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Grade Smarter

Grading Essays

In recent posts, we’ve discussed tips on developing high-quality multiple-choice exams. Multiple-choice questions are an efficient way to assess student learning across a wide range of learning objectives. In cases you want to know if students have a deep understanding of a specific topic, multiple-choice might not be the best answer (no pun intended). Instead, you might present a problem to solve or an essay question. Whereas multiple-choice items are challenging to write, yet easy to score, the opposite holds true for grading essays.

One of the drawbacks of essays is that humans do the scoring. First, as noted above, essay grading requires substantially more time and resources to score. Second, the grading process is subjective, to some extent. A third drawback to essay grading is that content, though it may be assessed deeply, e.g., using more depth of knowledge, it is not assessed broadly.

Essay Guidelines

Of these drawbacks, the inherent subjectivity in essay grading can be lessened but not eliminated. Here are some guidelines to help improve fairness and consistency the next time you’re grading essays:

  1. Introduce standardized scoring criteria, such as a rubric. Standardized tests like the SAT use them to score writing samples. You can either stick with one or modify as your expectations for your students increase. And you may choose to share the rubric with your student for each paper, indicating where they are in each criterion.
  2. Train all graders (e.g., TAs) in using the predetermined scoring rubrics to increase inter-rater reliability. You may even want to give them a sample essay to score to ensure the outcome is the same, or at least very close to, how you would have evaluated it.
  3. When using a rubric, it’s best to read through the answer once before evaluating for a grade. The second time through, you can determine where it falls for each of the criteria.
  4. Grade a given question for all students before moving on the next essay question.
  5. Maintain notes while grading each question to improve consistent point deductions between students.
  6. After grading an essay, don’t be reluctant to go back and review assessments for consistency.

Following are examples of two rubrics.

Top picture: Rubric from St. Mary’s College School of Extended Education
Bottom picture: Rubric from the University of Northern Iowa


In review, to assess the depth of knowledge, an essay question is an excellent choice. Essay grading can be difficult and extremely time-consuming. Grading essays are subjective, which reduces test reliability. And remember, if you are in a large class setting with multiple TAs grading essays, you should develop strategies to improve inter-rater reliability.

Mark Espinola
CEO + Founder of GradeHub