The Society for Research into Higher Education

Leave a comment

What is an academic judgement?

By Geoff Hinchliffe

Academics make academic judgements virtually every working day. But what exactly is an academic judgement? As a starting point, one might have recourse to appropriate statutory documents: for example, the 2004 Higher Education Act mentions that a student complaint does not count as a ‘qualifying’ complaint if it relates to matters pertaining to an ‘academic judgment’ (Higher Education Act, 2004, p5, Section 12). The Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) helps to provide a gloss on the term:

“Academic judgment is not any judgment made by an academic; it is a judgment that is made about a matter where the opinion of an academic expert is essential. So for example a judgment about marks awarded, degree classification, research methodology, whether feedback is correct or adequate, and the content or outcomes of a course will normally involve academic judgment.” (OIA, 2018, Section 30.2)

But although it is heartening to see that some deference is paid to academic judgment, little light is thrown on what it actually is. This can, of course, be useful: for example, Cambridge University’s (2018) complaint procedure quotes the OIA definition without further elaboration. Providing no-one is prepared to question the nature of academic judgement, who are we to complain? But, at the risk of disturbing sleeping dogs, I propose to enquire more closely as to what constitutes an academic judgement.

Two points are worth making at the outset. The first is that academic judgements should not be construed as the special preserve of those designated as ‘academics’. Students also make academic judgements along the same lines as academics, so it’s not the case that academics make special judgements that students couldn’t possibly understand. The second point is that the object of judgements – what is being judged – may vary considerably, but the kind of judgement being made is still of the same type. The elements of judgement remain the same whether the object of scrutiny is a first year undergraduate essay or a paper in a leading journal.

It seems to me that there are four basic types of academic judgement and they frequently operate in combination – it is this that gives the whole business of judgement its mystique and rarefied quality.

1. Process judgements

When we evaluate any kind of process that has (or is supposed to have) a definable outcome we tend to use a set of criteria, although the latter may be carefully delineated or may operate as background guidelines. Examples are the following of some clinical procedure (where the criteria are strict) or following laboratory protocols (ditto). But they could also include the evaluation of the methodology in a piece of empirical research, in which we consider the suitability of the methodology used and its success or otherwise. Process judgements are also entailed in the evaluation of essays in terms of structure and argumentation leading up (hopefully) to a conclusion. In this case, we evaluate the process of writing and structuring an essay or report; we consider, for example,  whether the author has ‘signposted’ the argument so that its trajectory has some kind of sense and cohesion. Process judgements tend to be ‘rule-governed’. But as I have indicated, in some cases the rules are pretty clear and in other cases there is much room for flexibility. So, regarding essays, there are no fixed rules for demonstrating a process of argumentation; but neither are there no rules at all. In the film Pirates of the Caribbean it is explained that the Pirate’s Code is not to be adhered to strictly at all times because it is not so much a fixed code as ‘guidelines’. Very sound advice too.

For those interested in philosophy, process judgements are roughly akin to what Wittgenstein thinks of as ‘following a rule’ (see Wittgenstein, 1958, paras 201-2). In this case, what Wittgenstein has in mind are the rules for using words so that they have a meaning that is understood. But since meanings are never fixed (unless through prior stipulation) then they are indeed ‘guidelines’. Who would have thought a pirate would be reading Wittgenstein?

2. Epistemic Judgements

In the case of epistemic judgements we are assessing claims to knowledge. That is, we are assessing whether the claimant has sufficient evidence and reasons for making a knowledge claim. Of course, we are also interested in the context – that is whether and to what extent the claimant is aware of relevant context that may affect the claims they are making. Furthermore, we are often reluctant to make positive judgements if the claim simply asserts a proposition – to the effect that such-and such is the case – even if the proposition is true. We need to see the evidence and reasoning that back up the knowledge claim – bare assertions are usually not enough.

There are two further features of epistemic judgements: first they are objective, in the sense of being propositional – they purport to say ‘how the world is’. Second, they are universal in the sense that in making such a judgement I am claiming that everyone will reach the same conclusion as myself. Of course, others may disagree but the idea is that, in principle, these disagreements are adjudicable (Steinberger, 2018, p38).

Notice that if I am marking a student paper then I am assessing the kinds of epistemic judgements the student is making – whether the claims made are true and whether they are well founded. It’s not the case that the student is doing one thing and I am doing something else – the writer of the paper and the assessor are both making the same kind of judgements. That is, the student needs to be in the habit of assessing their own epistemic judgements as to evidence and reasoning in exactly the same way that I, the assessor, am doing. The process is the same: the only difference is that in the one case the outcome is a paper and in the other, the outcome is a mark.

3. Reflective Judgements

This kind of judgement is tricky to explain but I think readers will see its importance. By ‘reflective’ I don’t mean the reflective judgement beloved of writers of practitioner manuals where ‘reflective’ means ‘self-reflective’. Thus interpreted, reflection is usually reflection on a procedure and one’s part in it. In other words, practitioner self-reflective judgements are really a kind of process judgement.

What I have in mind as ‘reflective’ is when we think of a piece of data, a theory, or a concept in functional or relational terms. We look for a broader framework within which phenomena can be better understood. Thus, Kant thought that when we reflect on a natural phenomenon we situate nature in a purposive or teleological framework, in order to provide a kind of interpretive unity (Kant, 2000, p67).  More generally, we can think of reflective judgements as contextual: we look for links and relationships in order to make sense of the object of study, to bring some sense of order and unity to bear. Reflective judgements can be highly creative when links are made between phenomena that weren’t thought of before. Quite a lot of Foucault’s work was of this type – for example, the way in which he related different kinds of formative behaviours into the notion of the disciplinary: in seeing that behaviours in schools, prisons, hospitals and the like were produced and reproduced he was able to fashion a new concept – the ‘disciplinary’ – which gives us real insight into how modernity works.

Peter Steinberger (2018, pp47-50) explains the nature of reflective judgements rather well, in my view – he sees reflective judgements as different from what I have called epistemic judgements (following Kant, he calls the latter ‘determinate’ judgements). What a reflective judgement does is to provide an interpretive context in which different knowledge claims can be related and thus better understood. Reflective judgements operate at the level of meaning. When we ask our students to make the links both within and across modules we are asking them to think reflectively.

4. Normative Judgements

We need to be clear that normative judgements are not the same as ethical judgements. I see the latter as delivering a verdict on the worth or rightness of a person or action. As such, ethical judgements play (or should play) a minor role in academic research and production. It is irritating if a historian gives us ethical verdicts on her subject matter (Henry was a good king, but King John was a bad one) – ethical judgements are almost always unnecessary.

But normative judgements are something else. They involve according due sensitivity to the values and norms associated with the subject matter under consideration. By their very nature, normative judgements are contextual. For example, if a student fails to appreciate the nature of religiosity in fifteenth century England (for example, by seeing it in terms of ignorance and superstition because of a modernist, secular approach which the student brings to bear) then it is the normative judgement that has gone awry. Or, if a research methodology fails to take due account of the needs of confidentiality, again, it is a normative judgement that is deficient. Normative judgements often operate in combination with other judgements (especially with process and reflective judgements) and this is one of the reasons why academic judgement can be complex.


If I am right then there are four basic elements to an academic judgement. Typically in any assessment all four elements are operating together – process, epistemic, reflective and normative. The judgements we use are precisely those that we want our students to develop. We can see straight away that attempts to categorise and tabulate all of these elements may be helpful but are unlikely to be comprehensive. The precise nature of the judgement will vary according to subject matter and no set of assessment criteria that I have seen comes anywhere near to giving full justice to the complexity of the judgements involved. Moreover, most of those outside academia (government ministers, MPs, media people and the like) are just clueless regarding how much they know of this complexity.

Complex, yes: but not so complex that we can’t attempt to say what is involved in giving an academic judgement. But the above sketch cannot be the last word – if I have succeeded in suggesting some initial ‘guidelines’ then that is a start.

SRHE member Geoff Hinchliffe teaches undergraduates in the School of Education at the University of East Anglia. This blog is partly based on a paper he gave at the 2018 SRHE Research Conference.


Cambridge University (2018) Student Complaints

Higher Education Act (2004)

Kant, I (1933) Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Kemp-Smith, N, London: Macmillan

Kant, I (2000) Critique of the Power of Judgement, trans. Guyer, P and Matthews, E, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

OIA (2018) Guidance Note on the OIA Rules

Steinberger, P.J (2018), Political Judgement, Cambridge: Polity Press

Wittgenstein, L (1958) Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Blackwell