This is a Good Essay. That is Why I Gave You a B

Gina Barreca has an interesting post at Brainstorm on how to deal with a student who received a B in a course but thinks that he or she deserves an A. I want to take this in a slightly different direction, namely the grading of student papers.

In an age of grade inflation, students often do not understand that they can produce a decently argued and well-written paper that is not “A” material. In my U.S. Survey course I often find myself having to grade seventy or eighty papers at a time. I cannot devote as much attention to student papers in a survey course as I do in an upper-division history course, but I do try to jot down marginal comments, correct grammatical mistakes, and write a few sentences of summary at the end of the paper. Some of my colleagues think that I spend too much time on these papers. Others do not think I spend enough.

Occasionally I will write something like this on the bottom of a student paper: “Good work. Your essay reveals a clear understanding of Paine’s ideas in Common Sense. Grade: B.” Here is another example: “Great paper. It is well-written and you do a really nice job of critically examining Ben Franklin’s understanding of the ‘American Dream.’ Grade: A-“.

Inevitably students will come to my office confused. How could I use terms such as “clear understanding” or “Great paper” and not give them an “A?” When this happens I usually explain the flaws in their paper that made it less than “A” quality.

My comments on student papers have always accentuated the positive. In other words, I tell them what they did well. But lately, in order to ward off potential complaints, I have been using my end of the paper comments to tell them why this was not an “A” paper or what they need to do to produce an “A” on the next paper. Is this necessary? Can’t most students pick this up from looking at marginal notations throughout the paper? Should I stop telling students that they did a “good job” unless I have given them an “A” on the paper?

I am curious to hear from professors and students on this point.

3 thoughts on “This is a Good Essay. That is Why I Gave You a B

  1. I always appreciated what Dr. LaGrand does, both in his survey course, and upper level. He leaves a few positive comments, and then notes the way the paper could be improved up to make it an A. I find this method to be the most helpful as a student.


  2. I think marginal comments are useful when we are giving feedback to advanced students or on colleague's work, in other words, they are useful when we are working as editors. But when we are working as teachers, grading 70 papers at a time, students need something better. And so do we professors.

    The tool to use here is a rubric. Only a rubric conveys fine-grained information to students about what is expected and where they measure up with respect for a professor's time limitations.

    The problem with marginal comments is they are a) marginal to what students need to know to improve or to understand the grade, and b) time-consuming to write.

    The bad news about rubrics is they force one to think. We all “know” an A paper when we see one and can distinguish a B essay from a C. But if you haven't articulated on paper what makes an A paper different from a B paper, what do you really know? And how much of that are you actually teaching? Rubrics are a teaching device even as they assist us to become fairer, less mystical, graders.

    It's interesting to note how important rubrics are to the success of video gaming. Gamers know exactly where they stand in terms of the skills necessary to succeed in a game: “I'm OK at making potions but I totally suck at spells.”

    One last point: The construction of rubrics gets really interesting when it's done as a department, as it should be. Otherwise, students learn the misconception that our standards are idiosyncratic, instead of representative of a discipinary mindset.


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