Thursday, September 4, 2014

A cranky lecturer's guide to essay marking

I've been on the receiving end of some mightily shit marking habits. You know the myths of academics throwing the papers up the stairs and whatever lands highest gets the HD and so forth down to the Ps or judging the papers solely on how much they like the student? Yeah, pretty sure they've both happened to me. One of my undergrad lecturers consistently gave me 82% all semester long (just couldn't crack the HD at 85% no matter what I did); he then apologised at the end because he'd mistaken me for someone else.

It happens.

I'm going to let you in a little secret about academia. There's a formula we've given to calculate how long it should take us to make an essay (and hence, how much we should get paid). This involves an excel spreadsheet with much trickery behind the scenes and inputting figures for number of essays, word count of the essay and whether the essay requires standard or significant feedback (what exactly they consider significant is anyone's guess). For the 125 1800-word essays that I have due on tomorrow, which I am going to grade according to a matrix and then give approximately a paragraph of feedback (the good ol' positive negative positive sandwich), I am allocated 14.4 minutes per essay.

How's that make you feel after you've spent days or weeks trawling through sources, writing up argument structures and gorgeously simple prose, and meticulously referencing (I hope)?

Now that I mark digital submissions rather than hard copy, the process is quicker. There's no itchy trigger-finger with the red pen making me want to underline and cross out and rewrite. It's not as good for the eyesight but it sure helps my frustration with students who don't bother with spell check. On the flip side, they don't get the benefit of detailed insight into how to write a better bloody essay. You can find that here.

Here's how I mark my essays these days:
  1. Procrastinate.
  2. Sigh.
  3. Hunker down and just do it already. 
  4. Open marking sheet and essay files and display in side-by-side mode.
  5. Read through first essay, hoping like hell there is nothing in there that's completely incomprehensible.
  6. Tick initial instincts on matrix (unsatisfactory, satisfactory, good, excellent)
  7. Make quick notes while reading of good points, 'wrong' points (if it's that kind of essay) or illogical/stupid/pointless points (it's always that kind of essay - sigh again).
  8. Craft paragraph of feedback, trying not to anger or depress student while not leaving them disillusioned about the quality of the essay.
  9. Re-evaluate matrix.
  10. Give mark/grade based on matrix spread. 
  11. Repeat steps 5-10 for next ten essays
  12. Write a list of feedback phrases that keep cropping up ("shows a good understanding of the key theories"; "argument has a logical progression"; "a well-structured and well-written essay"; "many errors that could have been avoided with a more careful edit of the essay prior to submission" and save this to the bottom of the marking sheet)
  13. Cut, paste, alter and delete feedback phrases as needed for remaining essays.
  14. Reassess marks/grades for first 20 essays in light of overall class performance.
  15. Collate marks/grades and check distribution
  16. Internally debate the merits of Bell-Curve grading.
  17. Reject Bell-Curve grading but notice Bell-Curve is there anyway.
I'm happy when my process doesn't look like this or this or this. Behind the scenes, there's an awful lot of all those things. 

In case you're curious, here's the marking criteria and weighting I'll be using for marking those 125 essays:

Introduction (10%):
  • Orients reader to the organisation of the paper.
  • Addresses the question directly and clearly introduces the argument(s) that is put forward.
  • Provides an indication of why the topic you are writing about is important and worth considering.

Literature (20%):
  • Successful identification of relevant academic literature.
  • Evidence of understanding the literature.
  • Ability to apply literature to the topic.
Argument and Discussion (50%):
  • Comprehension and treatment of issues relevant to the question.
  • Evidence of systematic thinking in relation to the set question.
  • Addresses the question directly and consistently.
  • Takes a critical approach to the question and topic.
  • Use of examples showing understanding of theoretical perspectives
Conclusion (10%):
  • Summarises findings.
  • Clearly reinforces the argument(s) made throughout the essay and explains how they have been supported.
  • Raises unresolved issues for future consideration.
Referencing, writing and presentation (10%):
  • Easy to read, fluent and appropriate style.
  • Correct grammar and spelling.
  • Consistent and accurate use of an in-text referencing system.
  • No plagiarism
If you don't hear from me for the next two weeks, this is why. Send chocolate. Call my mother. 


  1. I could never mark essays - my mum is a primary school teacher and she spends so much of her time marking and assessing students and I just think it's all too much... Especially when there is no thanks

    1. It must be constant when you're in charge of a primary school class - continued assessment and homework all through the year. Luckily at university, or at least in my classes, there are only two written assignments and an exam. I give them weekly quizzes online but set them up so the system automarks it for me :)


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