November 16th, 2015

An Objective Approach to Grading

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grading papers

It was always the same scenario. I’d be feeling a great sense of accomplishment because I had spent hours grading a set of English papers—painstakingly labeling errors and writing helpful comments. Everything was crystal clear, and the class could now move on to the next assignment. Except it wasn’t, and we couldn’t. A few students would inevitably find their way to my office, plunk their papers down on my desk, and ask me to explain the grade. Something had to change. I knew exactly why I was assigning the grades, but I obviously needed to find a more effective way of communicating these reasons to my students.

I began by recognizing that when students did come to my office to review their papers with me, I often used checkmarks to show them more specifically which sentences were on track and which ones weren’t, so I decided to incorporate these symbols into the grading system itself.

Now, every time a student makes an observation that clearly supports the topic sentence in a paragraph, I give it a checkmark, which is worth one mark. If the idea has potential, but isn’t fully supported, I give it a ½ mark. This means students don’t get any marks for irrelevant ideas, nor do they get marks for ideas that are discussed in the wrong paragraph. This way I can reinforce the importance of unity and development. Furthermore, they soon grasp that they’ll get a higher grade if they resist the temptation to pad their essays by writing unnecessarily long sentences or by repeating ideas, because they can only get one point for the same idea, even if it’s expressed in different words. Not all ideas are equal, however, so students can earn an * or an extra mark for ideas that are unusually insightful, and I limit their grade if there are too many ½ marks, because a paper full of incomplete observations isn’t very useful to the reader.

In order to get full marks, students must also express their ideas clearly. I can’t give them a point for an observation if I can’t understand it, so students who have significant writing issues or who use illogical transitions to connect ideas tend not to accumulate very many points. The checkmark total allows me to assign a grade based on the content and structure of the body of the essay, and then I adjust the grade based on the extent to which students have followed the guidelines for the introduction and conclusion. Overall, this marking scheme greatly encourages students to shift from focusing on the word count of a paper to understanding that it’s the quality of their work that will raise their grade.

The beauty of my new grading system lies in its simplicity. It allows me to move closer to quantifying the number of ideas that have been expressed in an essay or exam, while at the same time giving some indication of the caliber of these ideas. In fact, when I explain the scheme to my students as we discuss their first assignment, I often see them nodding their heads. It makes sense to them that students who are able to make more observations about a particular topic in the same amount of space as the rest of the class should get a higher grade. To ensure a level playing field, I deduct marks for essays that don’t adhere to the requirements regarding margins, font, and length, so that students cannot simply raise their grade by writing a longer essay.



Before I return a set of papers, I take a few minutes to describe my grading process in order to show students that I have made a concerted effort to assign grades fairly. I explain that when I mark a set of essays, I go through the set once, quickly assigning checkmarks, ½ marks, and *s and giving each paper a rough total. I then use this number to sort the papers and develop a scale for the assignment, using the papers that clearly fall in the competent range as my baseline for a “B” grade. As I read through the papers a second time, I’m able to fine-tune the checkmarks, noticing ideas that I missed the first time or giving extra credit to insightful ideas that only a few students have expressed. I use an extensive system of abbreviations to indicate not just grammatical errors but also the most common issues that affect the logic of students’ arguments, and I add numbered comments to explain anything that isn’t covered by this system. The efficiency of the checkmarks and grading codes also allows me a bit more time to make positive comments in the margins of students’ papers, which helps balance my critique of their writing.

After I return papers to my students, they are able to quickly see why they got the grade they did, and they have much more detailed information about why. Even if they haven’t received the grade they hoped for, I’ve found they’re eager to check for *s because they know that these indicate their ability to think for themselves. When I’m marking papers in which students have all written about the same topic, I highlight the importance of this skill by briefly reporting on some of the most insightful observations. This offers students who wrote average essays concrete proof that other students are functioning at a higher level than they are, which makes them less inclined to question their grades. More importantly, it encourages students to want to express ideas that are good enough to be shared and allows the strong thinkers in the class to feel proud of their work.

What I like best about my grading system is that it rewards clarity, precision, and concision, the characteristics that are most valued in workplace writing. Although I’m sure I’ll continue to refine the checkmark system, so far it has been more effective than any other I’ve tried over the past 25 years. Even better, when students do arrive in my office to consult about a paper, they don’t ask me to explain the grade; they just want to know what steps they need to take in order to improve their writing, and that’s a discussion I look forward to having.

Betty Anne Buirs teaches English at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia.


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  • Anthony

    From the title of the article I expected a slightly less subjective system. 😉

    • Michael

      Agreed. I like her idea but it still doesn't take away subjectivity. what is insightful to one might not be insightful to the next person.

    • Laura S

      limited as this system may be (any grading of papers is going to be at least partly subjective, writing is not a science but an art), it is still more helpful than what many of us might be doing (= something even more subjective). Looking for points that support an argument or detract from it, for instance. Marking statements that are "out of place" (poor editing) or poorly phrased… "insight" might be more subjective than that but these other writing skills are likely more objective/universally agreed upon.

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