Assessment is a crucial part of the dissertation process and entails a number of problematic issues.
It is important that students have a clear idea of what is expected of them in producing a dissertation. Unlike the problem sets and exercises that characterise much of assessment in economics, there cannot be a specific mark scheme for the dissertation. However, it is possible to provide a set of grade descriptors designed for the dissertation, showing the characteristics that markers will be looking for in allocating marks to the final product. This helps in forming student expectations and provides transparency. A sample set of descriptors is available in Appendix 3. These descriptors can be tailored to local requirements. Asking markers to highlight a copy of the descriptors for each student being assessed indicating how well they hve performed on each aspect is a good way of reaching comparability of standards across markers, and providing feedback to students afterwards.
There is no universal agreement that this approach is desirable. It has been argued that marking to descriptors enforces too much conformity and inhibits markers from examining with their own personal and professional judgement. However, this may be an argument for framing the descriptors in such a way that they are not overly prescriptive, but yet identify the intended outcomes on which the assessment of the dissertation should be based. When large numbers of students are involved, it may be that personal and professional judgement has to be harnessed in order to ensure equity in treatment.
Another way of trying to manage student expectations is through some element of peer- or self-assessment – not necessarily as part of the summative assessment. For example, students could be encouraged to evaluate a fellow student’s research proposal or presentation. Alternatively, a self-assessment checklist could be required as part of the dissertation submission, itemising key aspects of the dissertation. A sample self-assessment form is available through the Appendices.
Students may also gain confidence in their work if some portion of the summative assessment is derived from interim pieces of work, such as the research proposal, a presentation or library skills project. This can also incentivise students to manage their time and receive feedback on how they are progressing.
Achieving consistency in assessment is challenging, especially where the number of dissertations to be marked is large so that marking has to be spread between a relatively large number of staff members. Consistency is also difficult because of the wide range of dissertation topics that is possible. The use of descriptors can help here, as they are cast in general terms that do not vary across topics. The danger is that some markers will be more diligent than others in giving marks based on the descriptors. At department level, this could be monitored by constructing a spreadsheet to compare mean marks (and the standard deviation) for each pair of markers. This may help to reassure external examiners that marking has been carefully undertaken — as well as ensuring equality of treatment for students.
Where the economics dissertation can be taken by both single honours students and those following joint honours, it is important for markers to be aware of what is reasonable for particular students to produce. A politics and economics student should not be penalised for avoiding econometric work, nor should a single honours economics student be penalised for lacking background in political science.
The nature of the dissertation is such that it is difficult to maintain anonymity in the marking, so this is one type of assessment where double-blind marking must be retained, rather than some form of sample moderation process.
One of the issues on which practice varies between universities is the question of whether the supervisor should or should not be one of the markers of the dissertation. Some argue that the supervisor should be excluded from the assessment process in order to ensure independence of the marking, whereas others argue that the supervisor is able to identify the extent to which the student had received assistance as part of the supervisory process. Consistency may be more likely where marking is organised to mix up the pairings of first and second markers.