In Defense of Whole-paper Grading

It’s question and answer time here on the blog.

From reader J. Harris comes the following question (or two), about a subject that happens to be on my mind this time of year and so got me scribbling enough to run a blog post about it:

I was wondering about two things: In a non-English class (in this case education), what percent of the grade do you think should be based on the quality of the argument as opposed to mechanics of the paper? The papers that I am currently grading are from master’s students in Curriculum and Instruction. Would the criteria be different in an English class? Thanks for your opinion.

First, thanks for writing, J.  

Second, thanks for bothering to think about core matters of grammar and argumentation in a non-English course.  I wish teachers at all levels in all subjects were conscious of such things!

Now, before I answer your question, I ought to say a few words generally about whether to have a defined grading scheme (or rubric) at all.  That is, should a teacher systematically break down the grade of a paper into identifiable elements that are individually tallied up into a final score? Or should he or she go with a “gut” instinct, a “feeling” based on experience, about what the grade should be?

I don’t know that a poll has ever been done on the matter, but I suspect — simply from the data gathered over the course of my own meandering experience through a few decades of school — that most teachers prefer the gut feeling.  I imagine this is because it seems easier to read over a paper, ponder for a moment, and then slap a grade on it than it would be to cobble together smaller grades and do some math to get to the final score.  It probably seems more “authoritative” on some level, too, since there is no argument to be made against the score other than an argument against the subjective power of the teacher, which is close to unassailable.  Indeed, largely because the non-scheme of grading was about the only one I ever saw as a student — if teachers were following rubrics they certainly didn’t show them to me — I admittedly followed the gut-feeling method of grading in my initial years as a teacher.

But not now.  I’ve seen the light, my friends.  And while it sounds like you have, too, J, I feel the need to preach to the masses for a bit about the powers of schemes.  Don’t worry: I’ve not forgotten your query.

My first couple of semesters here at The Citadel brought me a heavy teaching load of composition courses, which meant grading hundreds of essays over the course of a semester.  In doing so, I became increasingly uneasy about just going with my gut feeling about grades.  For one thing, I didn’t feel comfortable with my own judgment; too often I found myself flipping between papers for the third or fourth time, trying to decide if this one was really 2 points better than that one, or if a third paper “fit” between them and so on.  For another thing, I couldn’t stop thinking that reducing a student’s paper grade to a single number was a missed opportunity to provide constructive feedback.  This latter issue was especially true on occasions when a student’s third or fourth paper of the term was showing a lot of improvement in one area, but lingering deficiencies in another area were resulting in a lower grade.  I could see how that would be disheartening no matter what positives I wrote in my final comments.

Thus, starting in my second semester here, I began an experiment with grading rubrics.  After long and careful thought, I decided on a theoretical breakdown of the components that went into any good paper, then I graded every paper that came in that term twice.  (Seriously.)  First, I graded with my gut, second I graded with my rubric.  I tried my best to make the experiment “blind” by giving myself a good delay between grading sessions in the hope that I’d forget my first score by the time I gave it the second, but I admit that the whole thing wouldn’t meet the exact standards of science.  (That said, the way the scheme functions you’d have to be actively adjusting numbers if you were trying to get to a pre-arranged final score, which is something I would not do.)

At any rate, the results of my experiment were interesting.  To begin with, the gut and rubric grades were usually very close to the same, which I took as a nice vindication of my gut.  Beyond that, though, I found it was actually less stressful to use the grading scheme: I no longer felt any doubt about the final score.  Even more, grading was actually faster and easier with the scheme, which was completely counter to what I’d expected.  I just didn’t have to ponder so much, and I didn’t have to do any adjustments after the fact.

Transferring my grading scheme into the classroom also resulted in a student-side benefit that’s been a boon: students not only could see the exact areas they needed improvement in, but they also seemed more confident in the reliability of my grading.  While one cannot grade essays in any completely objective way, the tiniest move to reduce subjectivity was very welcomed by them.

Thus, as I said, I’m now a firm believer in grading schemes, which brings me (at last) to J’s question about how to weigh different elements in a paper.  I personally breakdown most essays into five components, with only slight variation on them based on the class level.  These components are treated equally (each counting for 1/5 of the paper’s grade).  Once established, the process is as simple as could be.  I simply assign each component a score between 1 (the worst) and 10 (perfect), which gives me some number between 5 and 50.  If you want a basic percentage score, you multiply this number by 2.  If you use a point system (as I do, which is another thing I’ve grown to love), then you multiply by whatever number is needed to get to the total possible points for the assignment.  I hate to wave my own flag, but I daresay the whole thing is brilliant.

Herewith, the five components in my general grading scheme:

Format / Style

(That last item varies by level, with upper-division undergraduates and graduates getting the style category instead of the basic question of formatting, which should be a “gimme” at that point.)

If my gut says the thesis is good but not great (a “B” in other words) I give the first category an 8.  If the citations are perfect, it gets a 10.  And so forth.  Add ’em up, multiply, and you’ve got a grade.

So, if you’re asking how I would personally weigh argument vs. the technical aspects of grammar/syntax, the answer is “equally, with other things.”  After all, the best ideas in the world are useless if not conveyed properly, and the most accurate grammar is rather useless if it doesn’t say anything.  Likewise the whole thing is moot if sources aren’t cited properly, or if the argument fails to push the reader inexorably to the desired end.

It’s “whole-paper” grading that’s relatively transparent and easy, and I love it.

Oh, and I don’t think the subject of the class should enter into the matter in the slightest. Whether it’s an English class, a history class, or one on quantum physics, the basic breakdowns of human communication are the same.  

In the end, everything counts.


  1. C. E. Bollinger

    For over three decades, I’ve made a good living off the fact that most college graduates can’t write their way out of a paper bag. The concept of thesis-argument-citation-conclusion appears to be beyond the reach of the vast majority of working scientists, computer-related specialists, and health and pharmaceutical professionals.

    I’m not kidding. Many of them think that if they deeply bury their writing in jargon, the lack of substance in their work will be overlooked. I used to be very glad of this, because it meant I would always have a job. 🙂

    However, I’m not doing that work anymore, so I think it is a very good thing for all professors to hammer all aspects of good writing into the brains of their students. In whatever profession those students pursue, their abilities to write clearly will quickly elevate them above their peers.

    In summary, it is never a bad thing to be confident about your ability to write coherently and persuasively. Anything that professors can do to help their students grasp this Fact of Life will improve their futures considerably.

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