Marking Papers

I took this picture off of Dr. Mark Elrod’s webpage a year ago when I first ran the pictures below on how one should mark papers. Above is a picture of Elrod and his former colleague illustrating how they go about marking students’ work via the shotgun approach. I had a number of courses with Elrod and can say he never marked my work this way; however, he was/is one of the toughest teachers on campus. And, by far one of the more popular ones with students.

I have assigned my share of essays over the course of the past few weeks. And unlike times before when I found myself struggling to balance marking papers with other task, I have managed for the most part to get papers back to students at a reasonable time. Teaching three heavy reading prep courses creates a number of challenges for me. Not only must I constantly reread all of the assignments students read per course, I must also look at other sources of literature in order to offer a different voice. Grading is the one thing that makes teaching feel like a job. My Advanced Placement United States History sections turned in a set of essays today. It is my goal to give them back by Wednesday so they can review their work in preparation for a timed writing essay Friday. After next week, I will have assigned and marked 13 different essays in all three of my courses.

I am not a fan of guns, thus I have opted to mark the recent set of paper using the model below (source):

It’s that time of year again. Students have taken their finals, and now it is time to grade them. It is something professors have been looking forward to all semester. Exactness in grading is a well-honed skill, taking considerable expertise and years of practice to master. The purpose of this post is to serve as a guide to young professors about how to perfect their grading skills and as a way for students to learn the mysterious science of how their grades are determined.

Grading begins with the stack of exams, shown in Figure 1 below.


The next step is to use the most precise grading method possible. There never is 100% accuracy in grading essay exams, as subjective elements can never be eradicated from the process. Numerous methods have been proposed throughout history, but there is one method that has clearly been proven superior to the others. See Figure 2 below.

The key to this method is a good toss. Without a good toss, it is difficult to get a good spread for the grading curve. It is also important to get the toss correct on the first try. Exams can get crumpled if tossed too much. They begin to look as though the professor actually read them, and this is definitely to be avoided. Additional tosses are also inefficient and expend needless time and energy. Note the toss in Figure 3 below. This is an example of a toss of considerable skill — obviously the result of years of practice.


Note in Figure 3 above that the exams are evenly spread out, enabling application of the curve. Here, however, is where the experts diverge. Some contend that the curve ought to be applied as in Figure 4 below, with the exams at the bottom of the staircase to receive a lower grade than the ones higher up on the staircase.


According to this theory, quality is understood as a function of being toward the top, and thus the best exams clearly are to be found in this position. Others, however, propose an alternative theory (Figure 5 below).


They contend that that the exams at the bottom deserve higher grades than the ones at the top. While many professors still practice the top-higher-grade approach, the leading authorities subscribe to the bottom-higher-grade theory, despite its counterintuitive appearance. The rationale for this view is that the exams that fall lower on the staircase have more heft and have traveled farther. The greater distance traveled indicates greater knowledge of the subject matter. The bottom higher-grade approach is clearly the most logical and best-justified approach.

Even with the grade curve lines established, grading is far from completed. Several exams teeter between levels. The key is to measure the extent of what is referred to as “exam protrusion.” Exams that have small portions extending below the grade line should receive a minus; exams with protrusions above the grade lines receive a plus.

But what about exams that are right in the middle of a line. In Figure 6 below, this exam teeters between the A and B line. Should it receive and A- or a B+?


This is a difficult question, but I believe it is clearly an A-. The exam is already bending toward the next stair, and in the bottom-higher-grade approach, it is leaning toward the A-. Therefore, this student deserves the A- since momentum is clearly in that direction.

Finally, there are some finer points about grading that only true masters have understood. Consider the exam in Figure 7 below. Although it appears on the C stair and seems to be protruding onto the B stair, at first glance, one would think it should receive a grade of C+. But not so. A careful examination reveals that the exam is crumpled. Clearly this is an indication of a sloppy exam performance, and the grade must reflect this fact. The appropriate grade is C-.


One final example, consider in Figure 8 below the circled exam that is is very far away from the others at the bottom of the staircase. Is this an A+?


Novices would think so, as the exam has separated itself a considerable distance from the rest of the pack. However, the correct grade for this exam is a B. The exam has traveled too far away from the pack, and will lead to extra effort on the part of the grader to retrieve the exam. Therefore, the exam must be penalized for this obvious flaw.

As you can see, grading takes considerable time and effort. But students can be assured that modern grading techniques will produce the most precise and accurate grading possible, assuming professors have achieved mastery of the necessary grading skills.

h/t: Mark Elrod


13 thoughts on “Marking Papers

  1. Note to self: using more paper makes assignments heavier meaning they will fall farther and be A’s!! I’m so glad to finally understand your grading methods 🙂

  2. Your papers have been like gold, Sarah; I say you take half. I am hoping not too many students read this post and discover my secret; I guess only those that read my blog will earn an “A.”

  3. This is my favorite part: “The exam has traveled too far away from the pack, and will lead to extra effort on the part of the grader to retrieve the exam. Therefore, the exam must be penalized for this obvious flaw.”

    However, I would disagree with your contention that you get our papers back to us quickly…I am still waiting on that first test grade.

    What is your secret to doing so much reading to prepare for your courses?

  4. I use this method daily. I have yet to be challenged on it. So, I just realized that Kristi is/was a student of yours. What kind of a students was/is she? Maybe she can tell us. I have read her comments for a while and never realized that until now.

  5. Dillon: You got that stuff days ago, bro.

    Kristi: Do not think so.

    teacherwoman: I will let Kristi respond to that. She did finish at CAC in 2002. She has a BS, MS, and is working on a nursing degree.

    Private School Teacher: It is not so bad. I do stay very busy.

  6. Oy.

    I’m neck-deep in assessing papers (for both my high school and college classes), and I’m horrified by the general lack of quality in all of them. Either I’ve not been doing my job, or my kids have not been paying attention. Either way, we all lose.

  7. I have always been immensely glad that I do not have to grade writing assignments. Grading poorly done labs is rather frustrating, but at least I find it relatively easy to explain a poor grade to a student. It must be so much harder with writing assignments.

  8. Imitation is *always* the highest form of flattery.

    But you can have your stairway — there’s nothing like shooting a hole through a research paper with a shotgun.

    Trust ME. I’ve been there.

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