You are on page 1of 4

A Guide to Grading Exams


A Guide to Grading Exams

by Daniel J. Solove
Associate Professor of Law, The George Washington University Law School
Posted at ConcurringOpinions.Com
December 14, 2006

It's that time of year again. Students have taken their finals, and now it is time to grade
them. It is something professors have been looking forward to all semester. Exactness in
grading is a well-honed skill, taking considerable expertise and years of practice to master.
The purpose of this post is to serve as a guide to young professors about how to perfect
their grading skills and as a way for students to learn the mysterious science of how their
grades are determined.

Grading begins with the stack of exams, shown in Figure 1 below.

The next step is to use the most precise grading method possible. There never is 100%
accuracy in grading essay exams, as subjective elements can never be eradicated from the
process. Numerous methods have been proposed throughout history, but there is one
method that has clearly been proven superior to the others. See Figure 2 below.

1 of 4 2/9/07 5:40 PM
A Guide to Grading Exams

The key to this method is a good toss. Without a good toss, it is difficult to get a good
spread for the grading curve. It is also important to get the toss correct on the first try.
Exams can get crumpled if tossed too much. They begin to look as though the professor
actually read them, and this is definitely to be avoided. Additional tosses are also
inefficient and expend needless time and energy. Note the toss in Figure 3 below. This is
an example of a toss of considerable skill -- obviously the result of years of practice.

Note in Figure 3 above that the exams are evenly spread out, enabling application of the
curve. Here, however, is where the experts diverge. Some contend that the curve ought to
be applied as in Figure 4 below, with the exams at the bottom of the staircase to receive a
lower grade than the ones higher up on the staircase.

According to this theory, quality is understood as a function of being toward the top, and
thus the best exams clearly are to be found in this position. Others, however, propose an
alternative theory (Figure 5 below).

2 of 4 2/9/07 5:40 PM
A Guide to Grading Exams

They contend that that the exams at the bottom deserve higher grades than the ones at the
top. While many professors still practice the top-higher-grade approach, the leading
authorities subscribe to the bottom-higher-grade theory, despite its counterintuitive
appearance. The rationale for this view is that the exams that fall lower on the staircase
have more heft and have traveled farther. The greater distance traveled indicates greater
knowledge of the subject matter. The bottom higher-grade approach is clearly the most
logical and best-justified approach.

Even with the grade curve lines established, grading is far from completed. Several exams
teeter between levels. The key is to measure the extent of what is referred to as "exam
protrusion." Exams that have small portions extending below the grade line should receive
a minus; exams with protrusions above the grade lines receive a plus.

But what about exams that are right in the middle of a line. In Figure 6 below, this exam
teeters between the A and B line. Should it receive and A- or a B+?

This is a difficult question, but I believe it is clearly an A-. The exam is already bending
toward the next stair, and in the bottom-higher-grade approach, it is leaning toward the A-.
Therefore, this student deserves the A- since momentum is clearly in that direction.

Finally, there are some finer points about grading that only true masters have understood.

3 of 4 2/9/07 5:40 PM
A Guide to Grading Exams

Consider the exam in Figure 7 below. Although it appears on the C stair and seems to be
protruding onto the B stair, at first glance, one would think it should receive a grade of C+.
But not so. A careful examination reveals that the exam is crumpled. Clearly this is an
indication of a sloppy exam performance, and the grade must reflect this fact. The
appropriate grade is C-.

One final example, consider in Figure 8 below the circled exam that is is very far away
from the others at the bottom of the staircase. Is this an A+?

Novices would think so, as the exam has separated itself a considerable distance from the
rest of the pack. However, the correct grade for this exam is a B. The exam has traveled
too far away from the pack, and will lead to extra effort on the part of the grader to retrieve
the exam. Therefore, the exam must be penalized for this obvious flaw.

As you can see, grading takes considerable time and effort. But students can be assured
that modern grading techniques will produce the most precise and accurate grading
possible, assuming professors have achieved mastery of the necessary grading skills.

DISCLAIMER FOR THE GULLIBLE: This post is a joke. I do not grade like this.
Instead, I use an even more advanced method -- an eBay grade auctioning system.


4 of 4 2/9/07 5:40 PM