I still remember my first paper as an undergraduate. I don’t recall the question or the topic (it was something in European history), but I remember getting it back from the TA. There was scribbling all over the sides. There were phrases I could not make out. The letters “PV” seemed everywhere. Then at the end, there was a paragraph I could barely decipher and then in clear, large print “B-”. This was not an auspicious beginning to my career as a scholar. My father recommended that I consider math, since I was doing quite well in Calculus.
I learned a lot from that TA – not by what she did right, but by everything she did wrong (and I found that this was the standard way to grade among most historians). I had no idea why I received a B-. I could not understand her writing. I did not understand the shorthand. PV could have meant “poor verbs” to me. I would have never figured out “passive voice” on my own or why that was a problem. So Strunk and White's words to writers, "be clear," I think equally applies to professors evaluating the essays.
Here is the solution, as I see it. First, I provide the grading rubric with the assignment. My students are currently working on their first essays (ahem … are currently working on it student blog readers!). From the first day, they knew the categories I was looking for:
- · Introduction clarity
- · Thesis clarity
- · Secondary context from lecture and textbook
- · Use of primary documents from Major Problems
- · Analysis of primary documents from Major Problems
- · Overall writing clarity
- · Writing mechanics
- · Appropriate references
Each of these categories receives 0-6 points. And each student receives 2 points for turning the essay in on time (so 50 total points).
Second, when a student receives her paper back, she receives a rubric grid with checks for each category. If the introduction is confusing, then they’ll get a 3 or 2. If they only use 3 or 4 documents from Major Problems, they’ll get a 3 or lower in that category. This way, students know how they are being graded (so they know how to write it). Then, they know how to improve for their next essay (oh, my thesis and introduction were quite low so I need to spend more time there).
Do you have any essay grading tricks that gives students the information they need in a clear, systematic way? Are there other ways you make such a subjective enterprise of grading essays more objective?
Next time (maybe tomorrow), I’ll get to my lecture on the Progressive Era.