neglected to proof-read. In fact, I think each student’s feedback form included a version of the phrase ‘proof-read your work’ in the ‘how to improve your mark’ section. This becomes annoying, but is livened up by the occasional entertaining error!
Once the papers were second-marked, I was told that my marking was accurate, and that I gave constructive comments. Most importantly, one of my students confirmed this. A few weeks later before one of my seminars, I asked a few students how they had done in the assessment and whether they were happy with their mark and were confident they could improve, and one told me that I’d marked it and given them clear and helpful feedback. This has given me a boost of confidence, and I’m really looking forward to my next batch of marking; I feel more optimistic about my ability to mark and am hopeful that I will be able to do it more efficiently. I’ve learnt that having the marking criteria and examination guidelines at hand is invaluably helpful, particularly for the borderline essays. I still hope that none of the essays I mark have to be failed, but I realise that this is unrealistic considering that I expect to have more marking next time!
For the time being, I’ll await the next marking challenge and the variety it provides for the working day. Maybe I’ll find out how many essays it takes for the enjoyment of it to subside, but I hope not. Only time will tell if I can improve on my personal best.