Students’ Surnames May Actually Affect Their Grades

( — An analysis by researchers from the University of Michigan found that when assignments are graded in alphabetical order, students whose last names rank at the top do better than those whose last names rank at the bottom, Michigan News reported.

The researchers analyzed over 30 million records from the university and determined that students with surnames beginning with letters lower down the alphabet ranking received lower grades than the students whose surnames were at the top.

The researchers determined that the grading discrepancies were due to sequential grading biases.

The analysis also determined that those whose surnames rank alphabetically low receive more negative comments in grading. What’s more, the grading quality for those lower down the alphabet is poorer than the grading quality for those at the top.

Ross School of Business Associate Professor Jun Li, the co-author of the study, said it was surprising to discover that “sequence makes a difference.”

The researchers analyzed eight years of data from Canvas, the online learning management system widely used by colleges. In addition to the data from Canvas, the researchers also analyzed data from the Registrar’s Office that included details about the backgrounds and demographics of the students.

The analysis found a pattern of declining grade quality based on alphabetical position.

Students with last names starting at the top of the alphabet (A-E) received a slightly higher grade point (0.3) when they were graded alphabetically compared to when grading was done randomly.

Meanwhile, students whose surnames fall at the end of the alphabet (W-Z) received a 0.3-point lower grade when grading was done alphabetically, creating a grading gap of 0.6 points.

If grading was done in reverse alphabetical order (Z through A), the grading gap held, with A-E doing 0.3 points worse and W-Z doing 0.3 points better.

Canvas defaults to alphabetical order. Researchers suggested that instructors reset the option to allow assignments to appear in random order. They also suggested that additional graders be hired, especially for larger classes, to minimize grading bias.

The study is being reviewed by the journal Management Science.

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