On the Dark Art of Marking

While marking papers towards the end of last semester, I promised myself I would soon write about the thought processes that go into creating an assignment, establishing a marking rubric, and grading a research paper. Since the new semester is about to start, perhaps now is a good time to pull back the curtain just a little on the dark art of marking. We could call it the “How to Get Inside the Brain of Your History Prof as He’s Reading Your Paper” post, but that’s too wordy for a title.

The Assignment

Here’s a fairly typical research paper assignment that I would use in a 300-level history course—in this case, my course on the Holocaust:

 Research Paper (30 percent)

In consultation with me, please choose a research topic and produce a 12-15 page paper, formatted as per the History Style Guide. Your paper must be based on at least 10 solid sources (books and articles), interact with the historiography (i.e. historian’s debates in the current literature), and draw on relevant primary sources available in English (or other languages known to the student). Due: December …

I don’t normally assign specific research topics (i.e. questions) because I want to allow as much freedom as I can for students to choose topics from my course that interest them most. I want that to be a dialogical process, whereby I can help them frame good questions (not so narrow that they’re “unresearchable,” and not so broad that they’re shallow and boring and not real research) and they can bring their interests and existing knowledge and thereby grow more invested in the project.

Beyond that, the wording of the assignment spells out quite clearly what I’m looking for. In this case, the paper must:

  • Be formatted in a particular way: 12-15 pages, with certain fonts and margins, as well as a title page, notes, and bibliography,
  • Be based on at least 10 solid books and articles,
  • Interact with the writing of other historians on the topic, and
  • Draw on primary sources.

I’m not sure how seriously students always take these kinds of instructions professors give, but it has always seemed to me that they should be examined very closely. Here’s why: when I go to mark, these are the very things I’m looking for.

The Rubric

In fact, to help me focus on the task I’ve assigned to the students, I will generally create a little rubric to help me assess the various components of the paper. In the case of that 300-level Holocaust research paper, here’s the rubric I used. The top row of the table is for the student name and topic. The left column of the subsequent rows lists the components and questions that I use to guide my evaluation. In the right column is where I insert my comments. (Normally, the column sizes are reversed, but since this is a blank rubric, I’ve pushed the dividing line to the right, to shorten the table.) In the bottom row, I type in the mark in the left cell, and add any general comments I want to add in the right cell.


From my point of view, everything in this rubric corresponds quite clearly with either the basic notion of a research paper as the attempt to answer a specific historical question through a process of research, analysis, and synthesis (i.e. reading, note-taking, organizing, and writing) or the specific requirements of the assignment, as spelled out in the syllabus. My rubric is not so detailed that I weight its various components—it’s just there to help me organize my feedback and focus my marking. I find I’m a little more efficient using this sort of structure.

The Grading

How, then, do I actually mark the paper?

As I begin to read, I gain a first impression. Are there typographical or grammatical errors right off the mark? Not a great sign. Is the introductory paragraph (or paragraphs, if a student has begun with some anecdote or other to set the scene, before the introduction) clear? The first thing I want to know is whether or not the student has written a good introduction—one that 1) raises the question on which the paper will focus, 2) presents a clear thesis statement (what will the student argue throughout the paper?), and 3) breaks the argument down into its component parts (i.e. gives me a road map for the body of the paper, a list of subtopics or sub-questions on which the student will touch). After I’ve examined the introductory section closely, I will stop and make comments in the “Questions and Thesis” section of the rubric.

Next, I’ll start reading again—not for content, but for grammar, punctuation, spelling, and footnote formatting. I’ll start writing comments about the mistakes I see (or, less often, the outstanding elements) in the “Writing and Editing” section of the rubric. Sometimes I’ll add a few example sentences, rewriting the student’s work to show how he or she might have written some part more effectively. Most of this will be based on the first couple of pages of the paper, and if the writing is a significant detractor, I will note that and offer to spend more time with the student, analyzing the writing and editing of the paper together. Only if something else about the writing or editing really strikes me later in the paper will I comment again.

Writing matters to me—a lot. This is because good writing, like good speaking or preaching, is easy to follow. Poor writing makes it hard, and sometimes even impossible, to understand what a student is trying to say in their paper. If I can’t understand it, or am so constantly distracted by the many errors along the way (think of listening to a speaker who is constantly blowing his nose), it’s really hard to follow the argument, even if it is fundamentally sound.

Third, I’ll examine the footnotes and bibliography. Are there a good number and variety of notes? Did the student use the sources we talked about? Is the bibliography strong or weak? Is it formatted correctly? At this point, I may know enough to write some comments in the “Sources” section of the rubric. Otherwise, I’ll start reading from the beginning, focusing on the content, and make comments on the sources as I see more clearly how well they are being used.

Also, while I’m reading the first few pages of the paper, I can see quite easily whether or not the student has engaged with the literature (i.e. the historiography) relevant to the topic. Often there are a few historians who have shaped the field in which the student is working—scholars who have framed the debate about how and why a particular part of the past has unfolded. Because neither the students nor I are the first ones to investigate a particular topic, we need to acknowledge those who have begun the debate and identify their contributions before we add our own insights to the story. A simple analogy would be to say that we’re entering a conversation part of the way through. Based on whether or not the student has engaged with the historiography, I will add a comment to the “Historiography” section of the rubric.

At this point, perhaps three pages into the paper, I will have filled out about two thirds of the rubric. Only the “Structure and Argument” section remains, though I’ll certainly add comments to the “Sources” section too, as I see more clearly how well the student is using their source material.

Now I am free to focus intensively on the structure and argument of the paper. As I read, I’m keen to see if the student has organized his or her ideas well. Is there a clear paragraph structure? Are paragraphs used properly, each one developing a single idea? Does the structure of the paper correspond to the structure outlined in the introduction? Are the various sections of the paper introduced and concluded well, with ties back into the main argument? The answers I find to these questions will tell me how well the paper is organized, and whether the student has engaged in any kind of outline process.

As for argument, I look to see whether the student makes clear points, and whether these are supported by good examples (historical evidence) in the form of stories, statistical data, the words or writings of historical figures, or quotations (direct or indirect) from other historians. This is really the heart of history writing, this process of arguing and substantiating a thesis, but I don’t get to marking it until I’ve worked through all the other components of the paper. As I read, I will interact with the argument and the student’s use of evidence, by commenting in the “Structure and Argument” and “Sources” sections of the rubric.

Once I’m at the end, I’ll go back to my rubric, weighing the pros and cons of the paper and assessing a grade. Poor writing might take an “A-“ paper down to a “B” or “B-“. It’s hard to give an “A” if the student hasn’t engaged with the historiography (that would be one of the marks of an “excellent” paper, no?) or failed to develop a clear introduction and organization for the paper. And on it goes. Usually, I’ll write some general comments at the end of the rubric, summing up my thoughts on the paper and noting the particularly good or weak aspects or the student’s work.

So that’s how it works. It is certainly a subjective process—grading is very much an art learned over years of reading thousands of pages of student work. (Like many of my colleagues, I have an internal meter that moves back and forth as I read, ranging up or down from somewhere around “B-“, depending on the quality of the work.) But because there is a method to the madness, I thought it might be useful to sketch out the approach I use to assess the many research papers and similar kinds of writings (book reviews, primary source analyses, etc.) that I get to grade every semester. Despite popular assumptions about professors and grading (and despite my own groans at certain times of the semester), I really do enjoy marking. Even more, I really love the process of working with students to help them write better. Hopefully, all the feedback helps.

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