|Diary of a Grader
Sometimes when you are writing exams in class, writing as fast as
you can under time pressure, you forget there is a person actually reading
the exam. You are writing for an audience.
There are things you can do - such as writing clearly, creating a
concrete introduction and showing creativity with the material - that will
help your audience by making your essay more readable. The result will
probably help your grade.
To give you a sense of what's going through the mind of someone facing
an unmarked stack of papers, American Studies TA Kelly Willis Mendiola
kept a short diary on one recent grading foray.
Monday, 9:30 a.m.
Its a gorgeous spring day outside and Im sitting down at my kitchen
table to grade a large batch of essay questions57 exams of four essay
questions each, a total of 228 essays. I have a week to grade them all.
As is my tendency with daunting tasks, Im having a little trouble getting
I am lucky enough to begin with a good essay. This student states exactly
where shes going in the first paragraph which makes the essay easy to
Instead of grading each exam separately I am grading all the answers
to each question at one time in order to grade as consistently as possible.
The down-side of this method is that I am reading the same thing over and
over which can get boring.
At the review session for this exam I emphasized organization, something
a lot of people had problems with on the last exam. A lot of people are
trying to improve their organization on this exam, which is heartening,
but many seem to have missed the point. They are writing introductory paragraphs,
but making them too general to be useful. The purpose of introductory paragraphs
is to make essays easier to readthey state clearly exactly where the essay
is going and allow the reader to quickly see what line of reasoning the
essay will follow and what its main points will be. The statement "This
paper will discuss similarities and differences" without immediately listing
those similarities and differences simply doesnt give me enough information
to be a useful introduction.
Im also getting tired of reading thesis statements like "The show was
famous for many things," "Thomas Ince had a huge impact" or "Their significance
is great and unprecedented" which really tell me that the person either
was too lazy or didnt know enough information to make a specific thesis
statement that serves as an umbrella for the essay.
Tuesday 10:00 a.m.
Its my second day of grading, this time in a library cubicle where
Ill be less distracted by the wind blowing in the grass. I need to make
good progress on grading today but am getting slowed down by exams like
this one. It reads like a summary of the persons notes. It tells me everything
the student knows about the subject but doesnt provide any analysis, which
in this case should have involved a comparison of two different groups.
Instead of choosing key aspects of the two groups to compare, this essay
merely describes the two groups, perhaps assuming that the connections
are obvious. They arent.
Tuesday, 2:00 p.m.
What a relief, some creativity. I just read a clever essay imagining
"Little Big Man" as a woman. I was similarly pleased when a student answered
one of the really tough questions we never really discussed in class. His
essay offered thoughtful speculations on why western films have been virtually
sexless while pulp western magazines lured readers with cover images of
scantily clad women. Most people avoid these questions because they involve
more risk than the questions with clear right and wrong answers, but I
think people should get some credit for taking the risk, which is what
education is all about. Every once in a while a student unwittingly makes
me laugh. One person repeatedly referred to George Armstrong Custer as
Thursday, 3:00 p.m.
I am getting tired of reading these exams and my hayfever is bothering
me. I am losing patience with essays like this one which is full of unsupportable
generalities like "Although this photographers method of photographing
Indians every day life was based on stereotypes he still gave the public
what they wanted to see" or "His paintings come to life because theyre
filled with so much emotion that we look to them with respect and admiration."
Friday, 11:00 a.m.
I usually begin grading feeling sympathetic toward students. I want
them to do well. But there are certain essays which really irritate me.
I begin to feel particularly grumpy when I read essays in which it is clear
the person hasnt studiedthey get basic facts wrong or dont use specific
examplesand they are obviously trying to fake me out with big words and
Friday, 4:00 p.m.
I am sitting in a library cubicle looking wearily at a big pile of graded
blue books. My brain feels numb from hours of concentrated reading. Even
though I have read all the exams and commented on each one I still see
grading as a somewhat arbitrary process, like any subjective evaluation.
I am always worried that students will see their grades as some measure
of their worth rather than what they are one persons reactions to their
writing. I think of the essay exam as a rare opportunity for people to
get individual feedback on their writing and ideas. I hope Ive not wasted
my time by commenting on each essay, that people will read and think about
my comments. If they do, this long journey has been worth it.
Home | Top | Know
What You're Reading | What to Look For | Circling
the Image | Hints on Notetaking | Using
Your Notes | Writing Papers & The Library
| Glossary of Terms | Outline
of Site | Credits