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Grade Student Essays

Candace Caraco, TA, Department of English

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Grading student papers for a course in any discipline presents a series of challenges different from grading other kinds of assignments. Typically, a wide range of responses will be acceptable, and every paper (unless it is plagiarized) will have some merit. Consequently, grading essays demands a teacher’s close attention to insure that each paper is judged by the same standards. A method for evaluating essays that breaks the grading process into parts can help an instructor work more consistently and efficiently. By assessing papers based upon the three general categories of ideas, argument, and mechanics and style, categories easily adapted for each discipline and assignment, an instructor can more easily recognize and comment on an essay’s strengths and weaknesses and so face that daunting pile of twenty, forty, or even one hundred essays with less trepidation. Furthermore, if teachers make clear to students how this method works, fewer students will be confused about their grades or apt to charge that papers are graded in an arbitrary or purely subjective way.

Before applying the three categories for evaluation, think through what it is you want an assignment to accomplish. Grades should reflect the most significant strengths and weaknesses of an essay, so a teacher should carefully consider ahead of time what expectations he or she has for a paper and especially what he or she most wants students to do for a particular assignment. For example,

  • Do the instructions to students require specific tasks, such as agreeing or disagreeing with an author, outlining a book’s argument for review, or analyzing a particular section of a work?
  • What is it that students should show they understood?

More generally, a teacher may also consider the following:

  • Has the student presented ideas in a logical order?
  • Is the essay written in clear, grammatically correct prose?
  • Has the student offered explanation or examples to support generalizations?

For any given assignment, your criteria for success may vary in the details; whatever they are, make a list of them. Ideally, students would receive a copy of this list before they begin writing their essays.

The problem with such a list of criteria, however, is that it can quickly grow unwieldy. While we need some specific questions as a checklist for student writing success, we can benefit from a streamlined evaluation system. The ideas/argument/mechanics and style format is a simple way to group criteria, both for yourself and your students. Once you have a set of criteria for an essay to succeed, you can decide how these questions fit under the three headings. A general breakdown of these questions might look like this:

IDEAS

  • Does the student understand the accompanying reading or the principles behind the experiment, etc.?
  • Does the student offer original interpretations?
  • Do the student’s explanations of terms, ideas, and examples demonstrate an ability to grasp the main points, paraphrase them, and apply them?
  • Does the student answer the question(s) assigned?
  • Does the essay demonstrate an understanding of a subject, or does it wander from one subject to the next without offering more than superficial remarks?

ARGUMENT

  • Can we easily determine what the author’s main point is?
  • Does the essay provide a series of points that add up to an argument supporting the main point (thesis)?
  • Does the essay proceed logically from point to point?
  • Does the student provide examples and explanations to support his or her generalizations?
  • Does the essay contain contradictions? Is the paragraph structure logical?

MECHANICS AND STYLE

  • Is it clear what the student’s point of view is?
  • Does the student control tone? Is the essay free of grammatical errors?
  • Is the essay punctuated appropriately?
  • Do citations and bibliography follow the correct format?
  • Is the prose clear or do you puzzle over individual sentences?
  • Are words spelled correctly?

What I am suggesting is essentially adapted from the methods of two English professors, Charlene Sedgwick and Steve Cushman. Sedgwick’s “ENWR Handbook” offers guidelines for evaluating freshman composition papers by assessing focus, organization, style, and mechanics; Cushman has in the past recommended that graders for his upper-level literature courses weigh mechanics and style (together) as one-third of a grade, and ideas and argument as the other two-thirds. Though instructors for non-English courses may want less emphasis on writing skills per se in an essay grade, I would argue that papers for all courses should be evaluated at least in part for their grammar, punctuation, and prose style because these fundamentals of writing are everywhere necessary for readers to understand writers. And a teacher in any discipline can easily tailor the three categories of ideas/argument/mechanics and style to the conventions of the course and its academic discipline.

Simplified (and Platonized) then, these three categories translate into the following grade scale: essays with good ideas that are logically organized into an argument and written in clear and mechanically clean prose receive an A; essays lacking in one category (e.g., have poor organization) receive a B; essays weak in two categories receive a C; and essays that manage none the three general criteria garner a D or fail. What constitutes an “A” within any given category will also depend upon the course level and the assignment, but in a very general way, if a student’s essay can answer “yes” to all of your questions for a category, then the student should have an “A” for that portion of the grade. (More explicit criteria appear in “Responding to Student Writing” by Stella Deen in the November, 1995, Teaching Concerns.)

Particularly for new teachers, it is sometimes helpful to read through several essays to see what an average paper for a class looks like. Checking to see if several papers have similar difficulties can also help you detect unclear instructions in the assignment or a content issue that may require further class discussion: if we have been unclear in some way, then we should be prepared to cut our students some slack when evaluating that part of the assignment.

However much we simplify the process, grading essays will never be as simple as marking multiple choice exams. Most student essays are some combination of good ideas and slight misunderstanding, clear argument and less clear argument: they don’t neatly divide into three parts. Typically the problems in an essay are closely related: for example, a misunderstanding of content can lead to a logical flaw in the argument and to prose that is full of short sentences because the author is not certain which ideas should be subordinated to others. Because of this system of logical relations, it is all the more important to include a final comment with a grade.

Writing final comments may indeed slow grading, but the pedagogical benefits of comments far outweigh the few minutes per paper needed to write them. Students continue to learn from an assignment if they understand what their work accomplished and what it didn’t. More importantly, final comments can help students write more fully conceived and better executed papers on the next assignment. (For a time-saving method of offering detailed comments about common problems in a set of essays, see Nancy Childress’s essay “Using General Comment Sheets,” published in the October, 1995 issue of Teaching Concerns; she recommends preparing a handout for the entire class in addition to [shorter] written comments on individual essays.)

One way to organize an end comment is to write at least one sentence pertaining to each of the three categories of ideas, argument, and style and mechanics. Breaking an essay into these three components can help us comment on an essay’s strengths and weaknesses more quickly than if we had no set criteria or if we had too many. A particularly successful comment will explain to a student how ideas, argument, style, and even grammar work together. Final comments also serve as a check on ourselves, especially if we tie our general end comments to specific examples within the paper. For example, when I finish reading Student A’s essay, I may sense that he didn’t offer proof in support of assertions. But when I look for an example of an unsupported assertion, I find there are passages that might serve as supporting evidence; however, he has not explained very carefully how the examples work, so my impression has been that his essay lacks proof. Even when we are sure that we have avoided bias and inconsistency, comments pointing to examples will better illustrate to students what they can improve. Above all, comments should not be mere justifications for grades, though they may coincidentally deter students from seeking explanations as to why the received a “B” instead of an “A.”

TRC NOTE: For help in implementing these suggestions, request a Writing Workshop.

Grade for Learning Objectives
Response to Writing Errors
Commenting on Student Papers
Plagiarism and Grading

Information about grading student writing also appears in the Grading section of the Teaching Guide. Here are some general guidelines to keep in mind when grading student writing.

Grade for Learning Objectives

Know what the objective of the assignment is and grade according to a standard (a rubric) that assesses precisely that. If the purpose of the assignment is to analyze a process, focus on the analysis in the essay. If the paper is unreadable, however, consult with the professor and other GSIs about how to proceed. It may be wise to have a shared policy about the level of readiness or comprehensibility expected and what is unacceptable.

Response to Writing Errors

The research is clear: do not even attempt to mark every error in students’ papers. There are several reasons for this. Teachers do not agree about what constitutes an error (so there is an unavoidable element of subjectivity); students do not learn when confronted by too many markings; and exhaustive marking takes way too much of the instructor’s time. An excellent essay on this topic is “On Not Being a Composition Slave” by Maxine Hairston (available at the GSI Teaching & Resource Center). Resist the urge to edit or proofread your students’ papers for superficial errors. At most, mark errors on one page or errors of only two or three types.

Commenting on Student Papers

The scholarly literature in this area distinguishes formative from summative comments. Summative comments are the more traditional approach. They render judgment about an essay after it has been completed. They explain the instructor’s judgment of a student’s performance. If the instructor’s comments contain several critical statements, the student often becomes protective of his or her ego by filtering them out; learning from mistakes becomes more difficult. If the assignment is over with, the student may see no reason to revisit it to learn from the comments.

Formative comments, on the other hand, give the student feedback in an ongoing process of learning and skill building. Through formative comments, particularly in the draft stage of a writing assignment, instructors guide students on a strategic selection of the most important aspects of the essay. These include both what to keep because it is (at least relatively) well done and what requires revision. Formative comments let the student know clearly how to revise and why.

For the purposes of this guide, we have distinguished commenting on student writing (which is treated here) from grading student writing (which is treated in the Teaching Guide section on grading). While it is true that instructors’ comments on student writing should give reasons for the grade assigned to it, we want to emphasize here that the comments on a student’s paper can function as instruction, not simply as justification. Here are ten tips.

  1. Use your comments on a student’s paper to highlight things the paper accomplishes well and a few major things that would most improve the paper.
  2. Always observe at least one or two strengths in the student’s paper, even if they seem to you to be low-level accomplishments — but avoid condescension. Writing is a complex activity, and students really do need to know they’re doing something right.
  3. Don’t make exhaustive comments. They take up too much of your time and leave the student with no sense of priority among them.
  4. Don’t proofread. If the paper is painfully replete with errors and you want to emphasize writing mechanics, count the first ten errors on the page, draw a line at that point, and ask the student to identify them and to show their corrections to you in office hours. Students do not learn much from instructors’ proofreading marks. Direct students to a writing reference guide such as the Random House Handbook.
  5. Notice patterns or repeated errors (in content or form). Choose the three or four most disabling ones and direct your comments toward helping the students understand what they need to learn to do differently to correct this kind of error.
  6. Use marginal notes to locate and comment on specific passages in the paper (for example “Interesting idea — develop it more” or “I lost the thread of the argument in this section” or “Very useful summary here before you transition to the next point”). Use final or end comments to discuss more global issues (e.g., “Work on paragraph structure” or “The argument from analogy is ineffective. A better way to make the point would be…”)
  7. Maintain a catalogue of positive end comments: “Good beginning for a 1B course.” “Very perceptive reading.” “Good engagement with the material.” “Gets at the most relevant material/issues/passages.” Anything that connects specific aspects of the student’s product with the grading rubric is useful. (For more on grading rubrics, see the Grading section of the Teaching Guide.)
  8. Diplomatic but firm suggestions for improvement: Here you must be specific and concrete. Global negative statements tend to enter students’ self-image (“I’m a bad writer”). This creates an attitudinal barrier to learning and makes your job harder and less satisfying. Instead, try “The most strategic improvement you could make is…” Again, don’t try to comment on everything. Select only the most essential areas for improvement, and watch the student’s progress on the next draft or paper.
  9. Typical in-text marks: Provide your students with a legend of your reading marks. Does a straight underline indicate “good stuff”? Does a wavy underline mean something different? Do you use abbreviations in the margins? You can find examples of standard editing marks in many writing guides, such as the Random House Handbook.
  10. The tone of your comments on student writing is important to students. Avoid sarcasm and jokes — students who take offense are less disposed to learn. Address the student by name before your end-comments, and sign your name after your remarks. Be professional, and bear in mind the sorts of comments that help you with your work.

Plagiarism and Grading

Students can be genuinely uninformed or misinformed about what constitutes plagiarism. In some instances students will knowingly resort to cutting and pasting from unacknowledged sources; a few may even pay for a paper written by someone else. Your section syllabus should include a clear policy notice about plagiarism so that students cannot miss it, and instructors should work with students to be sure they understand how to incorporate outside sources appropriately.

Plagiarism can be largely prevented by stipulating that larger writing assignments be completed in steps that the students must turn in for instructor review, or that students visit the instructor periodically for a brief but substantive chat about how their projects are developing, or that students turn in their research log and notes at intermediate points in the research process.

For further guidance on preventing academic misconduct, please see Academic Misconduct — Preventing Plagiarism.

UC Berkeley has a campus license to use Turnitin to check the originality of students’ papers and to generate feedback to students about their integration of written sources into their papers. The tool is available in bCourses as an add-on to the Grading tool, and in the Assignments tool SpeedGrader. Even with the results of the originality check, instructors are obligated to exercise judgment in determining the degree to which a given use of source material was fair or unfair.

If a GSI does find a very likely instance of plagiarism, the faculty member in charge of the course must be notified and provided with the evidence. The faculty member is responsible for any sanctions against the student. Some faculty members give an automatic failing grade for the assignment or for the course, according to their own course policy. Instances of plagiarism should be reported to the Center for Student Conduct; please see If You Encounter Academic Misconduct.