A little problem with the marking

Sami has been to see Geoff to complain about his marks. As Head of Department and Chair of the Exam Board, Geoff feels honour-bound to check the transcripts. This has nothing to do with the money Sami put on the table. Has it?

After Sami had left, Geoff walked over to the door and quietly turned the lock. He leant against the door for a moment, and then crossed back to his desk and sat down heavily in his executive chair. He wiped his forehead again and sat for a moment.

Then he took his keys out of his pocket and unlocked the cupboard next to his desk. He took out a bottle of whisky and a glass and  pushed aside the kettle and mugs on top of the desk to make room to put them down. He poured out a generous portion and took a large mouthful. He closed his eyes. Students. Staff. Parents. He’d had enough of all of them.

He opened his eyes and swivelled to his computer. He logged into the student record system and tried to find the results for ‘Foundations of Biology’. You could only change grades when you were looking at the module view. As chair of the exam board, he had access to everything in his department. But he couldn’t remember how to navigate the system properly. He hardly ever bothered to log in. You couldn’t just search on the module title, only the module code, which of course he didn’t know by heart. He resisted the temptation to call Alison.

Eventually he looked up Sami Patel, and then worked back from the list of modules linked to his name.  He felt quite pleased with himself when the list finally came up, and treated himself to another slug of whisky. He glanced down at Sami’s transcript, to double check he was on the right module. The transcript contained module titles and numbers. He sighed. Did humans really design this system, or was it all somehow robotically generated?

He looked more closely at the marks for the module. They were sorted by student number, so it was hard to see any pattern, but he thought they looked a bit odd. There was no way of sorting the data any differently in the student record system. Better take a closer look. He’d need to download the results, put them into Excel, and see what was going on. If he could work out how to do that….

Two hours later….

Alison and Derek were having a quiet night in. They were slumped in front of a Bond DVD with the remains of a takeaway on the coffee table.  Emma was out, and Ben was holed up in his bedroom. A faint thumping from his bass speaker could be felt throughout the house.

“I’ll go and get another bottle of wine.” Alison reluctantly lifted Derek’s arm from her shoulders and went out to the kitchen.

Her mobile was ringing in her bag. She took it out. ‘Geoff, Office.’ Office? Geoff? At this time on a Friday night? She’d better answer.

“Geoff. Is everything all right?”

“No, I haven’t. It’s Friday night, Geoff. What’s the problem?”

“OK, OK. Hold on.”

Holding the phone to her ear, she fished the iPad out of her bag with the other hand.

“No, hang on a sec, I just need to…”

She opened the mail application and scrolled down to the most recent message, from Geoff. Subject line ‘Foundations of Biology’.

There was no text in the email, just a graph.

Graph showing strange variation in mark distributions

Alison had had her share of the first bottle of wine, and it took her a moment to see the significance of the graph. Mark distributions were usually bell-shaped, with longer or shorter tails depending on whether it was a science or an arts subject. This one did look rather odd.

She sat down at the kitchen table.


Derek came into the kitchen. “What’s happened to that bottle of…” he broke off. “What’s up? Is it Emma?” She shook her head, and mouthed “work”.

He came and looked over her shoulder. A graph. Who looked upset over a graph? At least it wasn’t another death in the department.

Alison waved her hand at him to indicate she’d explain in a minute, and continued her conversation. Derek took a second bottle of wine from the fridge and wandered out again. “It’s on Pause,” he offered, as he left the room. Alison gave no sign of hearing him.

“I see what you mean, Geoff.”

“Favourites? Really? Although…actually, looks more like non-favourites. Or whatever the opposite is.”

The wine wasn’t helping.

“No, I’m not the internal moderator. I don’t know who it is. Probably Tim. Or Heather. Heather. I think.”

“I don’t know where the scripts are. Jan may still have them.”

“It’s Bank Holiday weekend, Geoff. I’m pretty sure that Jan’s gone to her flat in Anglesey. We can’t do anything till Tuesday.”

“We can’t do that. They should be locked up somewhere anyway.”

“OK, OK. Tomorrow morning.”

“Eight? Come on, Geoff.”

“OK. Ten o’clock outside the main building. But you’ll have to warn security. The building’s all closed up at weekends.”

“OK. See you tomorrow.”

She pressed the red button and put the phone back in her bag. Shit.

She pulled the laptop out of her bag and opened up her master marking and moderation spreadsheet. Weird. ‘Foundations of Biology’, 200 students. Jan was the sole marker, and there was no moderator listed.

Alison felt slightly queasy. Why wasn’t there another marker to share the load? And why no moderator? Dimly, she remembered  there had been some discussion when she’d produced the list in September. Had she put Tim down? And he’d pointed out he was meant to be marking something else at the same time? And she’d crossed him off, and said she’d find someone else…? Surely Jan would have reminded her?

She shook herself. Couldn’t do anything now. Better be practical. On the iPad, she checked the calendar for Saturday. Ben: computer club, 10.30. Emma: volleyball, 10am. She went back into the lounge and sat down heavily.

“At last. Don’t they know it’s Friday?” Derek reached for the remote.

“Hang on” Alison said. “Can you take Ben to computer club at ten-thirty? I’ve got to go into work. Emergency. I’ll drop Emma on the way. She’ll be a bit early, but it won’t kill her. She can get the bus back.”

“But I thought you were doing tomorrow. I was going to …” Derek didn’t bother. He sighed heavily. “OK, whatever.” He shifted slightly on the sofa so that they were no longer touching. Alison poured herself a very large glass of wine.

Was Sami right? Did Jan have favourites? Or were they a particularly odd group that year?

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2 thoughts on “A little problem with the marking

  1. Pingback: Marks | Wading through Treacle

  2. Pingback: Justifications | Wading through Treacle

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