Grading, cognitive bias & fairness in HE

Empty Lecture Theatres?

Empty Lecture Theatres?


Grading takes many forms: A to Z, percentages or in Higher Education 1st, 2:1, 2:2 and so on. They are used as proxies for student’s ability (quality) and enable the making of judgements or decisions. Such grades are generated in interviews, examinations, appraisals, observation and other ways.

The meaning of fairness is far from fixed but its modern form, at least in Education, refers to the application of external, shared and recognisable standards in an objective, unbiased and impersonal way. This scientific paradigm counterpoised with subjective, biased and individual judgements, where grading takes place to rubber stamp the status quo or curry favour with patrons. This non-scientific paradigm is the reasoning behind the very first standardised examinations, the Imperial China civil service examinations and in more modern times continues to underlie the computerised scoring of the SAT or the standards of the European-wide National Qualifications Framework.

Cognitive biases & the unconscious?
Cognitive biases are heuristics, rules of thumb, that work unconsciously in our mental backgrounds enabling us to make snap judgements and devote our efforts to the more immediate concerns of our surroundings. Theses unconscious self-regulation are said to have evolved with us. Examples of these personal guidelines are the recency effect where we can recall the last piece of information in a list first and followed by the first entries in a list (primacy effect).

We can also be manipulated unconciously. Priming, for instance, is the well-known phenomenon whereby an earlier stimulus impacts on the reception of a later stimulus. So, for example, a word on a list will effect the selection of any words later requested. This may not seem so significant at first sight but such priming affects decision-making and such decisions, unconsciously made, can display implicit social prejudices and biases even when rejected explicitly in advance. In other words, we can say that we are not racist, sexist or prejudicial in any way but unconsciously this can be reversed.

These issues of grading, fairness, cognitive biases and the new unconscious are important issues. Modern life is founded upon the formal and informal judgement made about people: “she’s not bad at tennis”, “he’s so lazy”, “I got an A!” In education, grading is the core component of the whole enterprise. In HE, recent events regarding slipping of standards, increased student numbers and funding concerns have all turned the spotlight onto grading. The writer like many others in Education has a great deal of personal experience of a variety of grades and courses, exams and observations, interviews and tests as teacher and student. In Parliament recently, the discussion of standards and quality in HE Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee – Eleventh Report – was published. Focused primarily on students and universities, this report raised a number of issues surrounding employer and student views, Quality Assurance Authority, institutional autonomy, degree classification, grade inflation, degree comparison, methods of assessment, records of achievement and the role of external examiners.


In this short paper it will be argued that the current system of grading is caught between a rock and a hard place. Standards can never be fixed as the words which comprise them are semantically imprecise and interpreted. Thus these standards are based on the person, time and space and therefore contingent. Grading can never be objective because of human nature, human nature understood as cognitive biases and the dominant role of the unconscious. It is therefore necessary to accept that human tendencies exist i.e. pronounce a new unconscious (irrationality) cognitive biases paradigm and do our best to makes this known. This is a natural state of affrairs as far more so than than the currents unnatural, artificial scientific paradigm that remains dominant.

We are faced with 3 choices:
Firstly, continue with the current scientfic system.
Secondly, embrace the new paradigm but attempt to minimise its effects,
or thirdly, embrace the new paradigm and not only actively disseminate it but encourage it, too.

What if we continue with the current scientific paradigm? The status-quo will be maintained, of course, but there will, we can predict, be a gradual erosion of university independence as control of HE and grading is monopolised in the hands of a Government quango – plus ca change! Deprived students, on the other hand, will continue to be failed by the unnatural assumptions of the scientific paradigm where it is believed a one-size-fits-all set of standards and examinations is possible. Thus the expertocracy changes personnel but still holds on to privileges but to the continued cost to those socio-culturally disadvantaged.

What if we embrace the new unconscious paradigm but attempt to minimise its effects? Isn’t better to attempt to reduce or eliminate altogether the effects of class, race, gender, subculture, personality and so on by using multiple graders, anonymised mark sheets, random allocation etc? No. This is no better than retaining the current system and is perhaps even worse for it pretends to be an improvement when in fact, especially in the Arts subjects but not excluding Maths and Science, it still allows socio-cultural and psychological factors a way-in. Language is always, if not consciously, situatedly-perceived and not encountered in a vacuum so biases/prejudices can never be eliminated and, therefore, grading and standards are always personal. Moreover, this system while declaring itself better than the past will still rewards those who know how to play the game, those in possession of habitus, without the ignorant being given a chance

However, what if we were to emphasise and teach socio-cultural and generic psychological aspects of standards, grading and examinations? What if we were to tell students about the effect on grading of personal relationships, stress, time pressure, class, geography, schooling, parental income, effort, heuristics and imprecision of language? What if we were up front and told them objectivity isn’t possible and that the personal is everything? It may undermine faith in standards and the privileged expertocracy but it will also restore human nature to the centre. It may also repair the reputations of HE and restore uni independence as they can then forget about losing control of grading and standards and create their own unique and individualised approaches. This third alternative will redirect attention to the personal, persuasive, relationship-building skills rather than the impersonal and unnatural. Students will then no longer complain that grades were unfair or standards wrong only that their circumstances and relationships failed. Indeed, in some areas of education this approach is already implicit and in business skills it is readily admitted that body language, playing the game and the role of soft-skills and networking are crucial.

Weren’t standards/regulations/computerised systems intended to improve the situation e.g. equal opportunities? Yes but at the cost of new cognitive realities. That is, level a playing field does not benefit those who start with a socio-cultural handicap e.g. class, income, geography, personal relationships – only those with a physical difference (race, gender, disabilities). Those with a paucity of habitus and social capital fail. So, the levelling has only gone so far. It should go farther. We have seen how measures of added value have been introduced by New Labour. This does not go far enough and the two-tier education system of public and private school education still bestows unfair advantage in selection, grading etc. but also teaching the taken-for-granted (habitus).

Won’t teachers/lecturers have to relinquish their authority if this is exposed? Not necessarily. With full disclosure, they can act naturally rather than attempting to interpret standards, guidelines in ‘objective’ and ultimately impossible ways. This is recognised on the continent where relationships with lecturers and teachers are far more important. We pride ourselves on a myth, the myth of impartiality.

Won’t this undermine faith in university education, examinations etc. more generally? Again, this is not necessarily so. The disadvantaged will welcome the revelations of how pivotal bias and socio-cultural capital are. The privileged will not welcome this but may accept that change is necessary to bolster the credibility of their qualifications which currently is slipping. Parents will want the best for the children but will also want a universally fair system and not a system where some benefit from a head-start in the implicit ways of HE.

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