A Rubric for Grading Papers

December 17, 2009

Most of my colleagues hate grading papers. Three reasons are obvious:

  1. most student papers are poor; many are abysmal
  2. a dreary solitary task in a profession that’s already too solitary,
  3. no carrots; no sticks

But I think there’s also a fourth reason: (4) many of us don’t know how to grade them!

Before I get to that, let’s talk about (3): What’s in it for us?

The main task on which faculty at major universities are evaluated is research production, i.e. publishing in what are considered the important journals in one’s field. Moreover, we’re usually in this business because of a drive to learn and better understand certain phenomena.

Then there is the need to get our ideas out there, giving talks and interviews. And then for those of us with a claim to practical, applied knowledge, there is something of an ethical — as well as practical — imperative in actually demonstrating the worth of our knowledge.

Teaching is also important; but whereas classroom teaching done well can be a real rush, grading papers is simply a drain of energy, as well as time.

So, many professors do virtually nothing; for all we know, they’re dropping papers down the stairs and those that reach the bottom get A’s. Or they give out all A’s. Or they give out the grade they imagine the student deserves (or will accept without complaining). Whatever the method actually is, for the student it’s a black box. They get no meaningful feedback and they get no meaningful education from a process that involves great costs, often involves real effort, and sometimes even has real potential. But few ever complain; many are shocked when they actually do get feedback.

Yet despite the flawed incentive structure, I think most of us would like to do the right thing. The problem, I think, is less incentives, than the fact that we don’t know how to do it, at least not efficiently. Most of us never were taught how to grade a paper, and indeed I struggled my first few years as a teacher. How do we know we’re being consistent? Unbiased? Most difficult for me was explaining why technically competent but mundane, uninspired work does not receive a high grade … and how to provide constructive criticism in these situations. (In a “Sopranos” episode, when a teacher being leaned on to give Anthony Jr. a passing grade, complains that the boy’s work is 10% inspiration, 90% cliff notes, I thought that’s not bad at all, in fact, better than some Ivy “A”s I’ve seen.)

My breakthrough came when my elementary school children received a “writing rubric,” laying out expectations in various aspects of writing. I was so impressed and immediately realized that’s what I needed (alas, for some students that exact rubric). I searched around the web for a higher level research term paper rubric, and found one* which I have since been modifying (current version below )Developmental Rubric for Research Papers 071022

Half a dozen of my colleagues have found it helpful; if you’re struggling with grading, hopefully it can help you too. I can’t even sit down to begin grading without referring to it. If my rubric isn’t apt, modify it, find another or create your own. (and if you have general suggestions, please let me know!)

I hope that students might find it equally useful. These are what you need to think about in your papers. and even if you don’t get meaningful feedback from your instructors, you can evaluate your own work. And, by the way, if you’re a student who doesn’t get meaningful feedback from your instructor, press for it; if that doesn’t work notify the administration. Like some students, some professors only exert effort if their feet are held to the fire. Also seek out other sources of good feedback. Writing help centers are usually helpful, often extraordinarily so. And if you think you might have something to say, circulate it early and often.

Well, there it is – my first blog. I wonder if it’s any good. Anyone have a rubric for blog writing?

* Note: I’d like to give credit where it’s due for the rubric, but I couldn’t track down original authorship, so if you see your ideas here, please let me know!


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