Anonymous Marking and Learning to Drive: Unconscious bias in assessment

The students’ union at Sheffield Hallam University passed a policy paper in May 2015, which emphasised that all students should be treated equally and this would best be achieved through anonymous marking.

Currently, exams are anonymously assessed at Sheffield Hallam University but not course work. One reason that course work is not anonymously marked is so that staff can tailor the feedback to the individual, something which students report they value. So from the tutors’ perspective there are good reasons to not mark course work anonymously.

Within the student union’s paper is the implicit notion that there is the potential for tutors to be biased. This seems to sit at odds with many academics who actively take an equitable and inclusive approach to their role. Is it possible that the liberal inclusive academic is biased and a move to anonymous marking could be beneficial?

In order to address the above question it is worth considering how we interact more generally. We know to cope with the glut of information we receive it is a good idea to ‘subcontract’ work, to apply a ‘script’ or more technically a ‘schema’. This liberates conscious cognitive capacity to focus on more important issues. This shifting of cognitive capacity can be seen when we engage in learning a new task. For example, when learning to drive we are overwhelmed by tasks and can barely cope with the demands. Yet soon a driver is able to drive hundreds of miles easily, to the extent that it is not uncommon for a driver to report having no memory of the car journey home.

Such automation allows us to do complex tasks easily; it liberates cognitive capacity to do other things. However, at the heart of this ability is the use of schemas or assumptions of what may happen. Assumptions that are usually correct, but can be wrong. When driving, the automation could lead to a wrong turn, inadvertently speeding or even an accident. All of a sudden this ‘sub-contracting’ is looking less attractive.   Socially we recognise this risk, and have driving awareness campaigns to make people conscious of the risks. People will still process some of the tasks of driving preconsciously but hopefully the awareness of the risks of doing this keeps the process in check and mitigates the risks.

While interesting all the above may appear to have little to do with academic marking. However, there is a strong connection and that is the way in which we make assumptions about students, their work and their performance. We all have schemas about the people we know, work with or chose to have as friends. Such schemas can allow us to more swiftly interact with people and get the best from limited cognitive resources. The problem we face is that much of this process is done unconsciously and just like the driving analogy above this can lead to serious errors being made. When applied to our social interaction this phenomenon is referred to as ‘unconscious bias’.

Unconscious bias is the recognition that based upon experience, schemas and learnt social behaviour we make judgements unconsciously. The important thing to note this is not about individuals actively wishing to promote or undermine the performance of a particular group but rather this is a subtle unconscious process that inappropriately influences the outcome of interactions.  Moss-Racusin et al (2012) examined recruitment of a laboratory manager in a science faculty. All applications were the same bar the name. Recruiting managers rated male applicants significantly more appointable, selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring. The sex of the recruiting manager did not influence the result.  Evidently the name of the applicant was unconsciously influencing the judgement as all recruiting managers were charged with finding the best possible candidate.

Banaji, Bazerman and Chugh (2003) investigated how the actions of leaders could be undermined by unconscious beliefs leading to poor judgement that weakened the recruitment and retention, and failed to enhance performance. Hence unconscious bias was undermining the ability to thrive. Again it should be noted this is not a conscious process where there is an active desire to undermine a particular group but rather a product of faulty thinking, such as ‘I work really hard and am good at my job, they are like me, so they must be the best person for the role’.

So if we return to the Student Union’s policy paper and view it through a lens of unconscious bias it becomes apparent that tutors could potentially be making the same errors of judgement noted above. Anonymous marking could help address this problem by effectively removing the symptom. However, the bigger issue that needs to be investigated is how to raise awareness of unconscious bias and mitigate its effect. The Equality Challenge Unit ( has been set up in the UK to further and support equality& diversity for staff and students in higher education. This a important step in raising awareness as the first challenge is to render conscious what our unconscious biases might be, as only then can we seek to address them and ensure that merit is at the heart of how we work with our students.

Iain Garner




Iain Garner is the Head of Department for Education, Childhood & Inclusion and is part of the executive team for the Sheffield Institute of Education.