Grading Research Papers: A rubric and a method of moiling

by Mr. Sheehy

As I work through a pile of research papers I find great enjoyment in digging through the thesaurus to discover how to describe my task. What is it I am doing while grading these? That is what I must decide. Am I slogging through them? Toiling? Plodding captures my pace, though not the mood of the work. Drudging captures the mood, but perhaps is a bit dramatic. Grinding is good but implies that I am faster than I really am. Sometimes I can work for 15 minutes and grade only one paper; that will not qualify as grinding. Moil I like. It made a recent appearance in our poem of the day, via “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” and though it also implies hard and ceaseless work similar to grinding, it seems to withdraw the speed aspect . . .

As I moil through these papers, then, I have been grateful for the method I currently use. It is an adaptation of my World’s Greatest Essay Rubric, something I modeled after my favorite college professor. I have chopped the written assignment into its basic components (no, I do not use the 6-traits as the basic components here) and then have a four-box rubric style scale, creating a table. For most writing assignments, the basic components are

  1. the introduction,
  2. the supporting paragraphs,
  3. the conclusion,
  4. writing style, and
  5. directions.

Pretty much anything I want to critique falls under those categories. The description of the quality moves to the right in basic analysis:

  • Weak
  • Okay, needs some work
  • Solid
  • Strong

By releasing my rubric from the tyranny of numbers, I am able to call the same box two different things. For a poor writer who just wrote his first attention grabber, ever, I can award a “Solid” without giving him more points than he rightly earns, according to our manner of grading. For a student who writes well and shirked a transition between her attention grabber and thesis, I can say “Okay, needs some work” and still give her the B the paper earns when compared to the criteria.

With research papers, I change the left hand descriptions, choosing to shy away from an over-analysis of the writing, since the bulk of our instruction was devoted to citations and other particulars of research papers. Thus, the left side examines

  1. Citations
  2. Sources
  3. Works Cited
  4. Writing Style, and
  5. Organization.

I also shy away from using my pencil too much anymore, as it slows me down. I read the paper with a pencil in hand, marking papers as necessary with small symbols and notes, but whenever I am tempted to comment, I write a number. I then type my comments onto the bottom of the students’ rubric and speak just as I would if I were writing in the margin of the paper. The difference is that I am not trying to squeeze all these words into the margin and am sputtering them out at a clip far superior to my pencil pushing prowess. I will also comment generally within the boxes where I mark students’ scores, so when they receive their paper they have a fairly full idea about what I thought about their paper and what I think they might do to improve it.

The end result is the fastest method I have yet devised for giving useful feedback to students. Unfortunately, it still takes what feels like forever to grade the papers, but there is no helping that, after all.

Thanks for reading.