Some tough ‘soft marking’

Claims of soft marking are common, but evidence is rare. This makes UNSW academic Gigi Foster’s paper on business students at UTS and the University of South Australia particularly interesting. She has the academic results and other details for domestic and international students, as well as other information about student background and classes taken.

There is certainly no sign of the grade inflation common in American universities. The average mark for domestic students is 62%, and for internationals 57%. A figure showing the distribution of marks shows very few at the high levels and many fails, particularly for international students.

Foster concludes that there are signs of soft marking because though international students get lower grades overall, when there is a high concentration of international students in classes their marks improve. She thinks that this is consistent with grading to the curve, of ensuring that there is a similar distribution of marks between classes. When classes are mostly internationals, the better students get the benefit of a statistical adjustment to their marks.

In The Australian‘s report of Foster’s paper, not everyone is backing this conclusion:

University of Melbourne international education expert Simon Marginson and Melbourne Institute economist Ross Williams have not been convinced by some of her interpretations.

They point out that international students benefit from being grouped together in that they co-operate more and feel less isolated.

“All the research tells us that group co-operation between international students is the norm, especially among same culture internationals,” Marginson says.

Either way, I don’t see any evidence of deliberate soft marking of students, domestic or international. The bigger issue raised by this research is that so many of the students are struggling.

7 thoughts on “Some tough ‘soft marking’

  1. Based on personal experience, I believe the bit about

    grading to the curve

    When tutoring in IT at one Melbourne university a few years ago, the lecturer instructed me that, when marking exams, I should look extra closely at low-mark papers, to find any excuse for raising the mark, and also that I should look extra closely at high-mark papers, to find any reason for lowering the mark.
    Of course, this instruction (like many others) was delivered verbally, so maybe you’re not prepared to accept that as evidence.


  2. If an examiner marks the exam of John Chang, how is the examiner to know whether John Chang is a foreign student or a fifth generation Australian descendant of someone who come to Australia in the gold rushes?


  3. Alan – Grading to the curve is not necessarily a bad practice. For example, it can help ensure that students in the same subject are not disadvantaged by happening to have an unusually tough person marking their work. In the US, where grade inflation has been an issue, it stops implausibly high numbers of students achieving high grades.

    However it assumes that students of different abilities are randomly distributed between classes, which may not be the case. Also, pretty clearly there should be some asbolute standards below which a fail is recorded.

    When I was marking many years ago we did routinely look at borderline grades and compare averages between markers. In politics there is a subjective element to marking, and I saw these practices as useful in ensuring that students were treated fairly.


  4. S of R – Indeed, academics aren’t usually told which students are fee paying, though presumably if they actually get to know their students they will find out.


  5. “though presumably if they actually get to know their students they will find out.”
    I think I bump into about 400 different students each semester (at a guess — but it’s lots), so, in general, this generally won’t happen. Even in small tutorials, you still won’t know if they are OS students — the only way I can find out is to look them up or if they tell me.


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