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Evidence Grading Guidelines For Essays

Guidelines for Grading An Essay


This exercise intends to take the mystery out of grading papers.  It is true that many teachers and professors have their own “style” of grading.  But all follow some general rules of thumb when they grade your papers. 


A Good Essay

Every essay must contain three essential elements.  First, the essay must provide a thesis statement (in the introductory paragraph).  The thesis statement must encapsulate the main argument for the paper.  It must be clear and coherent, and it must answer the question that the professor has put forth to the class.  Second, the essay must offer supporting evidence.  The writer must provide the supporting evidence in paragraph (not “bullet” or list) form.  Each paragraph must contain evidence that supports one idea or concept that proves the thesis statement.  The writer must provide citations (in footnote, endnote, or paranthetical form) for all evidence presented.  Third, every essay must follow basic rules of format and grammar.  Every paper must contain a beginning (introductory paragraph), a middle (several supporting paragraphs that comprise the body of the paper), and an end (concluding paragraph).  Grammar is vital for essay composition. Sentence fragments, misspellings, and improper punctuation denote a carelessly-written and poorly-conceived paper.


Here is an outline for the paragraph above:


A Good Essay

 A.     Topic Sentence“Every essay must contain three essential elements.”

This is the main concept of the paragraph.


B.     Thesis Statement

  1. clear and coherent
  2. answers the question


C.     Supporting Evidence

  1. paragraph form
  2. evidence supports one concept that helps prove the thesis statement
  3. includes citations


D.     Paper Format and Grammar

  1. paper includes a beginning, middle, and end
  2. Proper utilization of grammar, including punctuation, spelling, subject and verb usage.


Now you must play the part of the professor.  Here is a standard guideline, adapted from several dependable sources (see footnote on previous page), that you must follow as you grade a fellow student’s paper. 


Take a record of each item missing, and subtract the total number of points from 100 (a perfect score).  Not all professors grade papers by deducting points in this fashion.  But for classroom purposes, we will assign point values.  I have devised these point values to show you the relative importance of the different elements of essay-writing.


Grading an Essay

 A.     Identify the Thesis Statement.  Does this paper have a thesis statement?  Does that thesis statement answer the question put forth in class by the professor?  Is the thesis statement clear?  Do you understand it?

No thesis statement:  -15

Thesis statement unrelated to question:  -10


B.     Supporting Evidence.  Examine each paragraph for the information below. 

  1. Identify the topic sentence for each paragraph.  This topic sentence (usually the first or second sentence of the paragraph) should resemble a mini-thesis statement.  It should contain one idea or concept.  The rest of the paragraph must present the evidence that proves that topic sentence (one idea or concept.) Does each paragraph have a topic sentence?  If not, -5 for each paragraph.


  1. Does each paragraph contain just one idea or concept? –5 for each paragraph that does not.


  1. Does this author use evidence to support his/her argument (thesis statement)?  -5 for each paragraph that lacks evidence.


  1. Has the author provided citations for his/her evidence?  -3 for each supporting paragraph that lacks a citation.


C.     Examine the paper’s format and grammar. 

  1. Does this paper have a beginning (introduction), a middle (body), and an end (conclusion)?  If it does not have all three of these, -10


  1. Examine grammar.  Circle every violation.  –2 for every single violation. If you find more than 5 violations, -15.

a.       Does this paper have proper punctuation?

b.      Are words spelled correctly?

c.       Does the author provide full and complete sentences?  There should be no sentence fragments or run-on sentences. 

d.      Does this paper have consistent verb tense, voice, and third-person usage?

e.       Are proper nouns capitalized?


At last, you must recommend a grade for this paper.  On your notecard, write a one or two sentence statement that explains this paper’s argument. If this paper is so poorly organized, conceived, and written that you are unable to determine the main idea presented here by this author, then you must assign, automatically, a failing grade (F).


Otherwise, write your statement.  Then, total the points and subtract from 100.  Write this number on the note card, and then paper clip the note card to the paper.  This is your recommended grade.  Please include your name on the note card.  Do not write your name on your fellow student’s paper.


Explanation of writing symbols on marked papers



awk      -- awkward:  sentence is clumsy, difficult to read and comprehend


frag       – sentence fragment


w/c        – word choice doesn’t express what you seem to mean


      -- paragraph; or, you need to insert new paragraph


sp          -- spelling error


cs          -- comma splice


ro          -- run-on sentence (2 independent clauses in 1 sentence without punctuation or conjunction)


rep.       – repetitive


?           -- in margin means passage is confusing or obscure; over word or phrase means I don’t                       understand its meaning.


p.                  – punctuation error


agr.      --  agreement.  Form of pronoun doesn’t agree with antecedent; verb form doesn’t agree with subject


vf         -- incorrect verb form


-- capitalize


-- join


-- strike out


-- insert

For more information on writing essays, see Peter Charles Hoffer and William B. Stueck, Reading and Writing American History:  An Introduction to the Historian’s Craft; and William Strunk and E. B. White, Elements of Style.  Other resources for writers include The Chicago Manual of Style : The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers (14th Edition); Marjorie E. Skillin and Robert Malcolm Gay, Words Into Type; and Kate L. Turabian, Student’s Guide for Writing College Papers.



Grading Student Work

What Purposes Do Grades Serve?

Barbara Walvoord and Virginia Anderson identify the multiple roles that grades serve:

  • as an evaluation of student work;
  • as a means of communicating to students, parents, graduate schools, professional schools, and future employers about a student’s performance in college and potential for further success;
  • as a source of motivation to students for continued learning and improvement;
  • as a means of organizing a lesson, a unit, or a semester in that grades mark transitions in a course and bring closure to it.

Additionally, grading provides students with feedback on their own learning, clarifying for them what they understand, what they don’t understand, and where they can improve. Grading also provides feedback to instructors on their students’ learning, information that can inform future teaching decisions.

Why is grading often a challenge? Because grades are used as evaluations of student work, it’s important that grades accurately reflect the quality of student work and that student work is graded fairly. Grading with accuracy and fairness can take a lot of time, which is often in short supply for college instructors. Students who aren’t satisfied with their grades can sometimes protest their grades in ways that cause headaches for instructors. Also, some instructors find that their students’ focus or even their own focus on assigning numbers to student work gets in the way of promoting actual learning.

Given all that grades do and represent, it’s no surprise that they are a source of anxiety for students and that grading is often a stressful process for instructors.

Incorporating the strategies below will not eliminate the stress of grading for instructors, but it will decrease that stress and make the process of grading seem less arbitrary — to instructors and students alike.

Source: Walvoord, B. & V. Anderson (1998). Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment . San Francisco : Jossey-Bass.

Developing Grading Criteria

  • Consider the different kinds of work you’ll ask students to do for your course.  This work might include: quizzes, examinations, lab reports, essays, class participation, and oral presentations.
  • For the work that’s most significant to you and/or will carry the most weight, identify what’s most important to you.  Is it clarity? Creativity? Rigor? Thoroughness? Precision? Demonstration of knowledge? Critical inquiry?
  • Transform the characteristics you’ve identified into grading criteria for the work most significant to you, distinguishing excellent work (A-level) from very good (B-level), fair to good (C-level), poor (D-level), and unacceptable work.

Developing criteria may seem like a lot of work, but having clear criteria can

  • save time in the grading process
  • make that process more consistent and fair
  • communicate your expectations to students
  • help you to decide what and how to teach
  • help students understand how their work is graded

Sample criteria for a few different types of assignments are available via the following links.

Making Grading More Efficient

  • Create assignments that have clear goals and criteria for assessment.  The better students understand what you’re asking them to do the more likely they’ll do it!
  • Use different grading scales for different assignments.  Grading scales include:
    • letter grades with pluses and minuses (for papers, essays, essay exams, etc.)
    • 100-point numerical scale (for exams, certain types of projects, etc.)
    • check +, check, check- (for quizzes, homework, response papers, quick reports or presentations, etc.)
    • pass-fail or credit-no-credit (for preparatory work)
  • Limit your comments or notations to those your students can use for further learning or improvement.
  • Spend more time on guiding students in the process of doing work than on grading it.
  • For each significant assignment, establish a grading schedule and stick to it.

Light Grading – Bear in mind that not every piece of student work may need your full attention. Sometimes it’s sufficient to grade student work on a simplified scale (minus / check / check-plus or even zero points / one point) to motivate them to engage in the work you want them to do. In particular, if you have students do some small assignment before class, you might not need to give them much feedback on that assignment if you’re going to discuss it in class.

Multiple-Choice Questions – These are easy to grade but can be challenging to write. Look for common student misconceptions and misunderstandings you can use to construct answer choices for your multiple-choice questions, perhaps by looking for patterns in student responses to past open-ended questions. And while multiple-choice questions are great for assessing recall of factual information, they can also work well to assess conceptual understanding and applications.

Test Corrections – Giving students points back for test corrections motivates them to learn from their mistakes, which can be critical in a course in which the material on one test is important for understanding material later in the term. Moreover, test corrections can actually save time grading, since grading the test the first time requires less feedback to students and grading the corrections often goes quickly because the student responses are mostly correct.

Spreadsheets – Many instructors use spreadsheets (e.g. Excel) to keep track of student grades. A spreadsheet program can automate most or all of the calculations you might need to perform to compute student grades. A grading spreadsheet can also reveal informative patterns in student grades. To learn a few tips and tricks for using Excel as a gradebook take a look at this sample Excel gradebook.

Providing Meaningful Feedback to Students

  • Use your comments to teach rather than to justify your grade, focusing on what you’d most like students to address in future work.
  • Link your comments and feedback to the goals for an assignment.
  • Comment primarily on patterns — representative strengths and weaknesses.
  • Avoid over-commenting or “picking apart” students’ work.
  • In your final comments, ask questions that will guide further inquiry by students rather than provide answers for them.

Maintaining Grading Consistency in Multi-sectioned Courses (for course heads)

  • Communicate your grading policies, standards, and criteria to teaching assistants, graders, and students in your course.
  • Discuss your expectations about all facets of grading (criteria, timeliness, consistency, grade disputes, etc) with your teaching assistants and graders.
  • Encourage teaching assistants and graders to share grading concerns and questions with you.
  • Use an appropriate group grading strategy:
    • have teaching assistants grade assignments for students not in their section or lab to curb favoritism (N.B. this strategy puts the emphasis on the evaluative, rather than the teaching, function of grading);
    • have each section of an exam graded by only one teaching assistant or grader to ensure consistency across the board;
    • have teaching assistants and graders grade student work at the same time in the same place so they can compare their grades on certain sections and arrive at consensus.

Minimizing Student Complaints about Grading

  • Include your grading policies, procedures, and standards in your syllabus.
  • Avoid modifying your policies, including those on late work, once you’ve communicated them to students.
  • Distribute your grading criteria to students at the beginning of the term and remind them of the relevant criteria when assigning and returning work.
  • Keep in-class discussion of grades to a minimum, focusing rather on course learning goals.

For a comprehensive look at grading, see the chapter “Grading Practices” from Barbara Gross Davis’s Tools for Teaching.