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Grading and Commenting

Responding to student writing (with grades and/or by making comments) is typically the most demanding part of teaching a W course. But there are ways to make the task more manageable. This section discusses the basic types and methods of grading and provides information about creating grading rubrics. If you’d like information on responding to ungraded writing, see Low-Stakes Assignments. You may also find Reducing Time Spent Grading and the Model Rubric and Descriptors helpful.

To Grade or Not to Grade

W and C courses must include graded writing; however, while many students are motivated to improve through grades, they also benefit from low-stakes writing, in which there is no grade or one that counts for very little. In fact, some researchers suggest that once a paper is graded, students have little desire or motivation to return to it and so learn very little from feedback provided with graded papers.

This is good news for W and C instructors: if students can learn from low-stakes work on which they receive feedback, you will have less grading to do. And you don’t have to be the only one providing feedback, although generally students will perceive your feedback as most valuable unless you do something to change that perception. Comments on student papers can take many forms (for example, pre-packaged, marginal, in-text, or summary). Providing comments on low-stakes writing assignments or on drafts can be especially important, since students learn to modify their writing based upon feedback.

Summative and Formative Feedback

Summative feedback is provided to justify an evaluation (generally a grade), and it usually takes the form of comments in the margins and at the end. It might be provided via a rubric. Good summative feedback is geared to helping the writer or speaker improve, even though it also should make it clear why a specific grade was assigned.

Formative feedback, which is required for writing in W and C courses and for presentations in C courses,  is provided before a grade is given, and it is meant to help the writer revise. It may look much like summative feedback, in that it can consist of marginal and end comments or use a rubric, but it should have as its major aim helping the writer or speaker know how to take a draft or a performance to the next stage.

Methods of Grading

Most commonly, papers or presentations are graded in one of two ways: analytically or holistically.

Analytical grading. Breaks the final grade into specific criteria, often weighted or tied to a numerical or other value (such as High, Middle, Low). Most often, analytical grading uses a rubric, which is, quite simply, a descriptor of each criterion and its weight.

Holistic grading. Based upon a general impression of the whole document or performance, often relying on an evaluator’s expert knowledge; for example, a holistically graded paper may use a rubric but one that does not assign weights, since all traits are seen as equally important to the whole effect.

Another distinction that can be made in types of grading is between norm-referenced grading (comparing performance across a range, or grading on a so-called curve) and criterion-referenced grading. The latter compares a given performance to a predetermined list of criteria, or traits, which characterize an optimal performance.


Whether teachers grade holistically or analytically, they generally provide comments to guide future learning and revision (formative feedback), not to mention to justify grades (summative feedback). Comments can be:

  • pre-prepared (a rubric is most useful in this regard)
  • marginal (written in the margins)
  • in-text (written between the lines)
  • summary (written at the end)


Rubrics are timesaving and less problematic than other forms of commenting, though they may also be somewhat impersonal and “canned.” To design a rubric, decide on the traits to be assessed and their relative weight. These traits are what Richard Lloyd-Jones (1977) called primary traits, and deciding on what they should be is primary trait analysis.

For a quick and simple discussion of primary trait analysis and criterion-referenced grading, see “Establishing Criteria and Standards for Grading” in Effective Grading by Barbara Walvrood and Virginia Johnson-Anderson. They suggest that primary trait analysis use a 2-5 point scale; a two-point scale is basically “Pass/Fail.” However, you might use this same technique with a different numerical scale, weighting some traits more than others, or tying them to letter grades or to a 0-100 scale, for example. Keep in mind that some traits may be “gateway” traits: in other words, if they are not included or satisfactory, the paper isn’t even graded. Spelling, grammar, or format issues are often best dealt with as gateway traits.

Rubrics can work very well to keep your grading even and fair. The less variation possible in the way an assignment can be approached, the more useful a rubric will be. If there is a wide range of possible “A” papers, make sure your rubric can encompass that variation.

In selecting a style of rubric, consider that while points may seem more neat and less arbitrary than a designation such as High, Middle, Low, they can also be problematic in assessing writing, which is, after all, partly a matter of judgment. Grammar and punctuation rules can vary widely: what you regard as an error may not be so regarded by even very good editors. So whatever system you use, leave some latitude for judgment and flexibility.

The rubric below assigns points to specific traits; it is an abbreviated example of a rubric for evaluating a business memo. Many more traits could be included, but these are the traits the instructor deems most important for the specific assignment.

Excellent Good Fair Poor
Clearly defined audience & purpose 4 3 2 1
Appropriate tone 4 3 2 1
Important information in 1st ¶ 4 3 2 1
Spelling 4 3 2 1
Punctuation 4 3 2 1

If you feel that these traits should be weighted equally, potentially a paper with inadequate mechanics could be rated as a “B.” Therefore, some instructors might prefer to weight the traits, as, for example, in the following rubric:

Excellent Good Fair Poor
Clearly defined audience & purpose 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0
Appropriate tone 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0
Important information in 1st ¶ 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0
Spelling 4 3 2 1
Punctuation 4 3 2 1
Format 4 3 2 1
Total Points
A (27-33) B (20-26) C (13-19) D (6-12)

Another form of rubric, below, simply uses High, Middle, or Low for each trait; the grade might be based on a holistic sense of how many of each constitutes a letter grade, or the letter grades can be defined by the number of each level (i.e., an “A” requires at least 4 Highs).

High Middle Low
Development of content
Audience Accommodation

Following is a frequently-used rubric created by Diedrich in 1974 for large-scale assessment of writing. This rubric works especially well with multiple evaluators, since the total possible points add up to 50. Two readers can score separately, and add together their scores, or one reader can score and multiply the result by two. If two evaluators are more than 5 points apart, it signals they need to have a third reader render a judgment or provide a new score.

(Cited in Cooper, Charles R. “Holistic Evaluation of Writing.” Evaluating Writing: Describing, Measuring, Judging. Eds. Charles R. Cooper and Lee Odell. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1977. 7.)

Low Middle High
Ideas 2 4 6 8 10
Organization 2 4 6 8 10
Wording 1 2 3 4 5
Flavor 1 2 3 4 5

Sub Total: ______

Usage 1 2 3 4 5
Punctuation 1 2 3 4 5
Spelling 1 2 3 4 5
*Format 1 2 3 4 5

Sub Total: ______

Total: ______

*The original rubric uses “handwriting” here, a rather outdated criteria, except perhaps for in-class essays.

Following is a rubric used in some sections of English 301 (Technical Writing). It is general in describing criteria for all the assignments for the course rather than a specific assignment.

An “A” Paper

  • has a clearly defined audience and purpose
  • has an appropriate tone
  • employs a clear, concise writing style
  • is clearly organized
  • uses excellent page design
  • follows all written or posted instructions precisely and thoroughly
  • contains no distracting mechanical errors
  • includes complete source citations as appropriate

A “B” Paper

  • is very good
  • follows all instructions thoroughly
  • shows a clear understanding and completion of objectives
  • demonstrates a good understanding of Standard English mechanics but may contain some very minor errors, inconsistencies, or awkwardness
  • is thoroughly and competently completed, but perhaps somewhat less impressively thorough than an “A” paper

A “C” Paper

  • is adequate (generally satisfactory but could clearly be improved in specific areas)
  • follows all instructions but could be improved in terms of development/thoroughness
  • seeks to fulfill all objectives competently
  • is complete, but will improve with additional attention
  • may have noticeable, but not habitual, mechanical errors
  • may need clearer page design
  • may misconstrue details requested in the instructions

A “D” Paper May demonstrate some or all of the following:

  • fails to follow some more minor instructions
  • has an ambiguous audience
  • employs a vague tone or inconsistent writing style
  • contains a detrimental number of mechanical errors
  • has organizational weaknesses, including poor page design
  • needs clearly identifiable (and possibly substantial) improvement and/or development
  • generally follows instructions but needs improvement
  • shows only a partial understanding of objectives
  • needs additional polish in the use of Standard English mechanics
  • is not missing vital information, but clearly needs additional attention

An “F” Paper May demonstrate some or all of the following:

  • disregards instructions
  • has no clear audience or purpose
  • uses an inappropriate tone
  • has no clear format
  • uses inadequate or confusing page design
  • employs a convoluted, illegible writing style
  • contains no citation of sources
  • contains an unreasonable or habitual number of mechanical problems
  • needs major improvement and development
  • fails to show understanding of objectives
  • shows consistent carelessness concerning mechanics
  • is demonstrably incomplete

(Permission given by Cecelia Hawkins, English 301: Technical Writing Distance Version.)

Marginal, In-Text, and Summary Comments

Although many students don’t realize it, one reason instructors like double-spaced papers (and editors like double-spaced manuscripts) is that the ample spacing leaves room for comments.

Marginal and in-text comments are used to call attention to specific text features, to query the author, and to signal possible revision. They can be effective, but they can also be intrusive. In making marginal comments, it is imperative that instructors attend to their pedagogical aims: instructors should not edit, and should encourage active, independent learning and critical thought.

Summary comments, often found at the beginning or at the end of a document or, in the case of a presentation, as a note at the end of a rubric, serve to justify grades and can be used to point toward further improvement or revision. Summary comments can also develop procedural knowledge, further critical thought (especially about the larger issues that require a bit more elaboration than a margin affords), or provide commentary on issues not apparent in one specific area of the text, for example, how well an audience is addressed or how effectively an author appeals to logic or uses evidence.

Comments need not be extensive to be useful. In fact, marking every error can be detrimental to learning.

Minimal marking is a concept developed by Rich Haswell to describe an approach which puts responsibility on the student to find and correct errors.[See "Minimal Marking" College English 45 (October 1983): 600-604].

A Few Tips on Commenting

  • Be tactful.
  • Use questions to provoke thought. (“What other evidence might be cited to support this?” “Might this word choice offend some readers?” “Does this example really fit your thesis?”)
  • Be constructive; help the student see possibilities.
  • Define any and all grading or editing symbols.
  • Tie your comments to a handbook or website, or suggest students come to the University Writing Center.
  • Comment on strengths instead of weaknesses.
  • Be specific. (“Strong evidence” is more helpful than “Good” and “Unclear word choice” more helpful than “What?”)
  • Make your comments point ahead to further development. Suggest ways to improve.
  • Use the principle of independent and active learning in formulating comments. If you mark everything, you are an editor and not a teacher. Your student needs to find and identify problems in the text and to consider options for revising.

Additional Resources

Error and Improvisation with Jon Olson (lecture)

“What Do Professors Want from Student Writing?” by Don Ross (University of Minnesota). A handout you can give students.

“Running a Grade-Norming Session” by Pamela Flash (University of Minnesota). Helps if you want an assistant to grade.

Sample rubrics from Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Calibrated Peer Review, a program supported by TAMU which allows students to grade each other.

Rubistar, “a tool to help teacher make quality rubrics.”