It’s that time of year – piles of booklets appearing on my desk faster than I can clear them out. Baffling handwriting, detailed rubrics, Excel spreadsheets, moderation sessions, similarity scores, pens of many different colored inks. Short answer questions, dissertations, poster vivas, essays – all produced by students who seem gripped by fear, no matter how talented or likely to smash it.
I remember my own undergraduate exams: the sense of panic and dread has left an indelible mark in my memory. This must be why my own students laugh when we lecturers confess that the exam marking season can be more stressful for us than the regular teaching term, as busy and fraught with deadlines as that period may be. How hard can it be, they must wonder, just to read over stuff and give it a grade?
But anyone who has done it will tell you that a pile of 200 essays on the same topic, assessed over and over for hours on end to a tight schedule, is a one-way ticket to anxiety. For each individual student, the mark might be the difference between one grade boundary and another; in the aggregate, such a difference could affect the final year mark, or overall degree classification. This, in turn, is bound to make ripples through the rest of a given student’s career. So naturally the stakes are high, and we have to remain sharply in focus throughout. There is a crushing sense of responsibility.
And of course, academic life does not grind to a halt during the marking period. In a sense, I think this is the most stressful aspect of all. We still have papers to write, grants to work on, data to analyze, collaborations to tend to, scientists to supervise, seemingly endless meetings to attend, open days to plan, hundreds of emails pouring relentlessly into our Inboxes. Everything else I do is portable, modular, can be nibbled away at in chunks. But marking, at least for me, requires long uninterrupted stretches of time so that I can apply the utmost consistency, student to student.
I will survive, obviously. But if I don’t answer your email straight away, you’ll know why.