• September 2, 2015

Wielding the Red Pen

Careers Illustration for Wielding the Red Pen

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

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Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

I've never heard any academics say that they love grading. Yet, as graduate teaching assistants, we talk about it often—which is not surprising, since it is our primary job.

We discuss our grading systems, such as how much value we assign each portion or element of a test or paper. We share the outlandish answers that students offer, like warping General George Armstrong Custer a century back in time and placing him at the head of a charge up Bunker Hill. We compare grade distributions. We joke about simplifying our task by awarding everyone a B, or throwing the papers in the air and giving grades based on where they fall. And when we face a stack of exams over a weekend, naturally we grouse a bit. Yet seldom do we broach the subject of our personal stake in grading.

In my six years of TA-ing—first as a master's student in anthropology, and then as a Ph.D. candidate in history—I spent far more time assessing students' work than I did on any other teaching activity. And I probably learned more from the experience of grading than my students learned from the feedback I gave them. Mostly I learned to use grading to help students learn rather than intimidate them from questioning my assessments.

The first time I encountered Scantron exams, I loved them. Amazingly, that first encounter wasn't until about six years ago, when, as a master's student, I worked as a TA in an introductory anthropology course that drew nearly 500 undergraduates. I loved the ease of grading Scantron exams, which was a matter of alphabetizing the narrow, rectangular forms and then feeding them, with all of their bubbled-in answers, into a machine. As long as the forms didn't crumple and jam the machine, I could sneak in a little reading as I "graded."

But Scantrons had other benefits. Students rarely questioned their grades; rather, they came to see me asking how they could do better next time (though that, too, was rare). The point is, they accepted a Scantron exam as objective and focused on their performance. And yet the exams suffered from the obvious criticisms: They tested rote memorization rather than writing and analysis. They favored a good guess over a command of the material sufficient to encourage creative analysis and use.

In spite of the nearly burden-free grading offered by Scantron, I felt that I was missing out on an important part of the teacher-student relationship: personalized assessment.

So, when I started my stint as a doctoral student, which included a four-year teaching assistantship, and got my first pile of bluebooks full of handwritten short answers and essays, it was as if I had moved up a notch in the academic world. Jeff, the professor I was TA-ing for, described his grading rubric and turned me loose, trusting my knowledge of the subject and my objectivity.

When it came to grading those first exams, as well as history essays and research papers for the next few semesters, I let the red ink flow. I circled every passive-verb construction, drew squiggles through each split infinitive, underlined any awkward phrases. I scrawled comments all over the margins, to call attention to weak or strong thesis statements, abundant or flimsy evidence, and both clear and poorly organized paragraphs. Not to mention all the marks I made signaling right and wrong facts. Great papers bled almost as profusely as poor ones.

When Jeff and I compared our graded work, in an attempt to standardize our efforts, our agreement relieved me. But I noticed that he hadn't written nearly as many compliments and corrections as I had. His grading seemed sparse compared with mine. Why was I writing so much?

There are lots of ways I could have justified my many markings: I was being thorough. The more I crossed out as wrong and the more I complimented as right, the more I was teaching. I was showing that I cared about all the details of a paper or essay exam. All of which were true, to an extent.

By my third year as TA in a few of the same classes, I had caught on to Jeff's more concise method of grading. I began identifying common and repetitive errors within the first few paragraphs of an assignment or exam, then directed the student to look for the same errors thereafter. I noted problems and successes with simple X's and check marks. I wrote "vague" in the margin rather than an elaborate explanation of why the meaning of a passage was hard to understand. And I started withholding my comments until I had finished reading the work, and then provided overarching compliments and criticisms at the end. I did that to save myself time, but I was able to do so because of a new sense of confidence I had in my authority.

As my knowledge of the course material increased, so did my self-confidence. That may be an obvious thing, but it revealed less obvious things about my early approach to grading.

On reflection, I saw all of the slashing and hacking I'd done with my red pen as more in the service of my need for authority than as an effective teaching tool. More specifically, the marks I made on students' work served as a barrier or a fence, perhaps, to prevent students from questioning my assessment of their work and to keep them from challenging my authority, or, more truthfully, the lack thereof. The more I marked, the higher I built the fence. And early on I barbed that fence as much as possible. I feared students' questions about my grading, so I discouraged those questions. I buried them in red ink.

Once I became aware of doing that, I began seeing it happen in other ways.

Listening to my fellow TA's talk about their discussion sections, I heard about what I call "the wall of words." Similar to building red-ink fences in grading, we, as unsure TA's, often talk too much as a way of filling our allotted time in front of students, instead of fostering good discussions with them. By doing most of the talking, by lecturing rather than spurring conversation, we ensure our authority in two ways. First, we prevent students from posing questions that might reveal the limits of our knowledge or challenge our understanding of the material. Second, we are building our authority by filling the room with our own voices, our own knowledge of the subject at hand.

Last semester I taught an American-history survey course on my own and had five teaching assistants working for me. When it came time to exchange graded bluebooks, so that we could standardize our grading, I saw the same struggle for authority played out. My exams looked virtually untouched compared with most of theirs.

As we got to know one another better, I mentioned my thoughts on this to one of the TA's whom I knew well as a fellow graduate student and friend. She quickly agreed that she wrote a lot on exams as a way of justifying the grades, or, put another way, to deter questioning and shore up her authority.

Similarly, when I asked my TA's how their discussion sections were going, I heard a lot about what they had said to students and far less about what the students had to say. Each week we devoted time to figuring out ways to stimulate discussion, and yet each week I got the sense that the TA's did most of the talking. Some of that had to do with the difficulty of running a seminar-type environment with undergraduates who are not specializing in the field or subject. But a large part of that difficulty, I believe, rests in the uneasiness we feel as graduate students guiding undergraduates, which I first recognized through grading—or overgrading.

After serving six years as a teaching assistant and having taught a few of my own classes, I am not sure I have an easy solution to this problem.

I still catch myself filling margins that perhaps are better left unfilled, or talking too much as a way of drowning out a student's question.

But I've learned to do otherwise. I've learned to point out recurrent problems in students' writing once or twice and ask the writer to identify other examples of the problem. In the margins of a test or paper, I pose questions that encourage students to decipher their errors, rather than bludgeon them with my recognition of those errors. I favor a few comments at the end of a paper that assess the work as a whole.

To seasoned graders and teachers, those may seem like obvious techniques. To those of us relatively new to the practice, they are more than techniques. They are at the core of transforming the grading process from one of self-defense to one of promoting students' willingness to question, to be curious.

More students come to talk during my office hours these days. And more frequently than ever, they begin with the introduction, "I don't have any problem with my grade, I just wanted to talk about one of your comments." We tend to talk more about the substance of their work than fuss about point totals.

When I have dared to ask students how much attention they pay to my grading and comments, they almost always tell me that the more I write, the less they read. When faced with a paper drenched in grader's ink, they search for the final grade and rarely consider questioning it. The stifling of questions cannot possibly be good teaching.

David Brooks is an A.B.D. doctoral student in history at the University of Montana. If you would like to contribute a First Person essay to our series on graduate-school work and life, please e-mail your ideas and essays to careers@chronicle.com.


1. iris411 - February 08, 2011 at 09:23 am

Thanks for writing this up. This is totally useful and helpful in many differnent ways!

2. tejackso - February 08, 2011 at 10:09 am

for sure comments can be overdone, and there doesn't appear to be some simply correct way to make them. but on the other hand if you expect students to think about, and be responsible for, every word they write (for better or worse i do this), then it seems only right to take on the reciprocal responsibility: to read as you expect them to write. One of the major difficulties of becoming steadily more literate is getting a handle on the nature of precision that distinguishes writing from (most) speech. If you are to convey this notion of precision, then being precise in your response seems a likely way to go. the downside that always has to be taken into account is that you can just blow students away with all the comments. but in my experience if you explain verbally more than once in more than one way why it matters that they should be learning this kind of responsibility and precision, and if you write comments with care instead of outrage or scorn, then you can get them to make the most of all the combined work of writing and teacher-response.

tony e. jackson

3. coleymac - February 08, 2011 at 11:49 am

I may have bled too much on my papers when I graded. I often wrote as much or more than they did, on both good papers and poor ones. But I had one rather unconventionalsolution to the problem of having the students just "look for the grade" and forget the comments: there was no grade on the assignment. And the students were invited to resubmit the paper as often as they wished. This took a little while for them to get accustomed to, but once they did, I found that they often wantred to discuss the assignments with me. Of course this was possible only in smaller, upper level courses. For the larger introductory sections, sad to say, the assignments were much more likely to be short and the exams "objective." But I did try to work some on basic writing skills even in those courses.
H. Coleman McGisnnis
Prefessor of Political Science (retired)
Tennessee State University, Nashville TN

4. emwhite - February 08, 2011 at 11:56 am

It seems sad that all the research about effective teaching of writing, including responding to student work, is not part of TA training; indeed, this diligent TA doesn't seem to know that such research exists. And yet a very little time on Google (looking at the Bedford/St. Martin's catalogue, for instance) could have saved David a huge amount of time and effort. Why do we assume we must invent the wheel every time we want to get moving?

5. anonytrans - February 08, 2011 at 01:11 pm

Another part of the problem with grading is the fact that we have inexperienced academics-in-training doing things like "circl[ing] every passive-verb construction," when even established professors often fail majorly when it comes to defining or identifying passive constructions.

So how can we expect undergrads to understand what the "problem" is in those cases, particularly considering there's nothing remotely ungrammatical about a passive construction (it's just something that some fields dislike when used in particular contexts ["the data were analyzed"] - while others prefer it)?

It seems to me that this is part of the process of obfuscation described in the article - by clinging to poorly-understood grammar prescriptions, graders can give the sense that they know something that probably seems vague and magical and incomprehensible to students. It also helps us feel like we understand why students are poor writers (if only they wouldn't split those damn infinitives!) when truly good writing is much harder to teach.

6. henry_adams - February 08, 2011 at 03:22 pm

emwhite, universities do not give TA's adequate training in teaching writing because universities are not designed to meet the needs of first-year students. If more students understood this and refused to attend such institutions, the universities might change.

Henry Adams

7. archman - February 09, 2011 at 07:52 am

Wow, some of you actually have students that read the comments on their papers? Heck, I even switched to a *purple pen* to make the marks look less "negative". Most of them still don't ever read the comments. Boo.

8. berrysanlucas - February 09, 2011 at 08:25 am

Great read, Organizing my department has been a great challenge as to making sure we are using the same method of grading. One thing I found was that in the begining as Brooks points out was spent correcting every detail down to grammatical orders. But as time went by I began to realize for myself that to some extent I was missing the quality of the idea. A majority of my comments became overwhelming for the students to understand in order to create the "good" paper. I have resorted to making sure the students understand the question and the quality of the answers and though extremely important, don't spend much time with those extremely complicated grammatical structure, and unless the students rewrite the paper, they dont spend much time reading what is added to the paper.

9. sherbygirl - February 09, 2011 at 01:53 pm

Thanks for this timely piece. We're going to be talking about grading tonight (Wednesday) during our #FYCchat (First Year Composition Chat) on Twitter (9 PM EST). In Freshman Comp, it's often hard NOT to write a lot on their papers because we are expected to comment (and correct) everything from grammar to style to form to content. Where do you begin (and, more importantly, end?)?

Thanks for helping get tonight's (Wednesday's) discussion started with a different way to approach grading. Maybe we should write "nothing" and let the students come to us...

10. davidbrooks - February 09, 2011 at 04:02 pm


Glad this will stimulate discussion about grading. I don't know about writing "nothing" on student papers, but as I've experienced, less can be more useful. One thing I did not mention in my piece is that students have written much better finished products for me when I have taken the time to implement multiple drafts, rather than a single, final paper. For example, in smaller classes I have assigned up to three drafts and for each draft I have focused my ever-more-concise comments on a very limited number of writing elements, such as content on the first draft, grammar and organization on the second, and so forth. When I assign multiple drafts, I have required that the final draft come in up to 25% shorter than previous drafts, which really makes students hone thier writing. I think it was Twain who quipped, "I didn't have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one." Cutting, editing, rewriting is where the real work is.

Good luck,
David Brooks

11. mslibraryghost - February 09, 2011 at 05:22 pm

emwhite and others, this may be of anecdotal interest unless someone can turn up a study whose details I have mainly forgotten.

I recall a study YEARS ago, maybe in the early 1990s, in which there were three groups of students who were exposed to different grading approaches. One group got a grade and copious comments (what was wrong, suggestions for the fix); the second got a grade and the errors highlighted/underlined; the third group got only a grade. There was no significant difference in student progress (errors, stylistic development, I suppose) over the period of the study.

Sorry this is rather muddled, but I took the lesson and forgot the details that would be important to others. For the record, from a wordy grader who wrote messages to students in the 1970s forward, I now go through with a highlighter and a pencil (.07). I highlight the problematic areas and write brief notes using proofreading codes or other signs and the grade.

Thanks for the comments and the essay.

12. thomasmrobson - February 10, 2011 at 07:58 am

When I started TAing and then teaching I had the same problem of bleeding all over papers. After about two years of this I had an interesting conversation with the mother of a close friend from undergrad, who was the director of that school's writing lab. She was the first person to tell me about students not reading comments along the way in papers, and it changed my whole approach to grading. Now I too adopt the system of saving the majority of my comments for the end. I make small notations along the way, mostly as a way of helping draw my eye to the problems quickly if a student wants to talk about their paper/grade with me after I return them. And while maybe this is just me being a softy, I do try to find one successful element in every paper I grade to comment on in the margin, to try to provide some positive reinforcement and not just negative.

13. ots1927 - February 10, 2011 at 08:49 am

I agree with most of what this author says, and came to similar conclusions years ago. I will add one suggestion: grade with a blue pen, rather than a red one, especially when the grading involves comments. Students respond much more congenially to anything, positive or negative, written in blue, whereas red ink carries with it an immediate aura of "correction" or "wrong." This may seem trivial, but I assure you that it is not.

14. luther_blissett - February 10, 2011 at 02:24 pm

When you're grading, you have to decide whether you are assessing mastery of taught material or teaching or both.

If you are assessing writing, there is not much need for ample commentary. I tend to use a simple handwritten rubric (five points each for analysis, evidence, organization, and mechanics) for short answers and a lengthier photocopied rubric for in-class essays.

However, if you are teaching through your comments, some more developed commentary is necessary. Here, I don't just circle an incorrect parenthetical citation -- I demonstrate the correction in the margin. Same with some grammatical errors. Same with why I want more or different evidence, or why their analysis isn't quite working.

Still, there's never a need to repeat. If there are repetitive subject/verb agreement errors, circle one, write s/v in the margin, and then in the final comment, tell the student that it's a common error in the essay. Same with a need to develop analysis further. One correction and a final comment will suffice.

Finally, I do think Scantron exams *can* easily test analysis and higher-level thinking skills. You just have to develop a problem set, not merely a set of discrete questions. For example (from my Les Miserables test):

1. Which of following characters best embodies the qualities of the insurrection of 1832?

2. Which of the following qualities is not shared by that character and the insurrection?

3. Which of the following statements best describes the transformation of that character throughout this section of the novel?

This sort of little problem set moves from fact to analysis, requiring the student to master both.

15. anonscribe - February 10, 2011 at 02:29 pm

I think Pascal, not Twain, is originally responsible for the "Sorry I wrote a long letter" quote.

Good article. I agree with most points. I came into my Ph.D. program with a good amount of teaching experience, so I've been sticking to end comments, drafting, etc. instead of the line editing I see lots of other TA's do. I agree wholeheartedly about the psychological battle that has to do with letting students speak and question. Often, I'll have a class where the students are engaged, inquisitive, etc. and I leave feeling like I didn't "do anything." I think it's a hangover from doing sales jobs and bartending jobs. Facilitating learning just feels different from punching a clock. Active listening and relevant question forming is a tough skill to learn. Much tougher, for me at least, than simply expounding on texts I already know.

16. drknowitall - February 10, 2011 at 02:34 pm

I started grading papers electronically - students post or email their work and they get it back the same way. The benefits (in addition to not having to hand write or READ hand writing) was that I could more easily indicate common writing errors that stand in the way of clear exposition. Putting a sentence in bold and then a parenthetical [READ ALOUD] is sufficient.

Whereas I agree that too many comments tends to overwhelm students, too few comments may be equally problematic. I've had a number of (stunned) students say that they "never get any feedback" so my edits and comments, no matter how sparse they seem to me, come as a surprise to them. These are also the students who tend to say "I always get A's" implying that there's something wrong with MY grading not their writing.

17. greenhills73 - February 10, 2011 at 03:25 pm

Am I the only one who thinks that basic grammar and paragraph construction should be taught in K-12? (If I remember, it starts in about third grade.)It certainly was in my children's school district. They emphasized "Writing Across the Curriculum" so that students got writing practice in every class. I can't believe students come out of high school without a mastery of the English language, from syntax to organization. This in no way seems like college-level coursework.

18. archman - February 10, 2011 at 05:00 pm

It really boils down to two fundamental problems in today's Higher Education.

1. Students being Underprepared & Investing less and less time in out-of-class work (like reading comments, or writing decent papers)

2. Overworked Faculty: more and more students, and more and more underprepared students (and as we all know, it takes a LOT longer to grade badly written papers than well written ones)

Often it simply isn't practical for instructors to grade student work very well. There isn't the time. The days of 12-18 student classrooms, student study ethics of 20+ hours a week, and acceptable writing being taught in K-12 are long behind us.

If you want to be a good writing instructor nowadays, you will either have to work at an institution that will facilitate this (well prepared students, small classes, low teaching loads), or invest a great deal more time and energy than the rest of your peers. There really aren't any silver bullets.

19. davidbrooks - February 11, 2011 at 11:39 am

All the more reason that we TAs ought to be thinking about grading and writing, since, as in my department, we meet with students in smaller groups each week with the express purpose of honing in on some of the particulars of their undergraduate education, such as writing.

As far as K-12 writing instruction goes, I have seen a stunning variation in students' early writing instruction. So, the question becomes who do you teach to, the well-prepared, the under-prepared, or the big batch somewhere inbetween?

20. luther_blissett - February 11, 2011 at 04:59 pm


Once a person gets to high school, any common writing errors are not going to disappear. This means that, unless the student is aware of his/her common writing errors and takes the time to proofread for them, they will pop up. The student may know at the "SAT writing test" level what's grammatically right or wrong, but they have a natural pattern of error, a habit of error, if you will.

We all -- adults, educators -- have our common writing errors. And when we type quickly or informally, they pop up. We can't expect more than awareness and proofreading from our students, and more often than not, the problem in college is with the lack of proofreading, not ignorance.

21. drrom - February 12, 2011 at 02:52 pm

In composition studies, Peter Elbow's "Minimal Marking" has always been my mantra. If there are too many corrections on the essay, students will take you as their editor. If there are overwhelming conflicting marks (on essay elements, mechanics & structure), students don't know which way to look and what is most important. Peter Elbow, right on.

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