Marking: the CAT’s out of the bag

I just had a disagreement, though a very plesantly handled one, wiht one of the staff here about how to mark a continuous assessment test (CAT) that the girls had taken.

The test content was derived from a past exam paper. The exams are set by the university who accredit our diploma course. The situation here is pretty bad: the University staff write the sylabusses, set the exams and mark them. College staff are, I gather, rarely offered the opportunity to validate the exam papers but when they have been asked to do this — and it has happened only once — they were instructed to restrict their comments to grammar and spelling, not to comment on the content or style of questions. I have seen some of the past papers and they are very poor. Some had clearly not even been checked for spelling (one said “identify and collect errors in the following programs” rather than “identify and correct…”). I am lead to believe that at the University, the lecturers — who set their own exams — use their actual exam questions as CATs which leaves their students well prepared for the exam. College lecturers do not even see the exams before our students sit them. So it seems reasonable enough to use past papers to set CATs. There are, however, no model answers for these past papers.

The CAT I was helping to mark was one such; there were no model answers. One question asked for an explanation of concept X and had two marks allocated. One student had written an answer that comprised four bullte points, each a well-formed sentense. Two of them (the first and the last) were correct and the others incorrect. My approach to marking this was to allocate one mark each for the two correct points. My colleague disagreed.

We argued this point in a friendly way for some time. Various reasons were given for not giving the student full marks for that question. The predominant one seemed to be that the correct answers were not the first two. My colleague argued that when the exam scripts are marked by the University only the first two points would even be read so it would be impossible to get marks for the correct fourth point. At this point I had to take a walk outside to cool off. I was, after all, not angry with my colleague, but with the university staff. I dont even know if what my colleague told me is true. But my very reason for volunteering, in the first place, was to learn about different cultures, so I returned from my walk and sat town to continue marking.

Meanwhile my colleague had engaged one of the sisters as an independent arbitrator. Sister wisely observed that the way to allocate marks would depend upon the marking plan. We were back at square one since there was no marking plan for this CAT. Sister did, however, suggest that she would rather I did not mark leniently as this would make the girls complacent and not prepare them well for their exams. The marks from these cats do count towards our student’s overall progression, but the exam carries a much higher weighting.

From this I have learned:

  • To always make a marking plan for my CATs (since they are marked and count towards the student’s progression, I think I would have done that anyway)
  • That our students must be prepared for their exams by making them understand the implicit, as well as the explicit rules of engagement.
  • That I hold some strong views on fairness in education that I was not really aware of before.

Did I miss anything?


  1. Chris Says:

    Well, I guess some might also have argued that 2 rights + 2 wrongs = zero marks!

    Sister’s point about what the bottom line is makes most sense though: if it doesn’t count towards final mark, what counts most is what they learn from results from this test, and how it affects their motivation (but a low score could be de-motivating). IMHO.

    BTW, are you sure that you can reveal this stuff without libelling your employers…? (Or giving away tips to students reading your blog?!) :confused:

    Having strong views shows that you care, though! (which kind of answers my TXT question from the other day).

    Love, Chris

  2. Neil Delaney Says:

    Hi Mark

    When I was doing my teacher practice we would use the ‘put a tick next to each correct answer and count the ticks’ approach. Therefore using this scheme your pupil would score two points. I’d also add a comment explaining why the two incorrect statements where not correct. Neil