How Do Professors Grade Papers?

Is there a secret to how all professors grade papers? Not really. Techniques will vary from professor to professor; but there are some common hacks instructors and professors use to make grading an easier process for them. I agree with Dave when he says, “There is a trade off that happens with most professors when grading: I hold the premise that most professors are time constrained and feel that they don’t have resources to grade each paper completely.” This is absolutely true. Time constraints necessitate that the process of grading papers be streamlined. This does not mean your professors do not care about your work and progress, but they often are overwhelmed with their responsibilities to the university and their field. (If you like this post, you really should check out this blog post about how graduate students are evaluated – it will really help you).

As a brief aside, all this being said about time constraints, there are some things to understand about overwhelmed professors. It is unfortunate that so many professors feel they do not have the time they need or want to give to their students. As the demands on professors’ time grow — from faculty meetings, to curriculum committees, to research expectations and travel — it is easy to see how the most active and senior professors can be pressed for time to dedicate to their teaching duties. Some professors have begun demanding that more of their time be freed up for working with students. Most professors do care about their students and do not want to shortchange them. Watch this video about whether professors care about their students:

It is also true that adjunct instructors and teaching assistants may actually have more time and enthusiasm for students than full-time professors because they teach part-time. Also, many are still working toward a doctoral degree and are just learning how to teach. The principles of good teaching are fresh in their minds. They also need to do a good job with teaching for their C.V. and student and professor evaluations. Adjuncts and TA’s also may have the enthusiasm for teaching that unfortunately some tenured professors have lost.

If your first instinct is to enroll in a class taught by the most senior, renowned professor keep in mind they may not have as much time for you as a teaching assistant or adjunct. Of course, in many doctoral programs only full-time professors are allowed to teach doctoral level courses, but if full-time professors seem overwhelmed and do not seem to have the time to meet with you, do not hesitate to reach out to their teaching assistant. They may just know your work better than the professor does and have more time to spend with you reviewing the work.  

This post was written by Stephanie A. Bosco-Ruggiero (PhD candidate in Social Work at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service) on behalf of Dave Maslach. This is part of the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world.

Getting back to the main topic at hand, exactly how is it that professors and instructors grade papers and streamline the process of grading? Dave discussed the following tricks of the trade in the video below, and I will expand on each point.

1) Experienced professors have graded A LOT of papers

They have graded many papers across a number of different courses, and they have expertise in their subject area. Professors get to know what an A student’s writing looks like versus a B student’s writing. They know whether a student is thinking deeply about an assignment or is just going through the motions. They also get to know their students’ capabilities. If an A level student is suddenly not doing their best work, they will know this is an anomaly — they understand that perhaps you did not fully understand this particular assignment or had a bad week. They will still give you the grade you deserve, but they understand.

When they see a B level student, or even a C level student (but graduate and doctoral students should never turn in work that earns them a C), has improved their writing and thinking over the course of the semester they may give that student an A as their work improves. That A may not be equivalent to another student’s A level work, but it is the professor’s way of recognizing learning. The professor knows their feedback is being taken seriously by that student and that the student is using the feedback to grow in their writing and thinking. This is an extremely rewarding scenario for a professor, and they may reward outstanding effort with grades that increase in proportion with the level of improvement that student is demonstrating.  

2) They batch papers

All professors will find certain papers a bore to grade, so they will grade certain assignments in batches to break up the monotony. The batches may be done in groups of 3 to 5, depending on the class size, and over several days for a few hours at a time. They may grade some papers while sitting outside, waiting in a doctor’s office, or watching their kid’s game. These different settings do not mean the professor is half paying attention; they have become very good at multi-tasking.

They may also be batched by potential A papers, potential B papers, and other (you don’t want your paper to be in that third group). Some professors may batch papers in this way after giving each paper a cursory read. They will then go back to each paper to more fully read the paper and decide whether it should stay in the original batch they placed it in and what level of A or B the paper should get.

The second type of batching process begs the question, are students graded in comparison to their own performance or the performance of other students. This is a very important question and I am afraid that not all professors have the same philosophy about this. Many will grade students based on that student’s prior work and trajectory of improvement, as described above; but some will compare the quality of students’ work in comparison to the work of their peers. The former process is probably fairer, but you do have to keep in mind that professors may be grading a lot of papers. Other than a quick look at a prior grade, they may not recall if a student’s second paper was substantially better than their first. They also may find it easier to compare students’ work using the best students’ papers as a benchmark or example.

3) They use rubrics

Most professors try to create a rubric so their grading is more fair and easier for them to manage. The rubric breaks down the grading into small components of requirements and competency. This can make grading across papers more objective and uniform. Rubrics makes grading more manageable for the professor as well as the students. When given rubrics, students know exactly what the professor is looking for and to what degree writing, organization, and formatting is a party of their grade for that assignment. It is perfectly find to ask a professor if they will use rubrics to grade; this may inspire professors who have not yet put together a rubric for a particular assignment to do so.

4) They are usually on your side

Most professors will try to give the students the benefit of the doubt with grading and help them out as much as possible. The reason is they know how difficult the material can be; often they are looking for progress across a fifteen-week course, or in the case of doctoral students, across years. Demonstrating improvement can earn you a good grade even if your final product is not as good as the next student’s. The professors knows you are trying and learning, and making improvement. They may also know that you are not as proficient in a particular skill as you are in another skill and will try to encourage you by grading liberally for your effort. Again, doctoral students should always be earning As or Bs. If a professor sees that you are not putting the effort into the work, and or just not grasping a concept, he or she will give you a C to wake you up to the fact that you need to get a tutor or begin turning in a higher quality work product.

5) They do make mistakes

Professors will move along as quickly possible with grading, so sometimes they make mistakes but most of the time they are pretty accurate. If you notice an inconsistency in how your paper was grade compared to friend’s paper, or in how the rubric was applied, bring it to the attention of the professor. In all likelihood he or she will be open to you pointing out an inconsistency. I have had students point out that a letter grade entered was lower letter than it should have been based on an particular numerical grading scheme using points. In this type of situation a professor should apologize and adjust the grade right away (this should not happen often but it may if there is an error in an online gradebook).

I have also had grad school students disagree with my grade and express that they think it was lower than it should have been. If you bring this type of concern to a professor, most will politely listen to your concerns, tell you they will re-review the work, and only then consider changing the grade. Professors will not change a grade on the spot so do not expect them to. If a student still strongly disagrees with a grade, they can appeal it to the Dean.

6) They know when it is not your work

(especially when a paper is in British English and the student is American). Yes, this is a true story. I received a paper from a grad school student that suddenly transitioned in tone from American English to British English. This was a huge red flag to put it through a plagiarism checker. My student was not from the U.K. by the way. It turned out the section in British English was from an NGO document on the internet. It was pasted so hastily word for word that the student did not even bother to change the dialect.  

It is typically very easy for a professor to spot plagiarism when they are grading many papers in their area of expertise. Furthermore, if a student’s writing style is choppy and in line with what the professor has come to expect from that student, then all of a sudden becomes uncharacteristically polished in the next few pages, that is another red flag. A professor will know to run that paper through a plagiarism checker such as Turn it In, Safe Assign, or an online checker. They may find the polished section of the paper was stolen from another student’s paper or a document, blog, or article online.

You need to watch this video about plagiarism and why it is so easy to spot.

When professors receive a plagiarized paper, they feel that their time has been wasted and they have been played for the fool. They may very likely give you a zero and not allow you to resubmit the assignment. A professor may be required to, or elect, to report a graduate or doctoral student to the Dean’s office as plagiarism is generally considered a serious breach of a school’s policies on academic integrity. Committing serious plagiarism can end or ruin a doctoral student’s career. If a doctoral student is caught plagiarizing work for a course assignment or manuscript they will be viewed as someone who cannot do the work themselves.

A grad student may be more likely to get a second chance, as they are more likely to commit plagiarism due to not being expert in citing and referencing work and in academic writing (but it is still a serious matter and the student may have to demonstrate that it was an honest mistake). A doctoral student who commits plagiarism could be asked to leave a program. Furthermore, a plagiarized draft manuscript submitted to a peer reviewed journal may result in a doctoral student being banned from ever submitting work to that journal again. Here is more on academic integrity from Dave:

7) They are not always the one grading your paper

Professors will often try to get graduate students to grade papers because they are responsible for helping students learn about teaching and grading. Or, sometimes professors simply cannot get to all of the grading that semester; this is a worst-case scenario. More likely a professor will have a teaching assistant review homework or a paper once and provide feedback, then the professor will give it a read and decide on a final grade. It is true that graduate and especially doctoral students do not want to hear that a TA has graded their work. Their attitude may be that they spent a lot of money on their education and want the professor to review their work. This is absolutely reasonable at the doctoral level and their work generally should be reviewed by a full-time faculty member; but at the grad school level there will be some instances when the professor will not be able to fully review every student’s paper and students just have to accept that fact.

Here are some additional thoughts I had about how professors grade:

8) It makes their day to read a well written, organized, and analyzed paper

Are you surprised? Yes, a great paper makes our day. It says to us, you taught them something, they listened, and they created a professional, high quality product. The professor will look forward to reading your paper every time if you are one of the handful of students in the class whose work is spot on every time.

9) Sometimes they are told not to give out too many A’s

This may seem like grading on a curve, but it really is a reasonable request from a Dean’s office. Sure, some classes may have superstars all around, but are they really all perfect in their writing? There must be some variation in course performance even if it is with participation. Professors who give out too many A’s may be warned that they will be viewed as a lenient grader. Generally, professors will award a group of A’s and A minuses and a bunch of grades in the B range. This is just how it usually works out. If a professor is a particularly tough grader, he or she may give a wider range of grades. Professors earn a reputation for how fairly and how toughly they grade, but they do have to be fair; and if they have a great group of students they generally will flout the too many A’s rule and give their students the grades they deserve.

10) Bad grammar drives them crazy

Most professors cannot stand reading papers that have bad grammar and do not follow well known formatting rules. Doctoral students should never turn in papers with poor grammar, writing, format, or organization. This just screams that you are not ready for prime time. They will be more lenient with graduate students, but it will still drive them crazy. They will not want to read to the end of the paper. They will get mad and not give you a good grade even if the research and analysis is there. Students should be submitting complete, proofread, polished products. If necessary, work with the writing center or have someone proofread your paper to overcome the writing problems you have had since college. Check out this blog on how we provide writing help on

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