Grading Writing

Grades are seen by many students as random and subjective, a belief that rampant grade inflation at the college level has helped to reinforce. Yet grades have the potential to be among the most powerful of teaching tools. When standards are announced and consistently applied, grades provide a reasonably objective measure of achievement (and distance to improvement), signaling to students the extent to which they need to challenge familiar ways of thinking and writing. Grades also give written comments an edge they might not otherwise have.

Grading with clear criteria in mind helps to ensure fairness and objectivity. So does another principle of grading: Grade the paper and nothing but the paper— not the person who wrote it, the effort that went into it, or the improvement it shows. This principle dramatically simplifies the task of evaluation by eliminating second guessing; it also guarantees that students are judged on an equal basis. “Grade the paper and nothing but the paper” means grading the entire paper, not just a part of it. Papers bend and swoop and turn, and grades need to be responsive to their sometimes erratic flight patterns. It means grading the actual paper as well. Rather than assigning a grade based on what a paper seems at first glance to be, or what in hindsight it might have been, it’s more fair—and more objective—to grade the paper as it actually is.

You might also consider complementing letter grades for high-stakes assignments with contract grades for class participation or “spec” grades for low-stakes assignments, helping to incentivize students to meet critical benchmarks and to take intellectual risks during the writing process.

In the Spotlight: Writing Program Grading Standards for Revisions (used across all the Writing Seminars to grade the three major essays) 

Three Steps to Determine a Grade

If you wait to decide on the grade until after you’ve written your final comment, the grade you assign is likely to be more accurate and fair than would otherwise be true, and the decision-making process will be less agonizing. To determine the grade, try these three steps:

  1. Re-read your final comment. As you do this, think about the extent to which the paper has met your grading criteria. You might even compose, in your notes or in your mind, a brief description of the paper in terms of these criteria—for example, “Good research question, obvious enthusiasm for the topic, and clear writing, but driven by an observation, not a thesis; use of a listing structure; lack of evidence to ground generalizations; overreliance on the opinions of secondary sources.”
  2. Determine whether a paper falls above or below “the line.” It’s useful to think of papers as falling above or below an imaginary line in the grading scale—for example, B-/C+. A line set higher on the grading scale (say, at A-/B+) will result in higher grades. Whether a paper falls above or below the line most often depends on how effective the paper’s source use and thesis are: a readable paper with a clear argument grounded in specific sources will usually receive an above-the-line grade; a paper that’s difficult to read, stuck in generalities, and lacking clear argument will usually receive a below-the-line grade. The paper described above would most certainly fall below the line, no matter where the line is set.
  3. Make fine distinctions. Having determined whether a paper is above or be- low the line, consider why it should receive a particular grade, not something slightly higher or slightly lower. If the line is set at B-/C+, then the paper described above would probably earn a C, because its weaknesses make a C+ too generous, and its strengths in the making suggest a C- or lower would be too harsh. If the line is set at A-/B+, the paper would probably get a B. As you can infer, disagreements over grades are often actually disagreements over where the line is set.

Although grading a piece of writing will never be an exact science, implementing the simple techniques discussed above can make the process less subjective and even less agonizing.