Students from at least four of the five academic colleges appear to have had assignments marked non-anonymously in 2019, in breach of the University of Birmingham’s code of practice
Issues were initially raised when a ‘concerned lecturer’ contacted Redbrick regarding a long-standing loophole in Turnitin, the University’s anti-plagiarism detection software, that gives markers the option of revealing students’ names during the marking process.
The University’s code of practice states that markers should ensure that they are grading coursework anonymously ‘where possible.’ Several student handbooks also reassure students that all assessed summative work will be marked without knowledge of the candidate’s identity.
A University source told Redbrick that, in addition to this problem, a change to the settings in December 2018 resulted in the default being switched to non-anonymous marking. This has meant that students have since been at risk of their names being visible to markers if module convenors fail to reverse this setting.
Since Redbrick became aware of this issue, multiple cases from the Colleges of Arts and Law, Life and Environmental Sciences, Medical and Dental Sciences, and Social Sciences have been uncovered from assignments that should have been marked anonymously during this year’s second semester. The full extent of the anonymity breaches is not yet known. However, official guidelines obtained by Redbrick suggest that this problem may have been occurring for years.
Redbrick has also been made aware of a case in which a convenor threatened to dock marks from students if they didn’t identify themselves by name in the filename of online submissions.
An anonymous lecturer told Redbrick: ‘There is nothing to stop any marker seeing every student’s name with one click.’ As a result, it is a system that relies purely on trust: ‘You’d hope that no-one would abuse it,’ another staff member told Redbrick, ‘but it would be better if the option wasn’t there at all.’
The breaches raise questions about potential bias in academic marking. A third-year History student told Redbrick: ‘As a woman of colour, it’s important to me that my anonymity is protected so that I have no disadvantage in achieving high grades.’
Another student said: ‘Whether they think it or not, some lecturers have their favourites in seminars, so I think it’s important that they mark anonymously so that everyone has a fair chance of doing well.’
The anonymity breaches affect both undergraduate and postgraduate students. It does not apply to exams, group projects, or other modes of assessment where it is not possible to conceal the identity of the student. All students can view whether their work has been graded anonymously on Canvas alongside their coursework grade.
In response to Redbrick’s findings, a University spokesperson said: ‘The University is committed to ensuring that marking is undertaken anonymously wherever possible and that we maintain fair and transparent marking practices. We are aware of the issue with Turnitin and are working to put in place a fix for the next academic year. The technical issue has arisen as a result of a compatibility issue with Turnitin and another part of the marking system. The University has robust moderation processes in place, overseen by the University’s Board of Examiners and our external examiners, and we can reassure students that this year’s work will be reviewed, as per normal processes, for any out of the ordinary results or patterns.’