Why We Grade

At a recent WAC meeting, we watched this video of students relating their feelings about receiving graded papers back from instructors. The general theme among the students was that getting comments (often somewhat inscrutable negative ones like “Bad” or “No”) scribbled in red ink all over their papers feels demoralizing.

This prompted a vigorous debate within our WAC team: Do students just want to be coddled? Or should we heed these pleas for kinder and more constructive feedback?

As instructors, we want our students to improve the quality of the work they turn in to us. How can they learn to improve if we don’t show them where they are failing? This drives the spilling of much red ink. But as our discussion unfolded, we realized that the underlying debate about how much marking and “correcting” is appropriate had to do with differences in the kind of work that students are turning in. Before we even begin to grade, we need to ask ourselves why we are grading. Yes, to help students improve. But to improve at what?

If you teach math, some of what you’re grading might be proofs; getting the details of a proof right might be the very thing you want students to learn, so marking up all the details that are incorrect might be the appropriate way to grade that sort of assignment. The same goes for subjects like introductory foreign language instruction, in which the learning objectives are about grammar and proper word usage.

If the overarching goal of the assignment isn’t about the details, however, a different kind of grading might be more appropriate. I teach political science. I would like for my students to be able to write using polished prose. I used to take that goal to mean that I should mark up all of their grammatical and stylistic errors in order to help them identify and avoid them in the future. But I’m not actually teaching them grammar or style in my class; of greater concern to me – and what I spend most of my course trying to work on with them – is that they learn to engage deeply and thoughtfully with readings and concepts, and to formulate informed arguments about them. So now that’s what I mostly grade for – deep, thoughtful engagement and informed arguments. And my feedback tends to come not in the form of marks all over the page, but an acknowledgment at the end of what they did well and two to three concrete suggestions for improvement.

That doesn’t mean I ignore mechanical errors altogether. But filling a paper with red marks does have a tendency to overwhelm rather than to inspire, so I try to pick out just one or two recurring issues the student seems to have (semi-colon usage, for example) and demonstrate and/or explain how to fix them.

Of course, this “minimal marking” approach is not just a way to help students get more out of my grading – it’s a way to help me be a more efficient (and less frustrated) grader. For more discussion about grading strategies, come to the next WAC workshop for faculty and staff on Tuesday, November 15 at 1pm in Midway 205 – or if you can’t make it, check back in afterwards to our Open Lab page for the Powerpoint slides and handouts, which will be posted under “Workshops.”



Workshop Recap: Effective Grading and Minimal Marking (11/19)

Our semester rolls on as we held the third of four faculty professional development workshops dealing with Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) teaching and planning strategies. If you missed our workshop last Thursday on Effective Grading and Minimal Marking, read our recap below to learn about strategies that not only can save you time in the grading process, but will help to produce better student work. Follow along with the PowerPoint and Handout.

WAC fellows Pamela Thielman, Drew Fleming, and Emily Crandall led an informative and diverse workshop that covered many aspects of the grading process, from planning assignments and grading structures in advance to how to reduce the sometimes-daunting paper load once those assignments have been turned in.

Emily began by outlining that the most effective grading requires two steps: 1) planning before the assignment is given, and 2) practicing efficient marking techniques once the papers come in. We identified a variety of kinds of “higher-order” concerns (those dealing with content, organization, argument, evidence, and other “big picture” issues) and “lower-order” concerns (those dealing with spelling, grammar, citation style, sentence structure, word choice), and noted how students will respond to whatever we as instructors mark on their paper. So, if we mark twenty lower-order issues on a page but only one higher-order issue such as organization or argument, it’s likely that students will only focus on those grammatical issues in revision, rather than the oftentimes more important problem of organization.

Emily then discussed how laying a good foundation before the papers come in can be beneficial to the instructor after the papers come in and it’s time to grade. Scaffolding an assignment into its constituent parts and other good assignment design practices are crucial at this step, as is transparency in the grading criteria. By letting students know what we’re grading for (either by using a rubric or by having class discussions about expectations), we can expect better results.

Drew then built on Emily’s points by going into detail about how scaffolding an assignment into smaller parts can ensure that you are spreading out the grading workload over the course of the semester. You can also address student issues earlier in the process as you catch them, so that the final product has already gone through a number of revision steps and is therefore a more polished paper (and therefore easier to grade!).

Peer review is another useful tool to alleviate the grading load, because you are “outsourcing” some of the assessment process onto the students. We included a number of peer review templates in the handout for this workshop, which as Drew pointed out are crucial to a successful peer review, giving the students structure and specific criteria for which to grade.

Finally, to help remember what it’s like for our students to receive a paper filled with tons of red ink corrections, we watched a short video made by students at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, MA, that really hits home the effect that our grading can have on our students. Even though we are often trying to be helpful, we forget that students often take our markings as negative criticism, and that it discourages them from wanting to revise and do better. Faculty in attendance seemed to get a lot from this video that reminds us of the power we have when we grade.


In this respect, we’re reminded that our role as instructors when grading a paper is not just to evaluate the students, which is the traditional role of grading, but also to communicate with our students and to motivate them. We should think of ourselves more as a coach than a judge, since the goal of writing a paper should not only be for students to convey what they have learned, but to improve their writing and organizational skills over the course of the semester. As their writing improves, so too does their mastery of course material, and so we should remember to take an active role in helping that progression.

Finally, Pamela covered a variety of specific strategies for minimal marking, a process that seeks to reduce the overall amount of marking on students’ work while increasing the potency of specific comments and annotations. In other words, write more less often. She stressed that as instructors, we shouldn’t feel the need to necessarily have to do all of these minimal marking techniques, but to pick and choose as suits the assignment and your style.

For low-stakes assignments, Pamela recommended either no grade or check grading. As we’ve covered in previous workshops, simply getting students to write helps them in the learning process, and so we don’t need to grade everything we assign. She recommended also putting the pen down on your first read through a student’s paper. This way, rather than feeling the need to mark every misplaced comma or subject/verb disagreement, you can concentrate on bigger picture issues. Then, at the end, we can comment on global patterns of error in lower-order concerns.

We also discussed selective line edits, for those instructors who want to make sure that they are pointing out specific lower-order problems. Rather than covering an entire paper in markings and corrections, consider only doing one paragraph, or one page. This way, the student sees their mistakes but is not overwhelmed by them, and the onus of correcting falls on them. Frequently, when we mark a student’s paper up completely, the student will only make the corrections that we suggest! This encourages the student to take it upon themselves to identify their errors.

Finally, as Pamela noted in her blog post last week, use any color pen except red!

Above all, we stressed supportive responding that not only assesses the student’s work, but motivates them towards revision and communicates new ideas or questions to them. Asking questions in margins or end comments is a great way to both communicate and motivate students further without “giving them the answer.”

Join us for our last workshop of the semester, “The Creative Classroom” on December 10, 2015, in Namm 1005. WAC Fellows Emily Crandall and Julie Hollar will cover ways to incorporate non-traditional and technological assignments and activities into the classroom that combine with writing assignments to make class time dynamic, varied, and fun.

End-of-Semester Grading Strategies

It is that time again! The weather is getting warmer, the days are getting longer, and you can almost taste your favorite summer treats. (Watermelon! Mister Softee!) But before you can kick off your shoes and put your feet up for a bit, you’ve got to turn in your grades for the semester.

If you were at the WAC workshop way back in October, you may have already put in place some time and labor-saving strategies like assignment scaffolding, peer review, and rubrics. Even if you did incorporate some or all of these ideas, you may still be facing a pile of papers. Here are some helpful WAC principles that can help you get through your grading and on to summer fun:


  • Focus on higher order concerns                                                                                              Spelling and grammar are important, and we don’t want to minimize that, but in most cases they won’t be the focus of your course. Consider line editing only a portion of a formal written assignment (one paragraph, one page) and using your time and energy to comment on higher order concerns like thesis statements, quality of argument, good use of evidence, logic, organization, and understanding of course material.


  • Develop a key                                                                                                                                          If you are going to be making a lot of markings on written assignments, consider developing a set of symbols and a key to streamline the process. Many of us use paragraph symbols, carets, and other proofreader’s marks, but feel free to expand your repertoire and use any symbols or markings that work for you. You can write up a simple key and attach it to each student paper so that they can easily follow your notations.


  • Rubrics                                                                                                                                                     It isn’t too late to develop a rubric! Even taking a few minutes to sit down and articulate what you are looking for in an assignment can help make your grading process swifter and easier. You can create a grid with elements to check off as either present or not present, a number scale, or anything that reflects your thinking about what constitutes excellent, good, fair, and poor work on a given assignment.


If you want to read more about minimal marking and effective grading the WAC way, you can find a recap of the workshop here, which includes a link to resources.

Happy grading!

Tackling the Paper Pile

Spring Break has come and gone. Every instructor had their wish list of things to get done during break, when suddenly not having to prep for teaching freed up what seemed like days of free time. And yet…if you’re anything like me, you probably didn’t get through all of that wish list. Now that school is back in session, that big pile of midterm essays you collected before break is on your desk, staring at you, (still) waiting to be graded.

Many of the principles that we espouse with WAC philosophy require advance planning before the semester begins, as they deal with assignment design and syllabus organization. But there are things we can change and implement mid-semester, and one of these is the approach to grading.

We covered much of this in detail in our minimal marking workshop last fall, but let’s revisit just a couple of the most important points that can help alleviate some of your grading woes.

1. Focus on higher order concerns

When we try to catch every grammatical and usage mistake that our students make, we can end up with an overgraded paper. The student will see their paper full of corrections and suggestions and will do one of two things: 1) get overwhelmed and just ignore everything, or, 2) only make the corrections that you’ve marked and then consider their “revision” done. Neither of these are optimal. We want our students to read and seriously consider our comments on their papers, and we want them to take the initiative to improve their writing. Consider only marking one important, content-based error per page. Choose the one thing that the student could do that would vastly improve that section of their paper (it’s likely not fixing that run-on or semicolon usage). And write out your comment/suggestion in a full sentence that doesn’t leave the student wondering what you mean.

When students can handle higher-order mistakes, their lower-order mistakes often improve alongside.

2. Consider offering a revision option

If you don’t already have a draft built into your assignment, consider allowing your students to revise their final paper for a higher grade. This might seem like you’re creating extra work for yourself, but in reality you can mark the first version they hand in less, saving some of those comments for the final draft. Just pick one or two issues per page to comment on (and then consider a global comment at the end such as “there are many issues with your subject-verb agreement throughout”). There’s no point in making tons of corrections to the student’s writing if they’re not going to revise and hand it in again, anyway. Students do not read our corrections and then say “OK, next time I’ll remember not to split my infinitive.” We all know that unless they have an immediate incentive to revise, students won’t do it. So let’s give them that incentive. Grade the papers they hand in fairly but honestly; don’t give a C paper a B. The students will be motivated to revise and improve.

These are two relatively easy ways to help us mark less and allow our students to have some autonomy over their education. It’s not easy – the urge to fix that comma splice is sometimes uncontrollable, especially when students hand in a garbled first draft as their paper! But when we step back and realize that our students have the ability to be good writers who often need a few big pieces of advice, rather than many small ones, to bring their writing to the next level, we help both them and ourselves.

Grading as Coaching, or, How to Spend Less Time Marking Papers

Recently, I sent a draft of some writing to my adviser with the comment, “the writing still needs some work, but please look at the overall points and let me know if you think I’m going in the right direction.”

Isn’t this precisely what all writers want? And doesn’t that include undergraduate students too?

When students hand in a draft, in a sense they are saying this exact same phrase to us as instructors: “here is some writing that I proofread [hopefully!] but it’s still marred by the limited time constraints of the assignment. I hope that the overall points are good and I’m going in the right direction.” Yet, we approach these papers with a copy editor’s eye and red pen, marking up every dangling modifier, incorrect word usage, subject/verb disagreement, or incorrect use of idiomatic English. In a sense, we are doing the opposite of what we hope anyone assessing our own work would do, even though we know from experience that copy editing is the final, not first, stage of professional writing.

We forget that we are not referees, but rather, coaches for our student writers. In her well-known essay on the “overgraded paper,” Muriel Harris writes

like student writers without a thesis or consistent perspective, the teacher who overgrades leaps from suggestion to correction to criticism, from being an editor to a coach to a reader. In noting many things, the instructor emphasizes nothing, and many students…retreat (92).

We fall victim to Harris’s well-placed critique of trying to do too much. And we do it with such good intent (“I want my students to be better writers! I’m trying to help them!) that we are blind to the ways it can be damaging.

The best technique is to mark less. Instead of reading the paper with red pen ready at the draw, try reading the paper with your hands empty. Resist the urge to correct that misplaced comma, or that use of “effect” when they should have written “affect.” After reading it, go back through and find the three or four places where the student author needs to clarify, expand, refine, offer another example, analyze or re-state. Be explicit about exactly what you want in your comments (ironically, simply writing the word “unclear” in the margin is, itself, unclear). After all, these are the things we most want to see improved, and that lead the student not only to write better but to learn the course content more comprehensively.

And all those pesky grammatical mistakes? Save those for a later draft, when the
“big picture” ideas are clearer. Or if you’re only doing one draft, mention them in an endnote: “you have problems with subject/verb agreement throughout,” or “I’ve placed a checkmark in the margin of lines with writing errors.” It turns out that once your students accomplish the higher-order thoughts and cognitive processes, their writing also naturally improves.

This way the student will focus on those higher-order issues you highlighted. I’ve given back papers with 20 or more markings on a page, and only one of them was something that would have seriously improved the content, rather than the execution, of the paper. Nancy Sommers notes that this kind of grading

encourage[s] the student to see the text as a fixed piece, frozen in time, that just needs some editing (151).

On the subsequent draft, my student of course obliged and addressed every marking I had made, except one, the hardest one. If that had been the only marking on the page, she would have been forced to consider the problem I posed, and possibly taken her paper to the next level.

For more, see our workshop on effective grading strategies from December, 2013.

Harris, Muriel. “The Overgraded Paper: Another Case of More is Less.” In How to Handle the Paper Load,  ed. Gene Stanford, 91-94. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1979.
Sommers, Nancy. “Responding to Student Writing.” College Composition and Communication 33, no. 2 (May 1982): 148-156.

Writing to Learn

As the fall semester of 2013 draws to a close, it is useful to reflect on what we have accomplished over the course of the semester. We the Writing Across the Curriculum fellows have led three main faculty workshops since September: Effective Assignment Design, Peer Review, and Effective Grading. Despite the three varied topics of these workshops, they share a common thread, which is the WAC philosophy of “writing to learn,” and in addition, their content overlaps nicely.

In order to highlight WAC principles, I wish to focus on one particular aspect of the effective grading strategies that Jake Cohen and I discussed in our workshop on Tuesday, December 12 (the last of the semester). We went over some techniques to improve student writing and work, most of which also incidentally result in reduced grading time, which is always welcome, especially at this end-of-semester crunch grading time. To view our workshop slides, please click here, and check out the handout. (You can also visit this page to download documents from all of our workshops.) We discussed minimal marking, supportive responding when writing comments on student papers, rubrics, and planning assignments ahead of time to make grading more efficient. This last category is closely related to the two previous workshops from this semester: assignment design, clearly, and also peer review, in that having students assess each others’ work can save time, and greatly improve student writing.

This assignment design category is also the “one particular aspect” that I choose to elaborate on for this post. Among the several techniques we suggested for planning ahead to make assignments more “gradable,” one sticks out as being particularly WAC-esque: the uncollected writing assignment. The value of this notion, which is generally under-utilized by faculty in all departments, is two-fold: It is easy to see how uncollected assignments decrease the overall amount of time we spend grading work, of course, but why assign them at all? The answer lies in the foundation of WAC philosophy, which is that people learn by doing—and more specifically, by writing. So, what kind of uncollected writing do we recommend you assign, how do you enforce such assignments without collecting them, and, finally, how do students “learn by writing”?

One of the best illustrations of this concept is provided eloquently by Toby Fulwiler in “Why We Teach Writing in the First Place”: “Writing the thought on paper objectifie[s] the thought in the world… [which] even happens when I write out a grocery list—when I write down ‘eggs’ I quickly see that I also need ‘bacon.’ And so on” (127). This concept works well for professors across the curricula: Think about assigning a five-minute, in-class free-write asking students to describe course content covered in the past month/week/hour, by way of ensuring that they can articulate it well for whatever type of exam they have coming up, and by way of allowing them to discover holes in their understanding of what you have covered so far. If you are concerned that they won’t oblige the assignment without the potential for reward, then you can choose, for example, to select three at random to read aloud in class, or to be posted on your Blackboard/OpenLab page that same evening.

We hope that those who incorporate this technique will ultimately find that the grading process of the final papers you assign will be ameliorated, in that the students have now had a chance to “practice” or “train” for the final writing process, something akin to athletes who could never run a marathon without similar training, without you having been required to grade an intermediary draft. Ideally, as students come across “holes” in their own comprehension of your course content, they may come to you with more questions, or make better use of your office hours. I know that they will arrive at a deeper understanding of your course material in the same way that I have done regarding WAC philosophy, in the process of writing out this blog post.

Happy Holidays!