The Case For Anonymous Grading: How These Practices Combat Bias and Support Disenfranchised Students

Grading at Davidson garnered attention among students and faculty members following the February 2020 faculty vote on reformations to the Latin Honors system. The proposed change from a GPA range system to a percentile-based system has fostered discussion within the Davidson community about the value of Latin Honors, as well as the demographics of the students receiving them.

One often overlooked piece of this larger discussion around grades at Davidson is the process by which they are assigned. In Fall 2019, we, as members of the SGA Academics Committee, decided to take a closer look at grading practices as a whole, with a special focus on inclusivity and the reduction of bias in the classroom. We discovered several Davidson faculty members within the Biology, Political Science, and Religious Studies departments, among others, already working towards more inclusive pedagogy. Beyond Davidson, we’ve identified extensive research underscoring the importance of anonymous grading in those efforts.  

In an article entitled “Preventing Halo Bias in Grading the Work of University Students,” experimenters randomly assigned 159 professors to assess a poor oral presentation of a university student, a good oral presentation of a university student, or no presentation (Malouff et al. 2014). The experimenters then directed the professors to grade an unrelated piece of writing by the same student. Professors tended to assign a higher grade to the written work of the student with a good oral presentation than that of the student with a poor oral presentation; professors assigned intermediate scores to students with no prior presentation (Malouff et al. 2014).

This study illustrates the halo effect, whereby students who perform well on initial assignments receive higher grades on subsequent work, regardless of its quality. One way to address the halo effect is through anonymous grading, which reduces the likelihood of professors subconsciously rewarding students who perform well initially with higher grades on subsequent assignments. While the halo effect has the potential to impact all students, it is particularly relevant to first-year students who did not have access to college-level courses such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate in high school.

The halo effect is problematic for exactly this reason: instead of resulting in grades that reflect a student’s quality of work over an entire semester, it rewards those entering Davidson with educational privilege. 

Implicit bias extends beyond the halo effect to impact the grades of students with minority identities. Bias often factors into the grading process when faculty evaluate the work of students of different races, genders, Body Mass Indices, and levels of perceived physical attractiveness, among other identifiers (Staats et al. 2018). Stockholm University underwent extensive exam reformation and switched to anonymous grading in the fall of 2009 (Jansson and Tyrefors 2018). The switch to anonymous grading had a significant positive effect on the grades of female students (Jansson and Tyrefors 2018). Researchers found strong evidence of same-sex bias in work graded by Teaching Assitants and professors, most of whom are male at Stockholm University (Jansson and Tyrefors 2018). 

In a tangential study, researchers examined how teachers’ racial biases can impact their grading. They grouped 200 black and white teachers into pairs containing one black or white “learner” and one white “instructor” (Jacoby-Senghor et al. 2015).  Experimenters assessed instructors’ racial biases via uniform questionnaires administered prior to any interaction between members of the pairs. The results showed that the instructors’ implicit biases predicted lower grades for black learners and higher grades for white learners (Jacoby-Senghor et al. 2015).  Regardless of efforts to remain impartial, implicit biases will inevitably influence the grading process. Although anonymous grading is not always feasible nor desirable—such as in courses where there is professor involvement in a writing review process—it is one tangible way to address unfairness in grading. 

Anonymous grading practices square well with Davidson College’s increasing devotion to inclusive learning.

As defined in the 2019-2024 Strategic Vision (developed by the Office of Innovation Initiatives), “pioneer[ing] an inclusive learning environment that fosters free inquiry, discovery & engagement” stands among three other four-year targets. The strategic vision is a document meant to unify the community around multiple concrete interdepartmental goals. In our commitment to this plan, we must recognize the role of Anonymous Grading. Throughout our work on this project, we have spoken to six Davidson professors who have already adopted anonymous grading. These professors cited a variety of reasons for making the change. Each rationale presented different benefits, though all aimed to address the same issue: implicit bias. In our conversations, professors often mentioned the option, through the Moodle quiz platform, to grade student answers one question at a time. Professors found this function especially useful in its capacity to streamline grading, to maintain the same quality standards, and to ensure that no student’s full quiz received unduly harsh assessment due to a professor’s mood on a given day. Further, professors found that across the board, the anonymizing of assessments relieved a common burden: a desire to reward students who had made an effort to meet with professors and gain mastery, but who continued to show lackluster performance on assessments. Anonymous grading eliminates the potential for such biases to creep in. 

In the classroom, anonymous grading may take multiple forms. Let’s break them down into two main categories: anonymous handwritten assessments and anonymous online assessments.

Professors who have implemented anonymous grading in their classrooms have recommended two strategies for grading handwritten tests and papers. First, students may substitute the names they include on their assignments with their nine-digit student ID numbers. Alternatively, students may write their names (or student IDs) on the final page of their assessments, so that professors won’t identify the paper until they’ve had time to judge it. On Moodle, an option listed as “blind grading” may be accessed when creating any new assignment or quiz. With anonymous grading enabled, Moodle will generate numbers to represent the students submitting documents and answering quiz questions. After finishing the grading process, professors may turn off the “blind grading” setting and review individual performances on a given assignment.

Since beginning this project last fall, we have met with several groups on campus dedicated to making Davidson more inclusive. The Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), responsible primarily for coordinating faculty and student development, also maintains resources for professors on inclusive pedagogy. The Fostering Inclusivity and Respect in Science Together (FIRST) initiative strives to increase inclusivity in STEM at Davidson. We met with leadership from both teams to discuss how we can best improve faculty awareness of anonymous grading at Davidson. We are now in the process of designing a brochure with the help of T&I that will provide step-by-step instructions for faculty interested in exploring anonymous grading. 

Working to bolster anonymous grading practices at Davidson, we’ve become aware of two major themes: the ease of implementation, and the impact of anonymity on the learning environment. By encouraging professors to grade anonymously we are not pushing for radical change. Instead, we are asking professors to shift a setting in Moodle, or ask students to replace their names with ID numbers. And still, we recognize that this practice may not work well in every classroom. Professors may, of course, use their discretion. However, the benefits of properly-implemented anonymous grading policies are truly significant. Grades should reflect the quality of a student’s work without regard for their identity.

Bias degrades the integrity of grades, and in degrading it, cuts away at the foundation of our academic institution.

Insofar as we can, we must all combat implicit bias and uphold the values of scholarship so central to this college. Anonymous grading serves as a meaningful first step in this movement. Let’s make it happen.

Enabling Anonymous Grading Through Moodle

Works Cited:

Jacoby-Senghor, Drew S., et al. “A Lesson in Bias: The Relationship between Implicit Racial Bias and Performance in Pedagogical Contexts.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Academic Press, 31 Oct. 2015

Jansson, Joakim, and Björn Tyrefors. “Gender Grading Bias at Stockholm University: Quasi-Experimental Evidence from an Anonymous Grading Reform .” Research Institute of Industrial Economics, 2018, pp. 1–4

Staats, Cheryl, et al. “State of the Science: Implicit Bias Review.” Kirwan Insitute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, 2017, pp. 28–34

Julia Bauer is a first-year student from Danbury, CT. In Fall 2019, she began work on the Anonymous Grading Initiative in the Student Government Association’s Academics Committee. She is passionate about college access and recently obtained certification as an Advising Fellow through Matriculate, a non-profit organization that helps high achieving, low income high school students apply to high graduation rate colleges in the U.S. She is an intended Physics and Political Science double major.

Wren Healy is a first-year student from Seattle, WA. As a member of the Student Government Association’s Academics Committee, he cares greatly about the integrity of the learning environment. Wren’s work in starting a high-school civics fellowship has focused his interest in building and improving upon meaningful communities. Wren intends to major in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE).