GRADING PAPERS, ESSAYS, AND EXAMS
Although the marking of papers and exam essay questions share a great deal, there are some differences. This section focuses mainly on the marking of papers, but much of the information can be applied to essay questions. Where there is a difference it will be noted. There are sections dealing with:
The task of assigning grades cannot be taken too lightly. Whatever you might personally feel about the grading system, the grade remains the standard evaluation because no other system has been able to substitute for it. The grade communicates valuable information. To the student, it communicates how he or she is doing in accordance with the standards expected in the course. The grade communicates similar information to others who need to make an evaluation of the student. For example, good grades are expected of students trying to get into honours programmes or graduate programmes. On the other hand, low grades can be grounds for dismissing a student from academic programmes.
Because grades are so important, you should make every effort to be fair in marking and to insure your standards of marking are in common with others. You can begin by checking with the course director. It is he or she who is ultimately responsible for the standards in the course. You should include any other TA's who are marking for the course for the same reason: keeping a common standard. If you should have doubts about the standard with which you are working, ask your course director to review the first few you mark. Most course directors will do so in any case.
The course director should also let you know the form of the grades. Most will ask for a percentage mark, some will ask for a letter grade. The conversion scale from percentage to letter grades varies between departments so be sure you know your department's scale. You should know the relative importance of both content and style in marking papers and exams. Typically, the paper will stress both content and style, and the exam question will focus almost exclusively on content.
When you begin accepting papers or exams, make a note of those you receive and put them away in a drawer or file. Disputes occasionally arise when students claim to have handed in papers and the teacher has no record of them and cannot locate them. One way to ensure that this does not happen is only to accept assignments that are handed to you personally, before or after class, or in office hours, and asking the student to witness that you have marked 'received' in your record book.
Preparation for marking begins early in the course by communicating expectations to the students. If you are leading a seminar you have a good opportunity to stress those expectations. If not, no doubt your course director will be enlightening the students in lectures. Explain the format that you wish: do papers have to be double-spaced or typed? Should they have special cover pages? Some teachers prefer to mark 'blind'not knowing who wrote the paper until after the mark is assignedto avoid unconscious favouritism. For this purpose students can be asked to hand in a title page with their name on it separate from the paper itself which is identified by the title only. Another strategy is to have someone in the departmental office assign code names to each student, and the student then writes this code name and their student number on their paper.
Students should be encouraged to consult you for information on approaches to a thesis, sources and resources. Let them know you are available in office hours for advice on the progress of papers. Many problems can be avoided if caught in time. Of course, many will not take advantage of the opportunity, but it is wise to be available to those who will.
Before the papers or exams come in, and even before they are assigned, is a good time to discuss a common standard with the course director and the other TAs. If you are marking large numbers of exams, you can achieve common grading standards among graders by dividing up the questions so that each TA marks certain questions on all the exams.
When the papers begin to show up, or the exam is finished and you are sitting there looking at an immense pile awaiting you, there are still some things to do before you go at it. Begin by reading a writing guide. Most departments make one available to the students to assist them in writing papers. Reviewing the guide will refresh your own vocabulary for comments, and allow you to refer the student to the guide for further information rather than try to explain everything in your comments.
The colour of the pencil you use would seem to be a contentious issue. Some feel that red should be used because it makes the marking more noticeable. Others feel that red is overly intimidating to students, especially when there is a lot of marking done.
Mark one question at a time. For example mark question A for all papers, then all question B's. This allows for consistent marking.
MARKING PAPERS AND EXAMS
Now that you have settled the issues of expected standards, preparations, and anything else which may weigh heavily on your mind, you are ready to begin marking. You can begin by previewing the papers. That is, read a few quickly without marking - just to become familiar with the standard you can expect of them. As you begin to mark be prepared to take frequent breaks from the task in the interest of fairness. It is likely that you will become tired or bored as you progress through the pile and your standards will change as a result. Taking breaks provides some protection against the differing standards.
There are three methods of reading and marking which you may want to consider: The method which is typically used for marking exam essay questions is based on a model answer to the question. Make a list of points which should be made in answering each question and attach values to each point. The second approach is more holistic and is more typical of marking research papers. The paper is read completely and a grade is assigned according to the success of the student at addressing the significant points. A third and more structured approach is to mark according to a formula based on certain specified percentages for content, style, presentation etc....
It is advisable to separate the papers by topic or question to be answered and mark the common themes together. This method assures more reliability or consistency in judgment, better enables you to keep the important points in mind, and make a comparison of sources, etc...
Rather than burdening yourself with extra work and filling the pages of the papers with redundant remarks, it is advisable to pick one or two pages in which you mark everything in great detail and write a note that you have done so. Most repeated spelling and grammatical errors will be caught and the point will be made about the need for proper style. It saves you work and the student the ego-deflating experience of looking at a paper filled with criticisms. You should put the grade on the last page of the paper. A student's grade is not for public consumption.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR THE HOLISTIC APPROACH
When using even the most holistic approach to marking, you need to have something in particular to which you can attend - and you may ask - what am I looking for? Of course, you can begin by checking with the course director; he or she may have particular points of interests to be noted. Essentially, however, one should examine style (how it is said) and content (what is said).
Points in style include basic grammar and spelling. Although most graduate students are good writers, it is also true that many cannot remember why they write as they do, thus it cannot hurt to review a writing manual to refresh oneself of the rules. Style also includes sentence and paragraph structure, vocabulary, and organization. Organization includes a strong thesis, the introduction, conclusion, and a logical organization of the points to be argued.
Points in content include a familiarity with the material, the incorporation of examples to illustrate or support the argument, and identification and analysis of the issues.
A good paper should be strong in all points, but exam essay questions are often marked with a degree of leniency in the style. No doubt, your course director will clarify any confusion about the standards expected of the students.
The UVic Learning and Teaching Centre makes available videos that offer helpful teaching tips.
Comments provide the necessary feedback for learning. The comments should be plentiful, but not repetitive. They should address the strengths and weaknesses of the paper and offer suggestions for improvement. The criticism should be constructive and accompanied by positive feedback. Avoid at all costs the use of sarcasm or humour. The humour will likely be misunderstood in the context and, like the sarcasm, be taken as hurtful and the result will be alienation, not a learning experience.
Many standard problems can be identified with short appropriate phrases which refer to the writing guide, eg: "run-on sentence". Many others can be common abbreviations such as "sp" for a spelling error. Allow the student to seek out the proper form of the identified problems of style.
Many new markers have a tendency to edit everything in the paper. Seek out the best and worst aspects of the paper for extensive comments and use shorter remarks for lesser notable aspects.
The speech on the importance of this task has already been made, so here are some more practical suggestions. After you have assigned a mark, you may want to pile the papers according to the A's, B's, etc. and quickly review each pile. This will assure you that you have been consistent with the grade assigned to a particular quality.
What does each grade mean? Descriptive remarks of each level have been compiled below and may be helpful to you in deciding what constitutes a paper of each grade. Keep in mind that what is considered 'mastery' or 'acceptable' in a first year course is different from a second, third or fourth year class. One pattern among first time markers is that they tend to mark too harshly. This may be the result of using their own expectations of themselves as their standards. In a large class it would be unusual if there were not some A students, even the occasional A+, just as it would be unusual not to have any Ds.
A paper of this level displays a mastery of the information and the theoretical context in which it is presented. It contains original thought expressed fluently and written with a style distinguished by its freshness and clarity. The argument is sound, substantive, organized, introduces other points of view and uses proper sources effectively. One is impressed by the author's contribution to the understanding of the topic and where the subject is going.
The author demonstrates a substantial knowledge of the information and theoretical concepts associated with the subject. The paper is well-written and presented with no serious flaws, a good use of sources and a clear thesis. The argument is above average in organization and analysis and brings in points to support the thesis. There is an awareness of different points of view. The conclusion is sound but not original. Generally, the paper is competent but not extraordinary.
The author demonstrates an acceptable grasp of the material and awareness of the sources and general theory. The organization is logical and the style follows proper form, although there may be some lapses in each aspect. The paper would be best described as descriptive because it lacks any substantial analysis, and demonstrates a modest ability to work with the material critically. One senses the author does not fully understand the issues of the subject because the ideas are shallow, undeveloped, and tend to stray from the subject.
The author shows a familiarity with the subject, but not an understanding of it. He or she lacks the writing or communication skill to intelligibly relate what knowledge has been comprehended. The paper is disorganized, lacks structure, and the ideas are undeveloped. There is no evidence of substantial thought.
The author is without any writing skill. Grammar and spelling errors dominate and disguise the lack of organization. The ideas are unrelated to the subject and reveal a complete misunderstanding of the task.
SAMPLE MARKING GUIDE
___/15 INTRODUCTION & THESIS: clear presentation of topic, explicit statement of thesis that clearly states what the author will attempt to prove
___/10 STRUCTURE: there should be a coherent pattern and a logical progression in the presentation of the material that supports the thesis
___/10 RELEVANCE: each point should further the argument
___/10 COVERAGE: covers all relevant points needed to support the thesis, but does not include irrelevant background information
___/25 CONTENT: each of the supporting arguments is sufficiently backed up with relevant data, sources are adequate in quantity and number
___/10 CONCLUSION: should summarize main arguments, review the points made in the paper in a general way, and perhaps discuss their broader implications, restate thesis
___/10 STYLE: grammar, spelling, eloquence, are the ideas in the paper expressed clearly
___/5 PARAGRAPHS: one point per paragraph, paragraphs are neither too long nor too short
___/5 MECHANICS: footnotes, bibliography, title page, etc.