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The Scarlet & Black

Gales’ Gevalts: PioneerWeb


By David Gales

I don’t know how many folks at Grinnell have been in a class that uses anonymous PioneerWeb (Pweb) grading, but I’d like to talk about it today from my own perspective as a first-year student who pretty much exclusively takes humanities and humanities-related classes.

For those who don’t know, there’s a feature on PWeb that allows professors to grade assignments and papers without seeing who submitted them. This means that students submit their essays without their name attached, the professor grades and makes comments upon all of the assignments, and everyone gets their assignment back at the same time. I’m a little unclear what exactly the process looks like from the professor’s standpoint, but I know that the result is functionally anonymous grading.

On the surface, this sounds great! Professors get to grade all of the papers based on the exact same criteria, meaning that their personal bias about certain students won’t impact the grading process. Students who don’t talk as much in class and don’t go to office hours won’t be penalized for not being a familiar face, for example. It also incentivizes students to turn in their work on time, so that they are able to get their assignment into the system and will not be locked out of the assignment on PWeb before they can turn it in.

However, I think the reality of the situation is a lot less beneficial. One of my courses this semester uses anonymous grading, and I’ve been noticing some problems with it as the semester progresses. But first, I want to make something abundantly clear: I did write a paper for a class with anonymous grading. However, I am not writing this article because I am unhappy with the paper I wrote or the feedback and grade that I received. I’m writing this article because I see problems with the system, not with my own personal experience.

Now, the class I’m in is a mix of first through fourth-years, meaning that students are entering the classroom with vastly differing levels of writing experience. It’s also possible that not all of the third and fourth-years in the class are humanities majors, and have focused much more intensely on STEM subjects. Lab reports, as an example of STEM writing, require very different skill sets than writing a persuasive English essay or history paper.

While anonymous grading might initially sound like it levels the playing field, it really does the opposite. Because professors aren’t able to assess each individual paper based on the writer’s past experience, the grader must choose a standard to hold all the papers to, collectively. That means that a fourth-year English major is graded using the same criteria as a first-year intended Biology major. While this isn’t necessarily an issue on its own, it means that the fourth-year in question either won’t need to put in nearly as much effort to get a good grade or the first-year won’t be able to achieve a good score without a disproportionate amount of work. It’s incredibly difficult to find a set of criteria that serves as a happy medium.

If a professor can see who wrote the paper, they’re more accurately able to gauge the quality of the paper compared to the student’s level of experience. I’m sure that the best paper you wrote in tutorial isn’t nearly as good as the best paper you’ll write in the last semester of your senior year, so there’s no reason for anyone to judge the two with the same standards.

I’m not advocating for first-years (or STEM students) to be let off easy when it comes to papers.

I still think that a first-year can write a well-constructed paper with a clear and persuasive argument and ample evidence, and they should absolutely be treated as such. But I don’t think that it’s fair to “level the playing field” by anonymizing the grading system.

I mentioned earlier that a potential positive for anonymous grading was the motivation to turn in your work on time, but I’m not even sure that’s necessarily a beneficial aspect. With the way PWeb is set up, the only way to actually submit a late assignment is to email it directly to your professor, meaning that while they’re grading all of the other papers anonymously, they know exactly which one you wrote. What if you get sick and are unable to finish the paper on time? What if you get an extension? In both cases, the professor is forced to grade your specific paper using different criteria than the rest, simply because they know it’s yours.

Anonymous grading needs to go. It’s unfair to students, it puts undue stress on professors, and the benefits are massively, massively outweighed by the problems it creates.

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