How not to cope with one’s own bias in grading

For a lot of people, knowledge that one is biased about a group of people, or even an individual, is little help in grading fairly. Quantifying one’s standards is also of limited help. Most of us can just tell when a paper exhibits genuine understanding or insight, but rules for detecting it are very likely to be elusive. The human mind often operates with intuition and insight best, and, as people working with those who lack insight in an area of life find, using rules and reason can be very limited.

So what to do? Removing names from papers is not always possible or, with small groups, effective.

One thing one might try is to compensate by systematically awarding higher grades than one’s biased judgment indicates. E.g., “This feels like C work to me, but I’ll give it a B- because it is too likely that I’m being biased.” Clearly, one should worry about doing this when it will harm other students; e.g., in a competition. But otherwise, can it do harm? Unfortunately, yes, it can.

It turns out that students of groups liable to be targets of bias know when they are getting graded up because of their race or ethnicity. They experience it as a kind of invalidating practice that puts them further outside the normal practices of the majority. Or so this interesting article from the Atlantic argues.

So what to do?

Citing the original report and a researcher, the article says:

So how can this problem be solved? Harber and his colleagues found that teachers who have greater social support at school are less likely to show a positive feedback bias toward black students. The theory is that teachers with support feel less anxious about their performance and can concentrate on being fair graders.

But this comment seems odd, because it does not seem to be addressing a context in which anonymous grading can actually be helpful. The problem discussed seems to be more general that the one we started with, though I don’t think that’s a reason for dismissing the idea that inflated feedback can be damaging.

6 thoughts on “How not to cope with one’s own bias in grading

  1. I think you may be reading a bit too much into the article. The Harber study doesn’t seem to have gauged the effect of grading up on minority students, but rather on the conditions under which teachers grade such students up.

    He does say that this can have a negative effect on students (seemingly not something determined from his study), but he doesn’t say they know it when it happens. He says, when they believe that it happens, it has a negative effect on self-esteem – which isn’t surprising.

    Another reason to be dubious of systematic grading up to compensate for one’s biases is the arbitrariness of the level of the jump (nearly a full letter grade, in your example). This could lead to the other harm mentioned in the piece – giving students an inaccurate idea as to their abilities or level of learning.

  2. ajk, I changed your signature back; email addesses on line can get you lots of spam, I hear.

    I am not really sure about your criticism. The article says the teachers did grade black and Latino (sic) students up, that the students were implicitly aware that this was going on, and that it was harmful:

    Another psychological roadblock, as outlined in a recent study in the Journal of Educational Psychology, is a tendency for white teachers to judge minority students’ work less critically than white students’.

    It’s called positive feedback bias, but its effects are largely negative. “There’s nothing wrong with getting positive feedback,” says Kent Harber, lead researcher of the study. But “what happens is that when the feedback is inaccurate, it doesn’t provide a valid fix as to where a student is actually performing. Then they don’t know where they need to best direct their efforts. It’s like having a biased compass.”

    Furthermore, the minority students are implicitly aware that this is happening, which increases their distrust of their white teachers and fuels disinterest in schoolwork.

    “When black students get positive feedback from a white, and they believe that the white is aware of their race, not only does their self esteem not get bolstered by the positive feedback — it is actually depressed,” Harber says.

    The researchers found that the teachers were indeed not grading the black and Latino students as critically as the white ones.

    It does say the researchers took the deeper question to be about why the teachers did this, but that wasn’t the part I found most interesting. Nonetheless, I think that the idea that one look to context to solve a problem is good and interesting, but in this case, it won’t solve our problem. And I doubt it would solve theirs, but that another matter. Perhaps what you were getting at is that it wasn’t really fair for me to criticize their solution for failing to solve our problem.

  3. Thanks ajj,

    Immediately after the passage you cite, there is a paragraph that ends with this description of the study:

    “The teachers were told their comments would be delivered back to the students. In actuality, there were no students and the essays were assembled to mimic a C-grade level ability.”

    Maybe Harber is referring to some other work with regard to the effect on students, or perhaps the study is being incorrectly described, here (though it doesn’t appear to be, given the abstract).

    I would indeed be interested indeed to see a study that showed that students are implicitly aware of being graded up. Anecdotal experience (my students) suggests that students don’t read their fellow students’ papers for comparative purposes, nor to they have an accurate gauge of the quality of their work (they all think they wrote something approaching an A paper). But this could be unique to where I teach.

  4. I wonder if there is work on the implicit bias of teachers toward white students such that those students are receiving grades that they don’t deserve as well. Would work on white privilege and white denial reveal this?

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