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How Teachers Grade Your Papers

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I've graded almost 30,000 essays in my 25 years as a teacher in nearly every subject area.

To keep my sanity and get through that work, I (and every other teacher) must rely on a defined process. As teachers, we all have similar writing assessment processes, but more often than not, these processes are a mystery to our students -- and that's really not fair.


To help you understand the way your work is read and graded, I want to share my methodology, shine a light on what I look for in student writing, and ultimately answer your burning question: How do teachers grade papers?

A Teacher's Perspective

By sharing how I grade your paper, my hope is for you to understand what you need to do in order to earn a good grade. The first way to understand your writing role is to see this process from a teacher's perspective. We're busy. In addition to grading, we're preparing for class, attending meetings and helping students.

For every hour you spend working on your paper, I spend an average of 37 seconds reading your work and giving you feedback! Reading and grading a hundred papers over a weekend takes time. Here's what I (and most teachers do) to review student writing assignments.

Step 1: Scan for Structure

I start by scanning your paper very quickly for basic structure. I ask myself these questions:

  1. Is there a clear thesis in the first paragraph?
  2. Does every body paragraph begin with a topic sentence that relates obviously to that thesis statement?
  3. Does the conclusion summarize the argument that the thesis lays out?

If I can answer yes to each of these three questions, then I'm going to assume you probably have written a good paper.

Step 2: Highlight Specific Information

On my next pass through your paper, I'm paying more attention to specifics. I'll go back to your thesis statement and double check that it answers the assignment's question. Assuming it does, I'll then do a quick check that you've provided some interesting introductory information to set up your thesis. If the thesis isn't clear (or isn't even there), then you're going to get a bad grade.

Depending on the length of your paper, I may or may not check each body paragraph closely. If I am checking a body paragraph, I'll note what the main point of the body paragraph is supposed to be. I base this on your topic sentence, which is the first sentence in the body paragraph. This sentence should introduce the main thing you are going to talk about in the paragraph.

Step 3: Identify Supporting Content

The next thing I check for in a body paragraph is some kind of support. This could be a quote (make sure you cite quotes appropriately) or a relevant example. If you don't provide support, I'll skip to another body paragraph and I'll make a note. The more of these notes I make, the lower the grade will be.

Step 4: Find Clear Analysis

Assuming you've provided evidence, I look for analysis. You need to explain why the example or quote supports the main point in that topic sentence. I ask: why does this example or quote justify the claim being made? The answer to that question should be what you've written. Good, clear analysis is the difference between a "B" paper and an "A" paper.

Step 5: Check and Recheck Organization

If the body paragraph doesn't do a good job of introducing and developing a clear point, I'm going to step back and think in more detail about whether that body paragraph even relates to your thesis. Once you give me reason to believe you haven't thought your paper through, I'm going to check more closely for these elements of organization.

Step 6: Skim Conclusion

By the time I get to your conclusion, your grade is mostly set. If there is a clear thesis and well-developed body paragraphs, your conclusion won't get as much attention. If I'm not sure yet on your grade, I'll read the conclusion carefully. If the summary isn't concise or accurate, your grade is going to drop a bit more.

If the summary is good, then I check for a concluding idea that is interesting. I want to see an idea that's engaging enough that it will still have me thinking about it tomorrow.

Deciding the Grade

When I'm grading a pile of papers, I want to provide a fair grade on the quality of your work.

Here's how you can improve the quality of your writing:

  1. Making sure those three initial questions get answered with a clear "yes" (scroll up to Step 1 for a reminder).
  2. Develop strong body paragraphs.
  3. Summarize clearly with an interesting final thought.

The next time you find yourself wondering about "what grade my paper deserves," think about optimizing your writing to touch each of these key points. Once you adopt this approach, you'll find assignments will become easier to write, more enjoyable for your teacher to read, and your final grade more impressive!

Get Help With Online Writing Technology

For real-time writing help (when a teacher isn't available), writing software is a great resource to consider. These days, AI-powered technology, like Ecree, can review your paper as you write it and provide instant feedback on your thesis, supporting content, evidence, analysis, organization and more.