Guidelines for Marking Student Papers

In my teaching, I frequently ask students to write research reports using the Turabian style guide. Of course, many students dislike having to follow the seemingly meticulous conventions for citations and formatting. I can understand that, but I tell them that the particulars are not the point—formal writing conventions exist to facilitate the interchange of ideas by providing a common format for displaying one’s work in an intelligible manner. In other words, it’s for the reader, which is the whole point. Besides, once a student masters the proper use of Zotero, it’s not that difficult.

Once I get the papers back, I’ve always become bogged down myself. Nobody ever taught me how to mark a paper, so I’ve tried all kinds of different approaches. Still, I usually wound up spending way too many hours on it, and of course, most of that time involved trying to show students why they can’t violate all the known conventions of English grammar and still be understood by readers. That’s not really helpful to anybody, actually.

Anyway, yesterday while I was in the middle of marking some papers, I thought I’d double-check to make sure that Turabian 8 was still the most recent edition of Turabian. On the University of Chicago Press website for Turabian, I found a PDF guide called “How to Teach Turabian” that includes a brief section called “A Quick Guide to Marking Student Papers.” It had never occurred to me that there would be guides on marking papers, and now I see that I’ve been doing this the wrong way for years.

Here are the guidelines for marking student papers:

  1. Distinguish marking papers (a learning outcome) from grading papers (an evaluation outcome).
  2. Let students help you decide when to mark their papers.
  3. When you don’t respond, students can learn from their peers.
  4. Don’t mark as you read.
  5. In marking, less is more.
  6. Have a learning agenda for your marks.
  7. Mark papers “top-down.”
  8. Don’t penalize good papers by leaving them unmarked.
  9. The most effective marks focus on a reader’s response, not on the writer’s success or failure.
  10. The most effective marks about writing have three parts: they (1) point out the specific issue on the page, (2) articulate the relevant general principle, and (3) suggest a change or, better, direct the student to make a change.
  11. The most effective marks about argument—“content”—have three parts: they (1) point out the specific issue on the page, (2) explain what gives you pause, and (3) make a suggestion or, better, ask a question pointing the student in a new direction.

If you ever have to mark student writing, you should read the whole thing.

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