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Study: Students with last names at end of alphabet given lower grades

New research by the University of Michigan shows alarming findings about how a student's last name can affect their grades.
Study: Students with last names at end of alphabet given lower grades
Posted at 12:43 PM, Apr 22, 2024

A new study by the University of Michigan made an alarming discovery that a student’s last name can affect their grades. 

When graded alphabetically, students with last names at the end of the alphabet were given lower grades than those whose surnames were at the start of the list.

That means a student with the last name Anderson was more likely to get graded higher than a student with the last name Smith.

Researchers at the University of Michigan analyzed 30 million of the school’s own grading records when it noticed the pattern. The school said that Canvas — the most widely used online learning management system — has a default setting to list students alphabetically by last name.

Researchers also found that those with last names that appeared at the end of the list were given remarks that were “more negative and less polite” on their assignments.

“We spend a lot of time thinking about how to make the grading fair and accurate but even for me it was really surprising,” said Jun Li, associate professor of technology and operations at U-M’s Ross School of Business, and an author on the study.

“It didn’t occur to us until we looked at the data and realized that sequence makes a difference,” Li said. 

The study authors noted that while this was the case at Michigan, it can be generalized across schools because institutions use similar learning management systems that have the same design flaw of categorizing students alphabetically by surname.

The research found that students with last names from A to E scored 0.3 percentage points higher compared to when they were graded randomly, and those with surnames at the end of the alphabet scored 0.3 percentage points lower — creating a 0.6-point gap. Though this may seem small, the study noted that the disparity does impact grade point averages, and thus, possible career paths.

Notably, for a small group of graders that grade assignments from Z to A, those with last names at the end of the alphabet showed higher marks because their names appeared at the top.

“Our conclusion is this may be something that happened unconsciously by the graders that’s actually creating a real social impact,” said Helen Wang, a study author and doctoral student from the school’s Ross School of Business.

Another study author, Jiaxin Pei from Michigan’s School of Information, weighed in on their theory.

“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,” Pei said. 

The researchers note there is an option to randomize the lists when grading, but alphabetical is the default setting in systems like Canvas. 

A simple fix could be to change the default settings in grading systems to randomize the order in which students appear. Other options, researchers said, are to hire more graders to distribute the workload, and to train graders to be aware of the biases. 

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