Could blind grading systems allow UT professors to avoid favoritism?

Larisa Manescu

Establishing close professional relationships with educators can be the most beneficial part of attending a university. It is the risk of losing these opportunities that initially made me wary of blind grading systems, such as the one proposed by UT economics professor Daniel Hamermesh.

The idea comes from a study Hamermesh, along with researchers Jan Feld and Nicolas Salamanca from Maastricht University in the Netherlands, co-authored and released earlier this month. That study presented the novel idea that favoritism in the classroom and workplace can cause greater inequity than overt discrimination. The study defined favoritism as “display of a significantly positive response toward those of similar characteristics to oneself.”

For the experiment, a large number of students were given an exam at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Some were asked to put their names on the exam, giving away clues as to their nationality and gender, while others wrote down ID numbers. The similarities between four groups of test takers and graders was taken note of: Gender matched between students and graders, gender unmatched, nationality matched between students and graders and nationality unmatched. Ultimately, the researchers found that students whose tests were graded by scorers of the same nationality received significantly better grades than those who were unmatched. 

The definition of favoritism offered by the study isn’t the only definition of that word, and one experiment conducted in Europe doesn’t affirm that a problem exists here in Austin. But the results of the study may still have implications for how we grade students here at UT. 

For example, If an exemplary student does poorly on one assignment, but has a good track record with the teacher, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that the teacher may give the student a higher grade than deserved. Instead of focusing on the individual quality of the sole assignment, the teacher could unconsciously rely on his overall impression of the student. 

Considering the University already has ID numbers (EIDs) to track students, having students provide only these on tests and assignments would not require an overhaul of the grading system. Hamermesh mentioned that most law schools in the United States already implement a blind grading strategy, in which a student is a number rather than a name.

At the same time, a blind system may come into conflict when applied to smaller, more intimate classroom settings by disrupting the personalized feedback that is an integral part of such courses.

Joe Capraro, a graduate teaching assistant in the School of Communication, said, “Knowing each student’s individual strengths and weaknesses — which as an instructor I spend the semester doing and adjusting to — adds to [the feedback process]. If I know student #1283 is Jane, I can help her better.”

There may be a solution that meets in the middle. To satisfy the fairness criteria of a blind system, students would put numbers instead of names on their assignments to make the scoring process as neutral as possible. The professor would focus solely on the quality of the work, allowing them to consider it free of bias or personal attachments. To preserve the benefits of professors being familiar with a student’s work, feedback would still be offered throughout the semester. The professor could ask for an email attachment to match the paper with the name of the student after the grading was over, a strategy that Capraro mentioned one of his own professors employed.

For classes with exams, a blind system focused specifically on the grading process sounds like an idea that would be simple to implement and have few negative consequences. As Hamermesh said, “We want to put the world on as neutral of footing as possible.”

Manescu is a journalism and international relations junior from Ploiesti, Romania.