Four things that can bias how teachers assess student work

Four things that can bias how teachers assess student work


The way that teachers assess students has been under scrutiny since the UK government announced that this would be one element of a range of evidence used to replace GCSE and A Level exams this year.

Teacher assessment is a key part of university study, too. University educators play a pivotal role in judging and grading written and non-written tasks in both academic and workplace settings.

Although teachers are the ones who spend most of the time with students during their learning journey, the reliability of teachers’ judgements has sparked heated discussions. There are fears that teacher bias regarding students’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds could affect student results.

Teachers have to fight against their own subjectivity when giving grades, and being aware of their potential biases is important. My research has identified four factors that can contribute to biases in teachers’ judgements.

1. Their beliefs about assessment

Teachers who believe the purpose of an assessment is to provide students with an opportunity to learn are likely to be more open to supporting students during the assessment process. For example, they would ask leading questions to help students to cover all the important points in an oral examination.

teacher looking on as pupils work in classroom
A teacher’s belief about the purpose of an assessment affects how they mark it.
Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock

In contrast, some teachers will believe an assessment is a hurdle, intended to only allow the most competent students to progress. They will usually oppose offering cues to students and adhere strictly to the guidelines.

These different beliefs about assessment influence the level of support provided to students, which may enable some students to be awarded higher marks.

2. Their confidence in the process

Well-defined marking criteria – guidelines that clearly describe the key attributes that teachers should follow to assess student performance – are hugely important. They allow teachers to validate their own judgements. Without a set of specific marking criteria, teachers do not feel confident to make pass-or-fail decisions for borderline students.

If teachers believe that the criteria they are given are not up to scratch, they are likely to deviate from them. This means that they may include additional criteria that they consider to be essential, or pay less attention to criteria they perceive as less useful.

This can result in students being assessed using different marking criteria by different teachers, depending on the teachers’ own confidence in the materials they have been given.

3. Their experience

Experience in assessment and expertise in speciality teaching areas influence teacher expectations of student performance. Teachers with years of experience in assessing students usually have a leading role over those with less experience. Less experienced teachers are likely to follow decisions made by experienced teachers, even if they may not always agree with the decisions.

Two female teachers walking in a hallway
Less experienced teachers are likely to follow the lead of those with a deeper understanding of an assessment.

For example, if an experienced teacher regarded a particular assessment as a teaching opportunity for students to learn and therefore did not fail any students, the less experienced teachers are likely to follow their lead.

Another interesting point to note is that when teachers are teaching and subsequently assessing students outside their own specialist area, they may bring with them their own subject-specific expectations. The expectation that students will use a systematic approach to report events for a history class probably isn’t quite applicable when marking a creative essay in English.

4. Their emotions

Emotion plays a key part in teaching and learning. In face-to-face performance assessment, teachers could become frustrated if they perceive the student, for whatever reason, as not being respectful of the examination process. These frustrations might distort teachers’ judgements – the perceived poor behaviour could overshadow the ability demonstrated by the student.

In fact, teacher emotion is an underlying factor which affects all the above interrelated factors. Teacher emotion will influence how they use the marking criteria, which also depends on their beliefs about the purpose of the assessment.

While teacher subjectivity might seem worrying, the picture is not all gloomy. The current situation creates an opportunity to rethink teacher assessment as a professional practice. We can consider how it can be best combined with other evidence to provide students with accurate and credible assessment of their ability.

An understanding of the above four factors helps to increase teachers’ awareness of their own biases when marking student performance. Research showed that providing teachers with feedback on their assessment practice might help them to realise their marking behaviour.

The feedback creates a learning opportunity for teachers to formally review and reflect on their marking behaviour, and potentially make changes. After all, everyone appreciates feedback about their work if it is constructive and means well.

The Conversation

Wai Yee Amy Wong does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.