Commenting and Grading Effectively and Efficiently

Grading is one of the most challenging aspects of teaching and often the aspect that instructors dread more than any other. The goal of grading is not only to evaluate student work but also to provide feedback to aid the student in future learning and assignments.

When assigning grades, pay attention the following goals:

    • Adhere to previously determined standards or criteria for the assignment. These criteria should be determined prior to distributing the assignment. Grades should be based on how well and how completely a student fulfilled the requirements of the assignment. This practice helps grade allotments to be less arbitrary.


    • Be transparent with your expectations for an assignment. The goals and expectations of an assignment should be shared with students on the assignment prompt, on a separate handout, and/or in class discussion; you may choose to share your detailed grading criteria or rubric with your students (see below).


    • Be consistent in your grading. You should make every attempt to approach all essays similarly, regardless of who wrote the essay, what your mindset is, etc. Some teachers prefer to read several assignments before they begin grading to get a sense of the range in quality. Others remove names from assignments so that there is no possibility of favoritism or bias. Sometimes it is necessary to revisit essays that you already graded to make sure that you have not relaxed or increased your standards over time.


    • Whenever possible, include (detailed) comments on the strengths and weaknesses of the writing assignment. Through margin notes and end comments, you communicate why a specific grade was assigned, and help the student understand where they can improve in future writing (see Commenting section for more specific advice).


  • Have a clear policy on how lateness will impact grades. Do you accept late papers? Will late papers be subjected to a grade penalty? Make sure to establish a clear policy prior to assignment deadlines, and communicate this policy with students.







Techniques for Grading Efficiently and Fairly

Write Clear and Substantial Comments

Writing clear and substantial comments on a paper helps you organize you thoughts and consider the paper’s strengths and weaknesses.  Do not assign a grade until you have finished writing the comments.

Approach Grading Systematically

Although deciding on a letter grade for each essay in the stack can be agonizing, the following four-step method can make deciding much easier:

    • Step One. Read through the stack before grading any essays. Identifying what the strongest essays are doing (and not doing) and the ways in which the weakest ones go awry will help you see what ideal responses to the assignment may look like.


    • Step Two. Use grading criteria to describe each essay. Stepping back from an essay and describing it in terms of grading criteria can help you make dispassionate judgments. Chances are, most essays will just “seem like a B+” until you think about the qualities they exhibit and how they compare to the ideal.


    • Step Three. Determine upper-half and lower-half essays. Whether a essay is in the upper half or the lower half of the grade range spins primarily on how effective the essay’s thesis and structure are: a readable essay with a clear argument will usually receive an upper-half grade; a essay that’s difficult to read and doesn’t have a clear argument will usually receive a lower-half grade.


  • Step Four. Make fine distinctions. To hone in on more precise grades, consider why an essay should receive a particular grade, not something slightly higher or slightly lower. 
You may wish to spell out a detailed set of grading standards to help you assess your students’ writing fairly. And by distributing your grading standards to students before they write their essays, you can help them anticipate the criteria by which their writing will be judged. Sample grading standards are available on this website.

Do Not Get Mired in the Details

As you grade papers, try to stay focused on the fundamental aspects of a successful argument. Does the argument make sense? Is the argument well supported? Is countervailing evidence taken into account? Try not to become fixated on grammar errors or other low-level concerns since such issues usually do not (or should not) figure heavily in the final grade.

Distribute a Grading Rubic

Distribute a grading rubric at the start of the semester or when you hand out a paper assignment. Discuss the rubic in class. In your comments on the paper, use language which is consistent with the rubric and which refers to features of a successful paper as described in the rubric.

Download sample rubrics as a Microsoft Word document.

Want Help?

The Harvard Writing Project offers free workshops to all FAS faculty and TFs on proven strategies for responding to student writing.  Contact us.