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Student's names unfairly impact grades due to alphabetical bias

Grades, along with test scores, class participation, and homework completion, are traditional measures of academic success. However, a recent study suggests that something as arbitrary as the sequence of the alphabet in which a student’s surname falls could also significantly influence these grades.

This intriguing finding emerged from an extensive analysis of over 30 million grading records, revealing a subtle yet significant alphabetical bias.

Alphabetical sorting and grading bias

The research was conducted at the University of Michigan, analyzing a broad array of historical data. The data included various programs, students, and assignments, all managed through an online system called Canvas. This platform, similar to others, automatically sorts student assignments by surname alphabetically.

Moreover, the study encompassed data spanning from the fall semester of 2014 to the summer of 2022. It also included detailed demographic and academic progress information from the university registrar.

Grading bias against later-alphabet surnames

The researchers found that students with surnames starting later in the alphabet often received lower grades.

In addition, the comments they received were often more negative and less polite compared to their peers with surnames starting with letters from the beginning of the alphabet. This trend indicated a decline in grading quality as educators progressed through the alphabetically ordered list.

Alphabetical gap and grading bias

The data showed a consistent pattern: students with surnames starting with A to E scored an average of 0.3 points higher on a 100-point scale compared to a random grading order.

Conversely, students with later-in-the-alphabet surnames scored 0.3 points lower. This created a 0.6-point disparity, which, although seemingly small, could significantly affect a student’s overall GPA and future career opportunities.

Interestingly, for a small percentage of graders who assessed students from Z to A, the grade gap reversed. This finding confirmed the researchers’ hypothesis that the order of assessment contributed to the discrepancy.

The role of grader fatigue

The study’s co-authors, including a doctoral student focusing on educational technology and another on artificial intelligence, initially speculated that grader fatigue might play a role in this phenomenon.

The hypothesis stemmed from observations in other sequential tasks, such as data labeling in machine learning. These tasks can also become tedious and prone to errors over time.

The findings suggest that the longer graders work, the more likely they are to experience a drop in attention and cognitive function. This decline can affect the fairness and accuracy of their grading.

“We kind of suspect that fatigue is one of the major factors that is driving this effect, because when you’re working on something for a long period of time, you get tired and then you start to lose your attention and your cognitive abilities are dropping,” said study co-author Jiaxin Pei.

Proposed solutions to counteract bias

To address the unintentional bias revealed by the study, the researchers have proposed several strategic changes to current educational grading systems.

One primary recommendation is for educational platforms to adopt a random order when sorting student assignments, instead of the traditional alphabetical sorting. This change would help mitigate the influence of surname positioning on grading outcomes, ensuring a fairer evaluation process.

In addition to altering the sorting mechanism, the team also suggests that educational institutions could benefit from restructuring their grading resources. One approach is to increase the number of graders for larger classes.

This would not only alleviate the burden on individual graders but also minimize errors related to grader fatigue, which can worsen as graders work through long lists of students. Distributing the grading workload more evenly across multiple evaluators could lead to more consistent and accurate assessments.

Awareness about the grading biases

Furthermore, the researchers advocate for enhanced training programs aimed at raising awareness among graders about potential grading bias. By educating graders on the existence and effects of such biases, institutions can foster a more conscientious grading environment.

Such training could focus on recognizing subconscious preferences and implementing strategies to counteract these biases during the grading process. Through these combined efforts, the educational sector can take significant strides toward achieving a more equitable assessment system.

Academic and social implications

The research has garnered significant attention, resonating with many who suspect such biases, albeit subconsciously, might exist within academic grading systems.

“Our conclusion is this may be something that happened unconsciously by the graders that’s actually creating a real social impact,” said study co-author Helen (Zhihan) Wang.

The study highlights a crucial aspect of educational fairness and suggests practical steps. These measures could ensure that grading remains as unbiased and equitable as possible.

As the research continues to be shared and discussed within academic circles, it is likely to inspire further investigation. This could potentially lead to significant changes in how student performance is evaluated across educational institutions.

The study is under review by the journal Management Science.


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