Help Grading Essays Fairly

Graduate Teaching Assistants are often involved in grading students’ work. At this point in the semester, you may find yourself with many essays, assignments, projects, or tests to grade. Planning your grading process will help prevent you from becoming overwhelmed by the amount of grading to be done. Additionally, grading fairly and consistently will help you both provide useful feedback to your students and will help minimize student grading complaints.

Fair and Consistent Grading

Effective grading provides accurate information to students about their performance and also help them understand what they can improve on. In addition to providing information on their performance, grading should be fair and consistent. This means that all work should be assessed based on defined criteria and that students should be treated equally regardless of whether you looked at their work first, last, or after a long day.

Using Grading Rubrics

Grading rubrics are basically grids which identify the criteria students' work will be assessed on and the relative weight of each criterion, but also describe levels of performance or success. Rubrics will, therefore, vary based on the assignment or class. Rubrics are beneficial because they provide students clear information about their performance and how they were assessed. They also allow you to more easily comment on student work because you can mark or describe a performance by selecting a category, rather than writing a lengthy comment. If you have to create your own rubrics, ask other TAs or faculty members if they have sample rubrics you could use as a model. More information on developing your own grading rubrics is available here, including a sample rubric.

Grade Anonymously

One easy way to grade fairly is to grade student work anonymously. If students turn work in with a title page, flip that page to the back so you only see the essay itself. Alternatively, you could also ask students to use their student ID number rather than their name. This will prevent you from allowing any opinions you may already have about that student, whether positive or negative, from influencing your assessment of their work. It may not always be possible grade all work anonymously, but it can be useful, especially for major assignments.

Grade in Multiple Sessions

When you have a lot of grading to do, it can often help to grade in multiple sessions rather than all at once. This may seem counter-intuitive if you are trying to grade work quickly, but breaking up your grading will help you make use of smaller amounts of available time and will also prevent you from grading some assignments more easily or more harshly because you are tired after grading all day. If you are using a standardized rubric, it should not matter whether you grade all those assignment at one time. After spending a long time grading, you can easily find yourself becoming more frustrated with later assignments when they make the same mistakes the assignments you graded earlier did.

Efficient Grading

Grading well can take time. When you have a large number of papers or tests to grade, learning how to grade efficiently is critical. Even when trying to grade more efficiently, try to do so in a way that will not significantly sacrifice the quality or usefulness of the feedback students receive on their work.

Focus on a Few Major Corrections

You may not need to provide feedback on all aspects of their work. Students may be more likely to respond to feedback or comments if their assignments are not covered with feedback and red ink, but instead their feedback focuses on a few major issues they should work on to improve their work. If you are only providing a few major comments, make sure that you give specific and concrete feedback. Noting that a sentence is "confusing" is not particularly helpful. A more useful piece of feedback might be to say "This sentence is unclear--it would help if you defined behaviorism first".

Bank Comments

If you grade electronically, you can keep a bank of common comments or feedback. For instance, if you find that you commonly tell students that they are not citing their research correctly or that they make certain grammatical mistakes, it may be worth keeping a copy of comments for those issues so that you can more easily provide that feedback on their work. You do not need to write out the same comment every single time. If you grade electronically, you can easily copy and paste comments onto the digital draft of their work.

Correct common mistakes once

Sometimes when grading papers or essays you may find that students make the same mistake repeatedly. For example, if a student misuses punctuation repeatedly in their work, don’t worry about correcting every instance in the paper. Consider correcting it once, possibly circling a few other instances, and providing a comment explaining the issue and what they should do to improve their work.

Make use of Canvas resources

Canvas, the learning management system used at UNL, has a number of functions that might help expedite your grading. In particular, Canvas’ SpeedGrader function will help you respond to and annotate student work and compute grades quicker. This function allows you to use your own rubric and and provide comments on the submitted work as you review it.

Other Grading Tips

Explain Your Grading Process Beforehand

Share your rubrics or grading process with students before they complete the assignment. If students know how they will be assessed before they complete the assignment, they are less likely to dispute the result even if they dislike their grade. Having well-established criteria will also provide support for their grade should your students wish to speak with you about it after you return their work.

Return Graded Assignments in a Timely Manner

It can be frustrating to wait too long to receive feedback or to know your grade. For that reason, aim to return graded work within a reasonable amount of time. For simple homework assignments, this may mean within a few days or by the next class session. For longer papers or tests, it may take a week or two to fully grade, depending on the length of the assignment. Be honest with students and try to return work as quickly as possible, especially if their performance on that assignment might affect future assignments.

Maintain Accurate Records

Always keep accurate and complete grade records. If students dispute grades, if will be useful to have your own records to refer to. Conversely, if a student asks for a recommendation, their prior grades might help you figure out how to describe their performance.


Grading Tips

It is very important to students that assignments are graded fairly and it is very important to instructors to provide feedback that is meaningful to students. 

Questions to Consider about Grading

  • Will I grade on an absolute (criterion-referenced) standard, on a relative (norm-referenced) standard, on subjective determinations of student learning, on student-teacher contracts, or on some other method of grading?
  • What are my reasons for choosing the method I will use?
  • What do I consider outstanding performance?
  • How should an average student perform?
  • What are my reasons for allowing or not allowing students opportunities to earn extra credit?
  • What are my values concerning student attendance, class participation, and completion of assignments?
  • Will I depend upon a single method for assessing students’ learning, or will I use a variety of methods (tests, writing assignments, oral presentations)?
  • Have I described my grading plan adequately to students in writing in the course syllabus and orally at the beginning of the course?
  • How will I handle late or missing assignments?

Some tips on grading an assignment

  • Determine and state the educational objectives of each activity.
  • Prepare students for formal assessments by using activities of a similar challenge level.
  • Consider whether all assignments need to be graded; would a check-plus/minus system work?
  • Save time in writing comments by creating a common error key.
  • Use appropriate decimal places in grading to distinguish among different qualities of work.
  • Grade the same question or paper section of all students at one time to focus your attention.
  • Establish teachable moments like conferences or post-exam review to help students correct errors.
  • Be consistent by using a grading rubric.

Design a Grading Rubric

Grading rubrics help to achieve both objectives.  A rubric is a scoring tool that defines the criteria for “what counts.”

To design a grading rubric, consider:

  • What components are you looking for in the answers to this assignment?
  • What is the relative weight of these components? Are they equally important?
  • What is excellent performance on this assignment? What is average performance?

More on Rubrics

Walvoord, B. E. and Anderson, V. J. (1998) Effective Grading (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco). Also check out the following websites from other universities which have sample rubrics appropriate for grading essays and papers.

California State University at Chico A rubric for assessment of student learning

Classroom Assessment Techniques

In addition to grading formal written assignments, instructors will often want to evaluate work done in the classroom.  Here are some techniques that might be useful to consider:

Focused Listing

Instructor selects a topic or concept. Students have a limited time to write as many related words, phrases, or topics as they can. Students share their lists with the class (students can call out terms that are then written on the board). This activity can be done either at the beginning or the end of a lecture. Good for a survey or introductory course with lots of new terms to learn.

Minute Paper

Instructor chooses a question (often “what was the most important thing you learned today” or “what important question remains unanswered”) to which the students have one minute to respond. This activity may be done at the beginning of the lecture to assess student knowledge or to motivate their learning,  or at the end of a lecture to assess what students have learned. 

Content, Form, and Function Outlines

Instructor chooses a short relevant text. After reading the text, students should be able to answer what, how and why questions in an outline format. Newspaper articles or news video may be appropriate. Good for showing the application of their knowledge to everyday events.

One Sentence Summary

Instructor chooses a topic that the students must summarize in one sentence (“who does what to whom, when, where, how and why?”). Students have a defined period of time to summarize. Must be a topic that you can summarize and that does not have too many answers or parts.

Student-Generated Test Questions

Instructor chooses topics that will be covered on the test and determines the kinds of questions that will be asked. The instructor then allows the students to generate a limited number of questions following the format determined by the instructor. Allow all students to see all questions before the test.

(Angelo, T. A. and Cross, K. P. (1993) Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers)

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