Why professors hate marking

You think writing papers is tough? Try grading them


Sitting on my desk are this year’s first piles of student papers waiting to be graded. But I’m not grading them. Instead, I’m writing this blog entry about why I dislike grading papers.

Many people assume that grading papers is the worst thing about being a professor. They are right, but for the wrong reason. People think it’s onerous because, as they often say to me, “some of them must be so bad.” And some of them are bad, but those aren’t the ones that make marking such a chore; in fact, really bad papers are almost a pleasure to grade because at least they get me excited — if only by rage.

No, the worst papers are the papers that populate the vast, bland wasteland of mediocrity. They are not good, mind you, and they are not bad. They are, to adapt Wolfgan Pauli’s famous quip, not even bad. They make no huge blunders, but they don’t say anything either. They are not off-track exactly; they just don’t know there is a track to be on. It’s hard to know where to even start with such essays. And they’re waiting in those piles to torment me with their insipidity.

Part of the difficulty comes from the fact that most essay grading involves a fictional bargain between student and professor. In theory, the student has worked hard on the paper: she’s thought through the topic, done relevant research, made notes and outlines, completed several drafts, and finally, at long last, handed it in. The professor evaluates the work, notes its strengths and weakness, and provides thoughtful advice for how to do even better next time. The student takes that advice gratefully and can’t wait ’til the next paper comes due to show off what she’s learned.

In reality, though, most students do only about as much as they think they need to pass the course, or stay in their program, or get into their next program. Similarly, professors know that their comments will go largely or entirely unread, and those that are read will not likely be taken to heart. They pretend to work hard; we pretend they want to get better.

This enduring game of academic make-believe was brought into focus for me the other day when I overheard a student amusedly complaining to her friend that her professor was suggesting ways to improve a paper that had already received a good grade. “I’m fine with an 80!” she laughed. Of course. Why settle for better when you can do good?

Every once in a while, there is a genuinely good paper to help break the monotony. I once had an excellent student whose name put her papers at the top of the pile (I grade in alphabetical order), but I always used to move her essay to the middle because I knew by then I would need an excellent paper to help keep me going. Maybe such a student is waiting patiently in one of those piles right now.

I guess it’s time to find out…


Why professors hate marking

  1. Am sending this on to my daughter, who has just handed in her Masters dissertation…

    I really enjoyed reading this article and from a parent’s point of view tend to agree with the author.

  2. It concerns me as a student to think that you think that most students only work hard enough to stay in the program – if that was the case that there would be a lot of 50% or 60% in the class.

    Also, if students only work hard enough to get to the next program – i.e. a Masters or higher – wouldn’t that “hard enough” in this case be maybe their 200% effort? I mean, clearly it must be easy to get 85% and 90%s in universitiy.

  3. Immanuel Velikovsky said in one of his books in the opening remarks stated “That it is a poor brain that cannot think beyond what it is taught” The North American education system from ground zero(kindergarden) teaches students how to coast. Do and learn only enough to bathroom yourself the rest will be learned on the street.
    Students are to busy being Kool, texting, and providing bastard babies for someone else to raise and pay for. This is one reason east indian and asian students are doing better, they have a goal and that is to get out of poverty, being Kool can come later.

  4. I find Mr. Pettigrew’s remarks parallel my own of many years.

    However, I have a solution: ask the students to mark their own essays. To do this, you must provide them with two things: 1) a detailed rubric listing the goals they must achieve under a number of headings, 2) marked samples of a failing paper, a mediocre pass and an excellent paper.

    Most students find the marking exercise very difficult but claim that they learn a tremendous amount from it. With this type of marking, students do read the comments and take the assessment very seriously. I, of course, look the marked papers over. In most cases, students are honest. This second look is not nearly as arduous as marking the paper the first time.


  5. Sorry out there: Did anyone ever consider that the papers and work done by the students is only as good as the profs who teach the courses? I went back to school as an adult and from all those years, I only want to remember a small number of profs, because those were the ones who inspired me to really enjoy their courses and make the extra effort to learn. Lackadasical teaching habits, boundaries and demands from some profs and dry repetition is boring for the student,…we hate having to write papers just as much as you dislike making them, but we don’t have any choice,…you do,…try being more stimulating and stop expecting everyone to produce papers on material that you don’t show much enthusiasm presenting to us? We can’t all regergitate at the level of genius, in spite of poor material, dry material and indifferent profs. Try a little harder and so would we!!!

  6. I returned to University as an adult student, and have recieved grades on paper ranging from the high 60’s to the high 90’s. The major difference? I started writing in my own voice. For too long I sounded just like everyone else, my voice melting into the pile of mediocrity. Now, this is not to say that my research was not good to begin with, or that my thesis’ were not solid to begin with. I just made the paper interesting, instead of attempting to sound like an academic that I clearly was not. That’s when my papers started begin returned with better grades and comments like “passionate” and “articulate.”

    I feel for professors who, year in and year out, mark HUNDREDS of papers on the same topic.

  7. As a teaching assistant and a grad student I am currently on both sides on the fence.

    As a TA, I am absolutely appalled by the lack of effort most students put into their work. I know what it is like to juggle five courses, a job and what remains of a social life and I know that no student ever fits the ideal. But when I have forty papers in front of me and 75% of them are below the minimum page count it is discouraging. Why should I care if they don’t?

    As a student, I’m disgusted at how many profs do phone it in. It is absolutley not uncommon, even in graduate school where one would figure that profs would have more motivation, to have papers handed back without comments classes cancelled without notice. Last semester one of my profs informed his class that he woul not be available for the next four weeks, but that we were to do the readings and have a paper ready for him when he returned.

    The moral of this story? Students and professors both have to stop blaming it on the other side and take responsiility.

  8. Being a student myself, I find this to be entirely discouraging. If all my profs held your pessimistic, cynical, jaded view about fulfilling their end of the bargain in the chaotic deal that is post-secondary education Mr. Pettigrew, then all of us students are, for lack of a better word, screwed. We don’t attend your over-priced institutions to entertain you, we attend to learn from you.

  9. Sierra, I think if you reread the entry, you’ll see that it actually ends on an optimistic note. Moreover, I don’t think you’ll find anywhere where I said I wanted students to entertain me.

    Cynical? Maybe. But it’s hard to account for the modest quality of most (not all, notice) student writing assignments without supposing that there are a large number of students (again, not all, as I say above) who are not working as hard at it as they might be.

  10. In my first year of university one of my professors, during the first lecture, asked the class why they were in university. Out of a class of 60, 58 were in university to get the credentials to get a career. His response was “If the only reason you are in university is to get a job, you will miss your whole education”. A student in the class asked him what that meant and he politely told us to figure it out. Four years later (the year I graduated from that degree) I suddenly understood what that meant.

    I do not think the message behind this entry is one of scorn meant to negate the amount of hard work some students put into their papers. Every individual who has ever spent time in an academic institution can easily surmise that some students will not do the amount of work needed, some will do just enough, and some will do more. That is the nature of human beings. And anyone who has ever taken the time to devise an assignment knows it is incredibly frustrating when students do not put the time and effort into it.

    However, the message,I believe behind this is that many students are driven (somewhat encouraged) to learn for the sake of getting a grade not for the sake of learning itself. When you learn to get a grade, not only are your papers”just good enough” but you rarely learn anything from doing them. You simply do them to check them off a list. You in fact “miss your whole education”.

  11. I work full-time to pay for my education and I take it very seriously. I have everything working against me, yet I have an A average. Why can’t others? I can see most students just aim for the passing grade. However, I can see that there is no real incentive to aim for high grades other then if you want to get into a masters program or law/med school. Of course, personal satisfaction is one of the most important reasons for me to get high grades, but for most young adults this is not their priority. I think it is because of a lack of long-term goals and just pure laziness.
    I do have a pickle with teachers. From my experience I have noticed that each teacher expects something different. I think it is important to decipher what they expect. This semester I have one teacher who is asking for weekly resume of our readings. However, no one has managed to get a grade over 83% (including myself). I asked him how I could get a grade over 90% he always gives a vague answer like: “80% is an excellent grade, your resumes are already very strong I would just work a little harder at them”. I find this to be confusing…it makes me think that he will not give a grade over 90% just because….

  12. I agree completely with Karen.

    it does concern me that professors think this way. Also, the majority of the papers ARE GOIGN TO BE MEDIOCRE….professors have pHD’s….its like having a university student reading a grade 7 essay. the grade 7 essays are obviously going to be mediocre. Were all human, we learn and grow at our own pace. you cant expect us students to live up to your pHD level.

    Cut us some slack.

  13. If you want slack, you should have gone to a college, not a university.

    If you got 95% on your mediocre 1st year essays, there would be no incentive for you to improve your writing.

  14. Sarah, I’ve got to agree with Tom Mc on this one. If the profs were marking easily you would have no incentive to improve. How do you think your profs learned to write like Ph.D.’s? By getting 90’s on mediocre work or by being marked hard by the profs and TA’s they had?

    If you’re shocked that your high-school level writing skills don’t cut it in university you shouldn’t be. And don’t be surprised if your first year writing skills don’t make it in second year and so forth. Better yet, when you graduate, pull out a couple of your first year essays and read them through. I guarantee that you’ll be amazed at how bad they were. And you’ll also be amazed at how gentle the markers were on you.

  15. Inspire them to be excellent, professor, and they will not be mediocre.

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