What I Look for in Grading a Student's Paper

Robert Goodman, Ph.D.


BRONX NY 10469

Phone: (718) 547-4165


e-mail: robgood@bestweb.net

To understand how I grade term papers, you should understand my reasons for assigning them. There are many courses I teach which survey a broad range of subject matter. Iím not comfortable grading students in such courses simply on short answers to questions about the material assigned. So in these courses (and sometimes in others) I want to see students delve more deeply into a narrower part of the subject. To that end I assign either a term paper or an oral-visual presentation from a broad range of topics according to the studentís choice. Other reasons for these assignments are to give students practice and assessment in some of the cross-curricular competencies.

When I grade a term paper, there are:

A. absolute requirements, failing which will certainly result in a course grade of F;

B. important things, failing which may result in a course grade of F, but will at least certainly lower the assignment grade, depending on how bad the failure is;

C. wanted things that will definitely lower the assignment grade if theyíre not done right;

D. less important but good and bad things that can raise or lower the course grade; and

E. points that I donít grade on but are a matter of courtesy and convenience to me.

A. absolute requirements

If you donít get these right, I wonít accept the paper at all. Then itís as if you didnít turn in a paper, which results in a course grade of F, no matter how much the paperís grade was to be weighted for that courseís grade.

Unless special circumstances are arranged, I also give a course grade of F if you miss the final exam no matter whether your other grades averaged with an F would be enough to pass. I may have material to present on the final exam which I want you to get as part of the course material, and not showing up for the final tells me you quit the course.

1. Is the student who wrote it identified? I sometimes receive an exam or paper without the studentís name on it. Other times pages are loose and easily lost or mixed up. Iím not looking for fancy binders, just a staple or other reliable way of keeping pages from separating.

2. Can I read it? If you really canít get to a typewriter, hand writing is acceptable if easily legible; usually that means print. E-mail is not as good, but in emergencies I accept an e-mailed paper.

3. Is the writing your own? Standards for originality in science writing are lower than they would be for more literary subjects, because in science writing widely accepted ideas are necessarily repeated. Often in technical subjects thereís no way to restate an important isolated fact in other words without distorting or obfuscating its meaning. For an undergraduate course, I donít expect the ideas to be original, but the writing should be your own words. The purpose of having you put ideas in your own words is mostly to show that you understand the material; anyone can seem like an expert just by quoting expertsí words! Therefore the following are unacceptable:

a. Plagiarism. See Mercyís statement about plagiarism in the student handbook, on their Web site, or elsewhere.

b. A paper consisting mostly of quotes, even if properly attributed.

c. A paper consisting mostly of close paraphrases, even if properly attributed.

d. Unattributed close paraphrases, even if not the major portion of your paper.

I understand the closeness of a paraphrase includes a large "gray area" where judgement of originality is required, and I think my judgement is appropriate for the level of scholarship to be expected, giving students a lot of benefit of doubt. However, if you have material you think questionable, please ask me about it.

To avoid unoriginal writing, try writing without the source material in front of you. After reading about facts you want to relate and cite, close the book, the screen window, or whatever, count to 10, and then write about it. Donít try to memorize the words; this is not drama class! After youíve written your passage, look back at the source and see if youíre conveying the facts you want to. If so, donít go back to the source material any more; itís already done its job and youíve done yours. If the passage youíre writing does not convey the facts you want, then repeat the process. Of course if youíre citing numbers or names, you should be looking at the source for accuracy, but you shouldnít do that for whole sentences or phrases unless you feel you need to quote them directlyóand in science writing, that need doesnít arise often.

Donít try to impress me with sophisticated technical language. One useful exercise is to pretend youíre explaining the material to a child, not to your instructor. An adult layman isnít going to know much more than a child about these subjects anyway; you may find that what youíve written for the child needs little or no revision in your final draft.

4. Phony scholarship is unacceptable. This includes:

a. Reverse plagiarismóattributing your own words or ideas to someone else.

b. Deliberate misattributionóattributing other material to the wrong source deliberately.

c. Copying anotherís bibliography, or otherwise including in a bibliography material you didnít read.

d. Self-plagiarismóreusing a paper you wrote for another course, or submitting a paper simultaneously for more than one course. However, in case the subject of a previously or simultaneously written paper goes over the same ground as one for my course, I have no objection as long as the material is substantially re-worked and fits my assignment.

B. important things

These are the sorts of things I consider requirements, but do not automatically give a course grade of F for. Depending on how badly you miss the requirement in question, I will either give a course grade of F or lower the assignment grade.

1. Is the paper submitted on time? We have only a short time to submit course grades. Anything that delays the process is bad. If you have to miss a class at which papers are due, you can get the paper to me at the address above. See also A.2.

2. Did you follow other specific instructions exactly? This is a problem not only with term papers, but with tests and other assignments. Failure to follow written and oral instructions at least results in a lower grade, and otherwise presents problems in grading. Instructions arenít mere suggestions.

3. Does the topic fit the assignment? If I required a proposal, the title of your paper should match the proposal I accepted. Otherwise it should simply fit the criteria assigned. See B.2.

4. Does the substance of the paper match the title? Donít bait and switch. There are generally two types of paper: survey and thesis. If I asked for one or the other, the paper must be whichever I asked for; see B.3.

A surveyís title is often a noun or noun phrase, and promises to explain about that noun phrase (examples: "My Trip to Peru", "All About Xylophones", "Predestination"), or may be a prepositional phrase ("On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies") describing itself, or even a full sentence which the paper is the answer to ("How Does The Light Shine in the Halls of Shambula?"). All the material in a survey should fit the title.

A thesis will have as its title a statement of fact ("The World is Flat") or of opinion ("The Best Candies on Earth Come From Mars"), or a question that may logically be answered "yes" or "no" ("Is It True Blondes Have More Fun?").

5. Does the paper fit any minimum or maximum length requirements? (See B.2.) I may give one or the other or both; keep them straight.

6. Did you properly attribute your sources of info? This is a frequent problem for students. Scientific papers contain of many assertions of fact. There are a few ways you can know a fact:

(a) Itís common knowledge.

(b) You found it out yourself by observation or experiment.

(c) You heard or read it somewhere. (See also A.3.)

In case c, every time you mention such a fact, you must tell the reader where you got it from, and do so in a way that if itís publicly available writing, the reader can look it up without wasting time. A bibliography ("works cited"), telling where you got information for your whole paper is not enough. I want to know which facts come from which source. In other words, you must put some kind of sign in your paperís body every time you make a statement in class c pointing to a reference of where you got it from, whether itís a direct quote or just a restatement of fact. You may put that reference either in parentheses directly after the statement (which is convenient only if you donít use any one source for more than one fact in your paper), or at the bottom of the page (as a footnote, which is convenient only if you donít cite any source on more than one page), or at the end of the paper (as an end note). If you use footnotes or end notes, you need some pointer (such as a number in parentheses, a superscripted number, or an authorís name) from the statement to the note.

Mercy Collegeís writing laboratories and Web site (see D.5.) detail a particular style of citation. I donít care which style you use, as long as it contains all the information Iíd need to look up the source. Tell the reader the author(s), the title, the date. If itís an article from a periodical, the volume, issue, and starting page (preferably ending page too). If itís from a book, put down the publisher and the page the info was on. If itís from the Internet, I want the exact address of the Web page (not just the site) or FTP file; this is displayed or otherwise available in your browser, so be careful if you step thru many pages on your way to the info. If someone told you the info, cite it as "personal communication", naming the person and relevant office, if any. The whole idea of citations is to make it easy for your readers to check it out for themselves. I may give samples of scientific papers with acceptable citation methods.

No separate bibliography is needed if the sources are cited as above.

7. Can I understand your English? Without re-reading several times? See A.2.. I donít grade for spelling or grammar, but if itís bad enough to detract from the readerís understanding, that canít help but hurt your grade. I make every effort to understand bad English, so as to grade the science rather than the English, but that doesnít always work.

C. wanted things

These are considerations above the minimum requirements to pass, and can make a big difference in the grade:

1. Do statements in your paper satisfy common sense? Silly statements indicate the student didnít pay attention to hir own writing.

2. Donít "pad". Your reader is in a hurry. I have only a short time in which to grade papers. The shorter you can write what you need to write, the better. Even if a paper fits within the maximum length assigned, it should not have extraneous material to bulk it out. That includes:

a. Useless repetition. A little brief repetition is acceptable in introducing a topic or in summarizing at the end.

b. Extraneous material. Donít wander off your topic. All the material in a thesis should be aimed at justifying the title statement or answering the question, although both sides should be treated fairly. All the material in a survey should fit the title. See B.4.

c. A scrapbook instead of or stuck into a paper. See A.3.b.

3. Donít quote or refer to material you donít understand. You donít have to understand all of a work you cite, just the part you got the facts youíre citing from. See also A.4.c.

4. Does the writing should flow in a sensible order. Donít make it hard for the reader to follow.

5. Did you show some scholarship? Did you get information from sources in addition to those that were assigned for the course? Can the reader tell that? See B.6. I donít assign a minimum number of other sources, but more is better than less, as long as theyíre relevant; see C.2.

I donít expect undergraduate students in a course away from their major to have the judgement an expert would have on the usefulness of sources for research. I hope you understand the Weekly World News may not be as reliable as an encyclopedia or technical journal, but more subtle judgement will come only with experience. A few years ago the World Wide Web (HTTP, as opposed to FTP files searchable by Gopher) was not so good an Internet source for serious research, but itís gained considerably as itís proven its popularity and more files have been linked.

D. less important good & bad things

You can get a passing grade, probably C or higher, for the assignment if you satisfy just A-C above. To demonstrate excellence, there are a few more desiderata.

1. Did you treat the topic adequately and fairly? Even though your length be at least the minimum, if any, assigned, did you cover the subject of your paper in a way that doesnít leave big gaps in the readerís understanding? Donít deliberately leave out facts that are inconvenient from a thesis; at least let the reader know what sub-topics you omit. But donít pad the paperóC.2.

2. Do you define your terms? Technical terms, special meanings you give words, and definitions should be defined the first time theyíre used in your paper. However, you may defer defining terms in an abstract, or in an introduction if itís like an abstract. But also consider whether you can say it in simpler language.

Whatever, you do, donít use terms you donít understand. See C.3. If in your research you come across terms you donít understand, and their meaning is essential to the meaning of the material you want to use, itís your responsibility to find out what they mean so you can put them in your own words or define them.

But donít define terms just to show me you know what they mean, if you donít have any use for them otherwise in your paper; see C.2.b.

3. Do you bring out lots of facts, leading readers to their conclusion? Good.

4. Do you state conclusions without their justification? Thatís bad.

5. Do you follow general rules of good writing? Scientific writing may be different in some respects, but itís still writing!

Mercy College has resources to help with this in general. On more than one campus thereís a writing laboratory, and http://www.mercy.edu (also via the Pipeline) has a file, "The Research Paper at Mercy College". I donít require attendance at a writing laboratory, and the writing labís stamp of approval on a draft is nice but not something I grade on. If you think you need help, or are unsure, ask them or me.

6. Would a stranger reading your paper tend to trust it?

7. Do you give the reader reason to care? I have to read these things, thatís my job. But pretend youíre writing for someone who doesnít have to read it. Do you introduce the paper, or topics within the paper, with statements that might impress the reader that the work is important or interesting?

8. Do graphics help, or are they just distracting filler? When graphics are done right they can be a big help, but itís so easy to do illustration badly that I donít necessarily recommend them. (It depends on the subject matter.) Properly attributed copies of diagrams or photographs are fine. I donít ask students in term papers to produce new graphics, unlike new writing; I use different rules for oral presentations. But beware the "scrapbook" approach (C.2.c.), clipping or copying photographs and other materials and just stuffing them in or laying them out at random.

To be useful, figures need to be anchored to the main text. "See fig. 1 for a diagram of the fragistan." "Notice the polka dots on the whoozis shown above." It may have a separate legend in addition, depending on how much explanatory text you need for it. Itís like a non-reference footnote in that you can put the info off to the side so the reader can follow the flow better. Regardless, you must give the reader a reason to look there, or it just hangs in space.

And itíd better be a good reason. "Because itís pretty" is not a good reason. See B.4.

E. points of courtesy

I donít grade based on these, but there are some things that make my job a little easier and more useful to you.

1. Space for me to write my comments. I donít need a cover sheet, but whether youíre getting your paper back or not, double spacing and substantial margins give me room to interpolate comments. I write those as an aid to my grading, whether you get the paper back or not (see E.2.).

2. Getting your paper back. If thereís enough time left in the term, I can get your graded paper back to you in class. Otherwise, a self-addressed envelope of sufficient size & sufficient postage works. We may meet otherwise and itís possible to arrange otherwise for return of your paper and/or final exam, but itís asking a bit much of me to keep your paper handy while Iím teaching the next term. If you get your paper back, I hope youíll read my criticisms and corrections and learn from them.