Saturday, September 29, 2007

How To Grade A Paper

My students have now begun to receive papers back from me with comments and grades, so they ask questions about how the grade was compiled, and just what do the comments written in the margins and between the lines mean.

Unlike a set of math problems, or a vocabulary test on word definitions, writing is not an exact science. The word “essay” is derived from the word “assay,” and means “to try.” Often, whether or not the “trying” is successful is a matter of opinion. Still, when I look at a student’s paper, there are some matters that can be evaluated objectively.

To get an A grade on a paper in my class, the grammar and spelling must be flawless. I should be able to read and understand every sentence. Grammar and spelling are not subjective matters, and therefore, are concrete in nature. A word is either spelled correctly, or it is not. If the paper is typed at home, there is no reason why a word should be misspelled. The student has had time to review drafts and make changes. The editing is assisted by the computer which checks for spelling errors. I find that the grammar check in most word processing programs is not reliable. However, a student can often hear the errors when rereading the paper. Having a parent or peer read the draft before turning it in can also be a help in catching grammatical or syntactical errors.

Some other areas that are non-negotiable are handwriting and formatting. Papers that are handwritten by students, say a timed writing in class, must be handwritten clearly. If I cannot read it, I cannot evaluate it. Students often complain to me that this is unfair. “I got an F because of handwriting?” they wail. Yes. Would you buy a cell phone that does not allow you to hear the other party? If I cannot understand the brilliant ideas in a paper because I cannot read the handwriting, the ideas never made it through the storm of illegible scratches embedded on the page. I do allow my students to write in cursive or print, whichever is clearer. At ninth grade, it is really too late to teach proper cursive. Plus there are more important fish to fry.

As for formatting, I give very specific guidelines the first day of class. They are part of a packet called “Guidelines For Writing” drawn from the Modern Language Association’s (MLA) Handbook For Writers of Research Papers (Sixth Edition). “Any writing completed for class in handwriting must follow these format guidelines: Write in blue or black ink. Use college-ruled lined paper not ripped from a notebook. On the first line, against the left (usually pink) margin line, write your name. On one line each immediately below your name, write the course title (English II Honors) and date (name, course title, date=three lines). If there is a title to the assignment, center it on the next line in the middle of the page. Skip one line, indent, and begin your essay. Do not skip lines, but you must indent each new paragraph. Do not skip lines between paragraphs. Write on both sides of the paper, unless the ink bleeds through; if the ink bleeds through, write on one side only. Use cursive or printing based on what is clearer to read. Understand that unreadable handwriting or printing means that the paper fails to communicate the ideas adequately and will be awarded a failing grade. Any sources quoted or used in the essay should be listed at the end of the piece.

“Any writing completed for class on the computer must follow these format guidelines: Choose a standard, easily readable typeface such as Times New Roman and type size, such as 12 point. Use black ink only. Do not justify the lines of your paper at the right margin. Use a good printer with plenty of ink so that the print is clear and crisp. Print on one side of the paper only. Keep a back up copy of your paper on disk and in hard copy. Use only 8 ½ -by-11 inch paper of good quality. Margins top, bottom, left and right should be one inch (this is default on most word processing programs; you do not need to change it). Indent each new paragraph by pressing the TAB key once. Double-space your paper throughout, including quotations, notes and lists of works cited. Leave two spaces at the end of each period, questions mark, colon, or exclamation point; leave one space after each comma and semi-colon. Do not use a title page. Beginning one inch from the top of the first page and flush with the left margin, type your name, the course, and the date on separate lines, double-spacing between lines. Double-space again and center the title. Double-space again between the title and the first line of the essay. Do not underline your title or place it in quotation marks or type it in all capital letters. Number all pages consecutively throughout the paper in the upper right-hand corner, one half inch from the top and flush with the right margin (normally, your computer will do this for you under Insert: page numbers.). Type your last name before the page number in case pages get separated.”

Is this being too anal retentive? No. I am teaching students that the appearance of the paper often subconsciously influences the way a reader reads the paper, and therefore can influence the grade. On such things as Advanced Placement or SAT exams, does a student wish to receive a lower grade simply because she has misspelled words, or written illegibly?

From here, the grading becomes more complicated. Did the student answer the question? Does he have a clear thesis or argument, clear, specific, detailed support for this argument? If the argument is about a book, poem or play, does the student draw specific scenes and examples from the work studied to support his position? Does the conclusion wrap up the argument? Is the style of the writing fluid, cohesive, coherent, logical, and organized?

If all of these aspects are in place, the paper receives an A. If the paper has spelling or grammar errors, especially involving titles of works, characters, and authors, I take a lot of points off. If the spelling errors are simple errors, such as confusing the different uses of there, their, and they’re, I lower the grade. If I cannot understand a sentence due to poor grammar or missing words, a student misuses prepositions, or has problems with subject-verb and pronoun-antecedent agreement, I take off major points.

If a student’s lead paragraph does not clearly state the author and title of the work being analyzed, nor offer a clearly stated thesis/argument, I note it in the margin and knock off points.

In the body paragraphs, if the evidence is not clearly presented in an organized and logical manner, I note it in the margin and subtract from the grade. If the student does not use the work of literature, or in the worst case scenario, does not demonstrate knowledge of the work read for the paper, I deduct huge numbers of points.

If a student has a weak conclusion, or no conclusion at all, I will note it in the margin and subtract from the total points.

Am I always negative? No. I often note in the margins when a student has an excellent opening paragraph, a clear thesis, good use of vocabulary, a well-put, or poetically written idea, or has discovered a point we did not cover in class discussions. If a student demonstrates creative or analytical thinking, I add to the grade. Did they read other material for the paper outside of class, such as essays, journal articles, or other works in the author’s oeuvre, I applaud the student’s initiative by adding points to the score.

At the end of the paper, I always write a summary comment that brings together all the good points and negative points of the paper. I offer some goals to work on in the next essay written for class, and if the paper needs a rewrite, meaning it is so deficient as to be unacceptable, I assign the rewrite with a due date. Students must then turn in the new draft with all previous drafts by that date. I will look the new draft over and offer more criticism and discussion. Without telling the student, I may add some points to the initial grade, bringing D papers up to the C level. I do not discuss this with the students because I do not want them to focus on the points gained, but on improving their writing skills.

In the end, I use the rubric I place on the course syllabus and distribute to students on the first day of class: “The coursework will be graded "A" (excellent, original, insightful), "B" (distinguished, thorough, thoughtful), "C" (competent, clear, clean), "D" (mere summary, derivative of class discussion, repetitive), "F" (incompetent, incomplete).” Between the course syllabus and the “Guidelines For Writing,” the student have a clear picture what is expected of them. If they read and study my comments and corrections on the pages, they will clearly understand where they succeeded, and where they went off the path.

In my class, it is never about discouraging a student as a writer. It is my job to set standards based on experience and the standards of good writing. Students often tell me, “I don’t know how you want me to write?” That is not true. Good writing is not about an individual teacher’s preference, but about what the texts teach us is good writing. Decent writing is about clarity, cohesion, organization, and having something to say. As the critic Alfred Kazin, one of my heroes, titled a book of his essays: “Writing is everything.”

Therein lies the only truth.


  1. i certainly applaud your efforts to do right by your students. it's refreshing to hear (know) that kids are learning these things at a very young age. as a comp I/II teacher, i see my role as "reinforcing" these standards, but it doesn't always feel that way!

  2. There is a very interesting book by Lynn Freed called "Reading, Writing and Leaving Home" where she talks about teaching writing and the frustrations we face. You might want to check it out since you are in the classroom business.

    Thanks for your comment.

  3. It's great to read about your approach, I teach in a professional program at a University and the same issues exist for my students... in their 5th and 6th year at University!

    I tell them, good writing takes planning, research, time and determination. An external editor reading the piece is also very important! The biggest mistake my students make is thinking that they can throw together the essay or report few days before it is due.
    Cheers, Anita

  4. Thank you, Anita. Discussing our different techniques and methods is one of the joys of getting together with other teachers. I wish we had more time to do this instead of a few times a year at workshops and seminars.

  5. Hi Mr Martin,

    I just received a 51% on a research paper and I feel as though I was deserving of a higher grade, maybe a low C. I was going to file a grade appeal but decided that it was a waste of time and walked away from my class with a C+.

    Do you mind looking over my research paper and giving me some feedback?



  6. I would suggest talking the situation over with your instructor. Without knowing the parameters of the assignment or specifically what the teacher was looking for, I would be out of place commenting on the paper. Best of luck.

  7. Great post, Paul. Your insight and explanation about the craft of writing - and the expectation that "style counts" - is of primary importance in the classroom. Our classroom expectations are very similar.

  8. Great write-up. I'm a new college level instructor and I'm grading some short essay style research papers and this is great. I thought I was being to hard with my grading, but your standards are on point and I was doing the same thing. No excuses for word misuse or spelling errors! Thanks


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