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I always grade my blue book exams one essay at a time, because I suspected something like this was true. (I also just like focusing on one question at a time. I feel that helps fairness somewhat, too, since I'm seeing everyone's answer to the same question at the same time.)

For papers, I always have my students submit their papers with just their ID number on it. (And I always fold back the cover page of the blue book.) That way I don't know whose papers is whose until they're all graded.

Trevor Hedberg

I think answer keys help a lot in this regard. If you have an answer key to refer to, you can compare students' answers to the key and limit the impact of these kind of framing effects. Sadly, essay questions often allow for such varied answers that keys don't work extremely well. One way around that problem is to craft questions that are more specific, which should make answers less varied. Another strategy is to make certain parts of the question very specific while leaving other parts more open-ended. Here's an example: "Explain Peter Singer's argument against factory farming. Does the argument succeed? Why or why not?" The critical evaluation of the argument will vary, but it should be easy to determine whether their presentation of Singer's argument is accurate and sufficiently detailed.

David Morrow

I've followed Kahneman's procedure for a long time, although I'd done it both because I thought it was fairer and because I found it easier and faster. Like Jamin, I fold back the cover so that I don't know whose exam I'm grading. I also shuffle the exams between questions.

There was a long discussion of this topic on Crooked Timber at the end of March: http://crookedtimber.org/2012/03/28/evaluating-students-the-halo-effect/

I think the most important counterargument to Kahneman from that discussion is that, depending on the exam, students might implicitly assume that you've read their earlier answers. So, if they define a term carefully in Essay #1, they might not do so again in Essay #2. Kahneman's method would lead you to mark down Essay #2, which is arguably unfair.


As for the point David brings up, there seems to be an obvious and easy solution: just tell your students ahead of time how you'l be grading. I try to be as transparent as possible with my students as to how I evaluate them.

To that end, by the way, I also use a grading rubric for their papers, which they have access to ahead of time, while they're preparing their papers.

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