The Mystery of the Missing Marks: Some Misconceptions about the Grading of English Essays

by  Dr. Nils Clausson
Department of English
University of Regina (Canada)

          Once upon a time, at a university far, far away from the one where I now teach, a student came to see me about the essay I had just returned.  I had given him 70% and he wanted to know where he had "lost 30 marks." 

          Drawing a deep breath to compose myself, I leaned back in my chair and in the most professorial voice I could muster, I calmly said,  "You did not lose 30 marks."

          "Yeah, but," he uncomprehendingly replied, "you gave me only
70% and I can't figure out where, you know, I lost those 30 marks."

          I felt a little like Sherlock Holmes about to embark on what Watson would one day publish in The Strand Magazine as "The Mystery of the Missing Marks."  But since this is an essay rather than a mystery story, I will spare you the adventure and go directly to the solution.

          "You did not start off with 100 marks and then lose 30," I told him.  "You started off with 0 and climbed all the way to 70.  If I'd been able to find reasons to give you more than 70, you'd have gotten a higher grade."

          To many students the process whereby instructors grade their papers is a mystery which not even the brilliant Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot could fathom and explain.  But as in the classic detective story, the solution lies in a change of perspective, in seeing the puzzle from a totally different point of view.  Poe's Dupin easily finds the hidden letter as soon as he realizes the obvious fact that it is not hidden, but sitting right there in plain view of anyone who cares to see it.  And just as the police get it all wrong by thinking that the letter is hidden, many of our students misconceive the grading process by mistakenly believing that they start out with 100 points and progressively lose points by making mistakes: one point off for each spelling error, two off for each fragment or comma splice, five off for improper documentation, etc. 

          Now I don't mark this way. And I suspect that most of my colleagues don't either.  But many of our students think we do, and unless we explain how we actually mark their essays, they will continue to believe the myth that they start off with 100 points and steadily lose marks.
          I tell my students that I award marks for what they do well and if they do a lot of things really well they get a high mark.  If they make mistakes they do not lose marks; they just don't get any.  Their essays, I tell them, are a bit like--if I may be permitted a fanciful conceit--a scoreboard at the beginning of a game. There are no points on the board at the beginning of the game, and the objective of each team is to score as many points as it can.  Teams don't lose points by doing things badly (fumbling the ball, letting an opponent get into the clear where she can easily score).  In order to put points on the board, players have to do something right.  Similarly, an essay has no points when I start to grade it and I'm looking for reasons to award points: for example, 10 points for clearly identifying the critical problem or issue the essay will address, but less than 5 for merely identifying a bland topic: "In this story the theme of X is very important." (Of course, these arbitrary numbers are offered only as examples; my grading is not nearly as Gradgrindian as that.)

          Many students (like Dupin's inept police) share a misconception of what writing an essay is all about and therefore they have a corresponding misconception of what judging and grading an essay involves.  I think we can demystify grading (I now come to my clearly stated thesis, worth at least 10 points!), if we tell our students what it is they have to do in order to put some points up on the score board, rather than leaving them with the false impression that their objective is to avoid making mistakes, along with the erroneous corollary that the fewer mistakes they make the more marks they will get. (A baseball team that makes no errors can easily lose a ball game to a team that makes several.)  Many of my students have told me that, when I circle something on their papers, or correct a mistake, they think I have taken off points, that I've penalized them. I am not, of course, suggesting that we not correct errors in usage, idiom, vocabulary, etc. What I am suggesting is that we make it clear to them that we read their essays looking for things we can reward, rather than looking for errors we can pounce on and penalize. (Some students, I have discovered, will initially be sceptical of this claim, which they find counter-intuitive.)

          In other words, a student gets points for being clear, rather than losing points for being unclear.  He is rewarded for having a vocabulary adequate to the writing task he has undertaken.  She gets points for smoothly integrating quotations into the text, and for finding the precise word to convey the exact shade of meaning required.  Faulty parallelism does not result in lost marks, but parallelism that effectively shows the similarity between ideas is rewarded.  Of course, I am not suggesting that instructors do not look for these virtues of writing; obviously they do. I am suggesting, though, that we may not be telling our students what we are looking for. And as a result, our students, by default, assume that we are looking for things to penalize--mistakes to correct. This assumption is often reinforced when they get back their first essay covered with corrections and marginal comments like "unclear," "awkward," "grammar," "usage," and  "logic?"  Of course, I do pay attentions to these "faults," but I also try to can counter their misperceptions by telling them what I expect to find, what I consider the characteristics of a successful essay.

          I think "expectations" is the right word because experienced readers come to texts with expectations--expectations, depending on the genre, about level of style, format, vocabulary, pattern of organization (the rigid formula of the lab report, for example), type of evidence (quotations from authorities, close reading of a primary text), and documentation (footnotes in a scholarly journal but not in a high-brow magazine).

          Here are some of the things I include on my list of "what scores points in an essay." (I realize that not every instructor would agree with my list.)

          (1) The ability to identify and formulate a problem in a text, rather than just state a topic ("The contrasting light and dark imagery in this poem reveals a mind divided against itself" gets more points than "The dark and light images repeated throughout the entire poem enhance the author's theme").

          (2) The ability to find, within or outside the text, the appropriate evidence that would persuade a reader to accept the writer's argument.  (Telling your reader why you believe the narrator in "I Stand Here Ironing" is a good, or bad, mother is not the same as finding evidence that would convince a sceptical reader.)

          (3) Following from (2), a continuous awareness of the needs of the reader.  These include signals to the reader of the stages or steps of the argument; an awareness of the best order in which to present the evidence to the reader (fewer points for presenting them in the order in which they first occurred to the writer), and transitions that help the reader move easily from one point to the next (no transitions, no points--you don't score points for not shooting at the basket).          

          (4) The ability to discriminate between relevant and irrelevant evidence. (Including biographical information about Hemingway's newspaper career in an essay on imagery in "Hills Like White Elephants" is irrelevant unless the writer convincingly demonstrates its relevance.)

          (5) The ability to recognize how much evidence is needed to convince an open-minded but sceptical reader (one swallow does not make a summer; one dry well does not make a Waste Land).

          (6) The ability to see connections that other readers, including other students, might overlook.

          (7) Providing a title that is informative and gives a hint of the purpose of the essay.  (Thus titles like "Poetry Essay," "Blake's 'London,'" "An Analysis of Blake's 'London,'" and "Pro-war or Anti-war?" fail to meet these expectations and so earn the writer minimal marks--or, in the case of the first example, none at all.) 

          Although these criteria were self-evident to me, I discovered that they were far from self-evident to my students. Most of these criteria are related to audience: readers find an informative title helpful in orienting them to the essay; readers expect certain kinds of evidence in certain kinds of essays; readers expect an essay to do more than just announce a topic ("In this essay I will compare poem X and poem Y"); and readers, like drivers, expect a signal when the author is about to change lanes or slow to make a right-hand turn).  These are not merely expectations of the grader; they are expectations of experienced readers.  And although few readers are likely to put a grade on an essay, they may stop reading it if it fails to do what an essay, by convention, is expected to do.

          One final analogy may be helpful.  I think grading essays should resemble judging stories or poems in a writing contest: a judge rarely starts off with 100 points and then takes off points for perceived faults: ineffective use of rhyme, sloppy metaphors, wooden dialogue, underdeveloped characters. Rather judges look for the qualities of good poetry or fiction, and the entrant with the most of these qualities wins.

          Why should we grade essays any differently?

~Dr. Clausson has taught at the University of Regina in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, since 1984. (Regina is the home of the training academy for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police--the chaps who always get their man!) There he is the acting coordinator of first-year English. He has published articles on Benjamin Disraeli, D. H. Lawrence, Edmund Blunden, Seamus Heaney and Susan Glaspell.  His article on Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray will appear in the next (November 2003) issue of Papers on Language and Literature.  His poetry has appeared in American and Canadian journals, and his one-act play "Tess and the Boys" won a national writing contest in Canada in 1997. Dr. Clausson is also active in community theatre in Regina.  He recently directed Neil Simon's The Odd Couple
and Edward Albee's
The American Dream for Regina Little Theatre. If you have comments on his essay, you can write him at
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