A Guide to Grading Exams


by Daniel J. Solove

Associate Professor of Law, The George Washington
University Law School

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


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.


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).


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.
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


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.

This post is a joke. I do not grade like this.
Instead, I use an even more advanced method — an
eBay grade auctioning system.

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