Everyone knows “that kid” in precept. The one who talks far too much. The one who has the answer to every question. The one who tries to influence the professor into grading tests, essays or problem sets more favorably. We have all dealt with one during our Princeton experience.
But that shouldn’t be the case. To state the obvious, a student's written work should be graded only on the merit of the individual piece, not prior tests or class participation. While I do not believe that any professor intentionally lets past performance affect how he/she grades students’ assignments, unless they are completely anonymized, bias is inevitable.
What happens is that Professors fall trap to the cascade effect. They see a student turn in B+ work on their first assignment, maybe notice he isn’t the most talkative during precept, and then assume that student is mostly capable of only B+ work.
I am not saying professors intentionally try to trap people in a certain grade range. Rather, with limited information, we are prone to subconsciously overvalue our initial observations when making future assumptions.
Granted, the student who says something intelligent in precept may be rewarded with a good grade on an assignment, motivating the student to be better prepared overall. However, the inverse is also true, where students may feel discouraged from speaking their mind in class out of fear that it will hurt not just their class participation grade, but also their grades on all their assignments.
There is a simple solution to this issue: prevent professors from knowing whom they grade. Several professors choose to do this already, although it is currently not a university-wide policy. All that is needed is a simple system of coded student numbers being placed on assignments instead of names. Conveniently, we, as Princetonians, already have student ID numbers, making the switch very easy.
Would this be a slight inconvenience for professors and graders? Maybe slightly, since they would then have to look up the name corresponding to the number. However, the benefits of a fairer grader scheme, via the removal of the current system, far outweigh any inconveniences.
Granted, the system would not be foolproof. Professors may eventually recognize students’ numbers, their writing style or even their handwriting. The system would not be perfect, but it would be better than the status quo.
Another advantage of anonymous grading is potentially eliminating discrimination. Conscious or unconscious, several studies have shown that people can face discrimination on just their name alone.
For instance, in a study performed by the National Bureau of Economic Research showed employers resumes that had the names Emily and Greg and then resumes with the names Lakisha and Jamal. Despite the fact that the qualifications on the resumes were identical, the resumes from Emily and Greg were 50 percent more likely to receive callbacks than the resumes from Lakisha and Jamal.
It is not beyond reason to assume that people could face similar discrimination on submitted assignments at Princeton too. Moreover, it is possible that women receive worse grades simply for having female names, especially in fields where there is an anti-women stereotype. Other kinds of name-based discrimination that I have not even considered are also possible.
No student should receive a bad grade based on an inherited characteristic, let alone something as superficial as their name. Bad grades should be for bad work, not a perceived bad name.
Students, under such a system, may feel more open to disagree with poor grading on an assignment. Right now, it can be very difficult for a student to oppose a professor if the student has to worry about his or her future grades suffering. However, if a professor does not know which paper belongs to a student that he/she dislikes, then such problems will be minimized.
Obviously, there should be some exceptions. In a more personalized seminar-style class or for a presentation, a professor must know who they are grading. However, in a huge number of classes where grades are largely or entirely dependent on submitted assignments, such as tests, essays and problem sets, I think anonymized grading can make grades much more fair.
I don’t think my proposal is a perfect one. But it is clear that the current system is potentially very flawed. A slight fix, that some professors are already implementing, may go a long way to prevent bias.
Beni Snow is a freshman from Newton, Mass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.