I don't understand how English teachers can by truly fair when grading essays. Isn't writing pretty subjective and up to individual taste? How do teachers or schools create a more objective standard for grading written work?


Maryann Aita, Writer, expert tutor, and creative writing MFA candidate

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Rubrics and standards are valuable tools for grading papers objectively, but I would add that students can be graded on their effort to incorporate elements discussed in class as well. As a creative writing teacher, I provide rubrics and grade on how much students tried to use the stylistic elements or concepts we talk about in our lessons.

For instance, in doing a class with fifth graders on how to "show" instead of "tell," I spent the class discussing things like using verbs instead of adjectives and had the students come up with examples (like "He galloped across the room" instead of "he walked quickly across the room") and various examples of figurative language. Then, I can give higher grades based on whether or not the student tried using any of these elements. Even if they don't have talent as a writer (or visual artist or other very subjective form), they have materials to work with. Instead of grading on how much I liked the story or the literary merit of it, I grade on whether or not they made an attempt to apply what they learned in class.

The same goes for academic writing. Teachers should cover how to make an argument, what a topic sentence is, and how to present evidence. There is always some subjectivity in determining how well a student argued a point, but it is fairly simple to determine whether or not a student followed the guidelines of the assignment and tried to incorporate the principles they learned.

Simon Sheppard, Two theories

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I, speaking from a student perspective, have a good answer for you. I have always succeeded in my English classes and have never gotten below a 90% on any of my essays. Then came senior year, and something changed. I had received a teacher that would religiously give me 80% on every single essay I wrote. This went on for an entire half semester, and I soon decided an experiment was in order. I had begun talking to my teacher about my essays, initially to invoke a reason as to why I received such low scores on my essays, and so continuously at that. In despair, I just started talking about my essays and how hard I've been working on them. Soon after, I started receiving 100% on all of my essays, all of my essays. This brings two theories in to question. Did she give me a better score because i significantly improved my writing in under a month? Or did she choose to favor me after seeing my dedication, creating a sort of favoritism. Giving out grades she thought we deserved, but didn't earn? I can assure you, I didn't get much better at writing.

Francis, Concerned bum

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The vast majority of the subject is just trying to fit an essay in the box that the rubric describes, and then crossing your fingers that your teacher won't take off points because they feel like it.

Amy Yvette Garrou, College admissions expert (US and international colleges)

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All great advice . . . I'd add that I have taught a few IB (International Baccalaureate) English classes, and there is a rubric teachers follow, and which is usually given to students in their classes, so that everybody knows what to expect. Other curricula use grading rubrics: AP classes use them (http://media.collegeboard.com/digitalServices/pdf/ap/apcentral/ap13_english_literature_scoring_guidelines.pdf

Iif you've taken an SAT or ACT with writing)you can see that their graders use rubrics. You can see these rubrics in test-prep books and on the College Board and ACT websites themselves. Here's an example: http://www.act.org/aap/pdf/Writing-Test-Scoring-Rubric.pdf

That said, I understand your concern about subjectivity. I'd say that many teachers are able to get at least some basic training, or advice from other teachers, on how to apply these criteria to grading papers. Teachers learn how to apply these criteria by grading papers over and over.

I haven't taught other subjects, but I think there must be some subjectivity involved in grading any subject which gives essay or research-paper assignments. In fact, there is subjectivity everywhere--I still have to remind myself of the inherent bias in any non-fiction or news I read; in any situation where people make choices about what they say and what sources they use.

If you aren't sure what the criteria are, or what the rubric is, for the writing you are doing, then it's okay to politely ask your teacher. You can ask after class, or during office hours, or whenever is appropriate. It may be a scary thing to do, but in the end you'll have more direction.

Carrie Hagen, Nonfiction Writer and Researcher, Teacher

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I agree with what Dr. Clemens says here -- the more grading teachers do, the better they get at assessing work. But you are right about the subjective nature of grading. Even the best rubrics have room for subjective interpretation. I echo Dr. Clemens advice about talking to your instructor after the fact. I know it's uncomfortable, and it may not help with your current grade, but it could very well help with your next one if the instructor knows how closely you are minding his/her advice.

If you don't think the grading expectations are clear prior to submitting the assignment, consider talking to your instructor then too, or at least send an email asking what he or she might specifically be looking for when grading.

Colleen Clemens, College Professor, Writer, Editor, Tutor & Parent

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Teachers get really good at grading really quickly--because they do so much of it. That being said, yes, teachers are human. This is where a rubric comes in. Or assignment guidelines. For example, when I see a student hasn't done what the assignment calls for, I can objectively assess that assignment. Following directions matters, even with creative writing.

Teachers are human. If you really believe you didn't get a fair grade, ask to sit down with the teacher. Be sure to have some reasons ready for the meeting. There have been times when I raised a grade. Most times I don't. But it has happened, and I was always happy to have that chat.

Jennifer Oleniczak, Founder and Artistic Director of The Engaging Educator

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To echo the below answerers, rubrics are an excellent way to grade writing. Yes, some of it IS indeed subjective, but there are many parts that are not - grammar, idea completion and follow through, development of ideas, conclusion, persuasive elements. A great rubric that I've used in the past is here: http://www.newpaltz.k12.ny.us/cms/lib/NY01000611/Centricity/Domain/144/RUBRIC--CreativeWr.doc

I think having students also use the rubric to grade their own, as well as a peer's work will help them understand what the areas of the rubric mean. While rubrics are a consistent answer, students need to understand what exactly they are being graded on, and what different levels of the rubric mean. It may be a worthwhile activity to have the students grade one assignment as a class to see what a "4" or a "B" look like vs a "5" or an "A".

If expectations are clearly outlined, then students know how to respond!

Nikki Morgan, Tutor, writer, student teacher, and parent

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In addition to using rubrics as Dr. Smith stated, teachers can use standards-based grading. The teacher can state using the rubric which State standards she/he will be grading for in the assignment. This can be helpful especially for students who are just starting to write longer pieces so a teacher can focus on one or two elements rather than expecting a flawless paper from a student who is only beginning to learn to write essays.

Dr. Aaron Smith, Ph.D. in Educational Leadership, Currently Program Director at Aviation Academy, Co-Author of Awakening Your STEM School

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Teachers should (if they don't do so already) use rubrics that encompass everything from grammar to content. When assignments, especially writing assignments, are assigned, a rubric should be included in the expectations. This clearly provides students the chance to know exactly is needed for an A on the assignment.

Teachers could also grade the assignment and ask their peers to grade them as well to see if they are any differences in their grading. From here, it helps the teacher see if and what they are missing and more importantly verify that they are not being biased in the grading.

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