Subjective and Objective Marking: A Cross-Faculty Perspective

For thousands of years now, people have debated about the concept of what it means to be objectively “right” or “wrong”. Despite this unsettled issue, much of the life of a university student is reliant on whether whoever is marking your work thinks you’re right or not. For certain faculties, deciding what is right and wrong in terms of marking can be easily decided based on information given in lectures or written in textbooks- if the student can remember the processes or information given and can apply that during an assessment, the student will receive a mark reflective of that. Simply put- if you are right, you get the marks, and if you are wrong, you do not. The information that you are expected to know or apply is usually outlined and discussed during class time or through homework and is typically year level appropriate. This makes sense. In certain other faculties, the marking is more or less based on the preferences of whoever is marking your work.

I won’t go so far as to say that if your professor dislikes you that you will receive a bad mark on every assignment, but I will go so far as to say that if the professor doesn’t like your writing style, you very well might get a bad mark on every assignment. The way that assessments are marked is widely subjective and varies between professors, adding a level of difficulty as an art student who strives for “good” marks. While there is no clear “right” or “wrong” in a paper – aside from obvious structural necessities like a well-devised thesis statement and proper formatting – professors and TAs have plenty of works to compare a student’s writing to. While objective faculties such as Sciences and Business are typically marked based on the retaining of level-appropriate information, it is my experience that papers and assignments submitted by university level Arts students are graded in comparison to professional authors or to the marking professor’s writing ability. Not to say that this is the professor’s fault- it is a natural default in the critique of writing at any level to expect a piece of writing to meet certain expectations based on your personal preference of what you decide is “good” writing. While a student who is generally considered a “good” writer will often receive a “good” mark, it is usually a small mystery as to where the actual numerical value of a mark for a paper comes from.

Another issue related to this subjectivity is the question of what a “good” is mark in terms of a paper- while most students in the Arts faculty would agree that anywhere between 80% and 85% on a paper is a success, I’m sure most would also agree that receiving a mark any higher than an 85% is effectively impossible from most professors. If a Biology student remembers all of the information necessary for a test, they will receive full marks- if an English student writes a level appropriate paper following all of the guidelines given by their specific professor, it is almost certain that they would not receive a 100% on that paper. As a student studying both English and Biology with close friends in Business and Kinesiology, it is easy for me to compare marking methods between faculties- so I guess I’ll leave you with this: is a Science student’s 100% equivalent to an Arts student’s 85%?