Writing essays and dissertations, at any level of university study, is a tough task. Add to that the fact that many students have little-to-no idea what the person marking their work is actually looking for, and this sets the average student on a course for struggle before they’ve even begun.

With that in mind, the goal of the blog posts in this series on marking is to reveal some of the realities of marking and the marking process so that students can know what they are up against. Hopefully, this will also help some of you avoid the mistakes and blunders that may cost you a better grade.

In this first blog post we break down the situation, the institution and practice of marking.

What is the process of marking?

Let us first consider what is actually happening. In the vast majority of university courses, you will be required to submit written work to a professor, lecturer, or teaching assistant who will read your work and assign it a mark. Simple. The process is part exchange (your paper for a grade) and part evaluation (your paper is worth however much according to the marker). Most students assume that this process is fair, and that they are being graded by the standards established by the university. Students often also believe that the markers are not biased, hold all students to the same standard, and that each marker would grade any one paper in a similar way. And this is true, sometimes.

It is also true that the economic realities that many universities face have seriously altered this rather old fashioned ideal. Generally, students would prefer to have a class taught by a professor who has published and researched in their area and become famous. Sadly, in order for many professors to keep up with the demands of publishing they will have to cut back on the time they can devote to other areas of their work, and one of these is marking.

Let us suppose that you have a course with a professor and they have set you the task of writing a seven-page paper (a modest length). This professor is fairly popular and has an average class size of 20-25 students. This amounts to 140-175 pages of student writing that will need to be read, considered, commented on, and assigned a grade. There are, of course, class sizes double and even quintuple that enrolment that will also have a writing component.

And a truly dutiful professor will read each essay twice to get some idea of how they all fit within the class. But this is rare. The vast majority of markers will only read a paper once, regardless of how ‘fair’ they are, or how skilled they are in their field.

So ask yourself honestly, knowing that there are many other demands on your time (e.g. publishing, committee work, supervision, family duties) and probably other work that you would prefer doing – how much time and effort would you spend reading each of these papers? Or want to?

If the professor is fortunate (for them, not necessarily for you), they will have one to a half-dozen teaching assistants that will be familiar with the material, attend the lectures (and in some cases prepare and/or deliver them). And when all those papers, yours included, land on the desk or are submitted online, the professor is not likely to read any of them unless 1) the teaching assistant is utterly useless, which is rare because most want to impress the senior staff; 2) the paper is so bad that they cannot decide between a low-pass or a fail and will ask for guidance (contrary to common belief few teaching assistants are comfortable failing students); and 3) there is a case of plagiarism or academic dishonesty to be addressed. So only when your paper falls into one of these unfortunate categories will a professor read your paper, if it is first being handled by an assistant.

Teaching assistants

Teaching assistants are really a bowl of mixed nuts. Some are fantastic, wonderful, and competent. Others are well-meaning, but not quite able. And others are just wicked (as far as marking goes) and confuse academic rigour with some sort of sadism.

Many of these markers are not “trained” in the sense that they all will have a uniform idea of what to look for in the papers. Often these assistants, and really even some new lecturers, just muddle through. In fact, most will mark based on either how they experienced marking in their own studies, or on a more alarming and no less subjective picture of how they think grades should be assigned. And when push comes to shove and you feel you have been graded unfairly, a professor will often feel a personal obligation to side with the marker.

How do you know who will be marking your paper? You don’t. And this is why it is vital, so vital, that to do well on written work you cover all the bases and do everything in your power to produce your very best effort. And this is a matter we will return to in subsequent posts.

Communicate ideas well to get the best mark

For now, understand that this is why your best work is imperative: academic papers often are not as simple as right or wrong, pass or fail. There is a certain amount of grey area in writing academic papers that many undergraduate students do not fully understand. This is why marking papers can be difficult, and why teaching writing is a challenge that can take years to improve. It is the little things that often make or break a paper. It is not really about the ideas, but the way in which the ideas are communicated, that matters. This is what markers are sensitive to. Brilliant and incisive ideas buried in a crappy unreadable scattered paper is a fail. Boring ideas in a well-structured intelligible paper will pass. Think about that!

It’s also safe to say that writing papers is something that most academics “pick up” as they go. It is not something that they are trained in, but over time acquire a kind of feel for what good writing should look like.

Many students think that the process of marking is more or less fair and that this fairness is enshrined in a notional anonymity where papers can only be identified by student number or a registration number. This should, at least, save the student from anything personal during marking. However, what about students whose first language is not English and maybe their ability to express themselves is not as strong as their native-speaking peers? Do you think markers can tell the difference between a paper written by a native English speaker and one written by a non-native English speaker? Of course they can. And do you think this might create a conscious or subconscious bias in the mind of the marker? Or what about gender? Or race? Or socio-economic background? Are there any “tells” in the paper – words, phrases, or ideas – that someone might use, and that could reveal something about who they are? While none of that should matter, the point we want to make is that there are biases that can be present even where they should not, and you may have no idea if they are working against you. In truth, in a good paper, there will be nothing present that gives away your background. Nevertheless, you would be surprised at how easily these things are to detect among markers.

Now, in an ideal situation, you will have a capable professor reading your paper, and they will give you helpful feedback. Indeed, it would be the feedback from a professor that would be the most helpful. The feedback that comes from a marking assistant might be great, but it might be unhelpful. In fact, you may not even receive any substantive feedback at all. Often markers are more focused on pointing out all the things that you might have done wrong and less concerned with the ways that you might improve. It is unfair, sadly, considering the substantial investment of time and money students put into their education. But it is unlikely to change soon.

So why do academics often give poor feedback? Well, you should not suppose that all or even most of them do. It is quite likely that if they had sufficient time and motivation, markers could give excellent feedback. But consider the differences between professors/lecturers and marking assistants. Professors and lecturers will have not only gone through their graduate studies, which would involve a lot of writing, but they will have published (most likely) in peer-reviewed journals or a book (or more) with an academic press. This writing is reviewed by three experts anonymously - often by a professional and reputable company - and we can assure you, the evaluations do not hold back. Every small grammatical error that can be found will be pointed out. It is a thorough process and professors may, and should, hold graduate students to a high enough standard to prepare them for this publishing reality. The plain truth is that one of the reasons why professors and lecturers can give the best feedback is because they have experienced, no doubt, some of the hardest comments and criticisms to get their work published.

Conversely, markers do not have such experience. They haven’t gone through that process, and they are not yet professional academics. All they have is what they think that process might be like. This, we believe, is one of the biggest differences between the feedback you will get from the professional and, for all intents and purposes, the amateur.

The importance of multiple feedback

OK! We know exactly what you are thinking at this point. You are saying to yourself, but I am not a professional academic, amateur academic, or even aspiring academic. I am just a student on a course trying to find some way of getting a decent grade so I can graduate, go into the world to earn a living and have a nice life.

And that is fine, but if you want those high marks you have to understand that this is the system within which you are working. There are assumptions and rules, formal and informal, that affect how papers are written and how they are evaluated. It is, really, a culture, and you need to familiarise yourself with these rules in order to be successful.

Now, at this point, you are probably thinking, “Hang on! If writing is such a brutal process and professors get such scathing reports, how do they get published?! And what could this possibly have to do with me?”

Well, we are glad you asked.

There is probably a huge difference between what professors do and what you do. And it isn’t about style, or ideas, or content. Do this: go to the library and grab a little stack of academic books, somewhere between five and ten. Pretty much anything that has such-and-such university press will be an academic book. Now skim the prefaces of each of these books, do you notice anything they have in common?

Most prefaces are used by academic writers to say thank you for awards, or grants, and other forms of support. We are fairly certain that over half will have a few thanks to colleagues who read earlier drafts and provided feedback. This feedback allowed them to improve their work so that it could be published. Similarly, if they are fortunate, the anonymous reviewers will also offer helpful feedback.

Now, when was the last time you had a capable or professional reader go over your work before you handed it in? The chances are fairly good that the only person who read the work was you, while you were writing it. That is a bad route to follow.

A paper should always be read by someone else before it goes in for a formal evaluation. For more on this, read the next post in our marking series, Marking: the difference between right and wrong.