Practical Advice for Marking

Decorative: A paper with a pen and an A+ grade on it

The following concrete, practical suggestions for marking assignments have been selected and adapted from So You’ve Been Asked to Do Some Marking – How Difficult Can That Be? a.k.a Hints and Tips for Sessional Higher Education Staff. These hints and tips  are presented under the following headings:

  • Before You Look at Any Assignments
  • Dealing with the Set of Assignments
  • The Actual Marking
  • Marking Onscreen
  • Providing Feedback
  • Appropriate Use of Comments – And Sample Comments
  • References
  • (The online source also contains two additional, helpful charts in the appendices: " Relationship of Marks to Grades," Appendix 2; "Generic Rubrics," Appendix 3)


1. Before You Look at Any Assignments
Answer the following questions (if the answer to any is ‘no’ attempt to fill the gaps for consistency of marking):

  • Are students aware of how all the judgements will be made before they attempt the task (i.e. is there a marking guide)?
  • Is there common agreement about standards and marking criteria (i.e. has there been a markers’ meeting)?
  • Have you decided how to approach unexpected but appropriate student answers to specific questions?
  • Have you agreed about what to do when a student comes up with an ‘out-of-the-box’ creative solution to a problem that is outside the marking scheme but should be acknowledged and rewarded?
  • Do you recognise and try to avoid errors of bias as individuals and as a team? (Dunn, Morgan, O'Reilly, & Parry, 2004)


2. Dealing with the Set of Assignments 

a. Be realistic about what you can do. 

  • Marking assignments can be boring, exhausting and stressful. 
  • As far as constraints allow, don’t attempt to mark large numbers of assignments in short periods of time. Put assignments for marking into manageable bundles. 
  • It is less awesome to have 10 assignments on your desk and the rest out of sight than to have the whole pile threatening you as you work. (Race, 1999) 

b. Sample a few answer assignments to ascertain the general level of attainment before scoring all the answers to a particular question. 

  • The level of expectation by the instructor may differ significantly from the level of attainment by the students as a group. 
  • This is more likely to happen when those who instruct are different from those who have taught a particular course, and when explicit course objectives are not available. 
  • The appropriate solution for this is to make such objectives explicit well in advance of the course, and make them available to all instructors. (Bandaranayake, 1982) 

c. Score all the answers to one question before scoring the answer to another question. 

  • In scoring a student’s answer to one question, the marker is often biased by that student’s response to the previous question. 
  • A student who has a low score on one question is likely to get a lower score than deserved for the next question (the ‘horns’ effect), and vice versa (the ‘halo’ effect) due to ‘examiner carry-over effect’ from one response to the next. (Bandaranayake, 1982) 

d. Shuffle the answer assignments after scoring the responses to each question before scoring the responses to the next. 

  • In assigning a score to an answer given by one student, a marker is often affected by the quality of the answer given to the same question by another student whose paper has just been marked. 
  • A student who is unfortunate to follow a particularly able colleague is likely to get a lower score than deserved.
  • One who follows a particularly poor colleague is likely to get a higher score than deserved. (Bandaranayake, 1982) 

e. Conceal the identity of the student whose answer is being graded, using a system of index numbers rather than names on the answer assignments. 

  • Instructors/markers are often biased by their awareness of a student’s previous performance during the course. (Bandaranayake, 1982)
Strange but true… Uncommon names and names with rare spellings get lower grades than more common names when assigned randomly to student essays.

3. The Actual Marking

a. Avoid bias against poor presentation, handwriting, spelling and grammar, unless they are specific objectives of the course and students have been previously informed accordingly. 

  • Quality of presentation, of handwriting, of spelling and of grammar affects the scores given by markers to an answer. (Bandaranayake, 1982) 

b. Recognise that your mood will change. 

  • Every now and then, check back to assignments you marked earlier, and see whether your generosity has increased or decreased. 
  • Be aware of the middle-mark bunching syndrome: as you get tired, it feels safe and easy to give a middle-range mark. 
  • Try as far as possible to look at each script afresh. (Race, 1999) 

c. Tendency towards the average. 

  • Markers can play safe and score the work of all students towards the middle range of grades. 
  • They never award high or low marks thus hoping to avoid the accusation of having made serious errors of judgement. (Dunn et al., 2004) 

d. Stereotyping 

  • Another type of bias is to make judgements about students on the basis of appearance or behaviour. (Dunn et al., 2004) 

e. Indecision over a student’s work 

  • If you have a problem with a particular piece of student’s work, then set it aside and come back to it later. 
  • Going through a number of other assignments might help to clarify the issues. 

f. Remind yourself of the importance of what you are doing. 

  • You may be marking a whole pile of assignments, but each individual script may be a crucial landmark in the life of the student concerned. 
  • Your verdict may affect students for the rest of their career. (Race, 1999) 

g. Comments help justify your mark.

  • Written comments or numbers on the assignments help justify the marks you give.
  • Such aide-memoires can save you having to read all the assignments again, rethinking how you arrived at your numbers or grades, if a student consults you to discuss the assignment, if there is as appeal. (Race, 1999) 

h. Set aside time for review. 

  • Having marked all the assignments, you may wish to revisit certain grades in the context of all marked papers, write some general summary marks for the group as a whole that comment on frequent difficulties.
  • If you are teaching the course or have a good rapport with the instructor, you might want to make suggestions about changes for part of the course or module or the processes used to teach it. (Race, 1999)


4. Marking Onscreen 
There are a number of methods of marking assignments onscreen, here are some examples:

a. D2L Grader App

  • Assignments submitted in the D2L Assignment tool may be marked using the D2L Grader app in iOS or Android.
  • This is quite a flexible and useful marking tool

b. Microsoft Word

  • To use Track Changes, save the student’s file from mycourselink (or possibly e-mail) on your computer. 
  • In Word, use Track Changes to mark the student’s assignment. 
  • Resave the assignment and either upload it back to mycourselink or return to the student by e-mail.
  • Text Boxes - Follow the same steps as above but use text boxes instead. Draw text boxes in the margins and put in your comments.
  • Coloured Text - Follow the same steps as above, but use coloured highlighted text.

c. Adobe Acrobat Pro 

  • This app can be used to add comments to PDF documents.
…and also “Those whose names start with C or D, for example, are more likely to receive those grades than are other students…” (Christenfeld & Larsen, 2008)

5. Providing Feedback

a. Prepare some ‘generic’ feedback. 

  • Save yourself time, and provide even more feedback, by preparing model answers to questions and assignments, with your own commentary showing typical dangers and key points. 
  • You can then link particular comments to individual assignments as model answers, saving you having to repeatedly write out explanations to common difficulties. (Race, 2007)
  • Frequently repeated advice can also be saved for a cut-and-paste response as needed. This is a great time-saver that provides consistent. Useful feedback across the assignments. 

b. Get the timing right. 

  • Try to get feedback on work back to students very quickly, while they still care and while there is still time for them to do something with it. (Race, 2007)

c. Make feedback interesting! 

  • Students are much more likely to study feedback properly if they find it stimulating to read and feel it is personal to them, and not just routine or mundane.
  • It takes more time to make feedback interesting, but if it makes the difference between students making good use of it or not, it is time well spent.(Race, 2007)

d. Tell students how to find the feedback.

  • If an electronic marking system is used (such as mycourselink or the Grader app), explain to the students how and where they can access their feedback.

e. Use feedback to let students know what style of work is expected of them. 

  • Devote energy to helping students understand what is required of them in terms of writing -- that is, work with them to understand the various academic discourses that are employed within the institution.
  • Help them understand when writing needs to be personal and based on individual experience, such as in a reflective log, and when it needs to be formal and using academic conventions like passive voice and third person, as in written reports and essays. (Race, 2007)

f. Use feedback to help students learn how best to use different kinds of source materials.

  • Help them understand that there are different kinds of approaches needed for reading, depending on whether they are reading for pleasure, for information, for understanding, or reading around a topic. 
  • Help them to become active readers with a pen and post-its in hand, rather than passive readers, fitting the task in alongside television and other noisy distractions. (Race, 2007)

g. Write feedback for students. 

  • Students need feedback, and noting common mistakes can help you prepare some discussion notes for students or can remind you of things to mention next time you teach/mark the same subjects. (Race, 1999)

h. Feedback does not have to written. 

  • Other media can be used to provide feedback, such as audio. Video, etc. (Rotherham, 2009)
  • This feature is built into the D2L Grader app. Note: Check with your supervising instructor for approval before you use alternate format feedback.

i. Feeding backwards and feeding forwards. 

  • Good feedback consists of two main parts, feeding backwards which focuses on current performance (and may simply justify the grade awarded), and feeding forwards which looks ahead to the next assignment, offering constructive guidance on how to do better in future work. 
  • A combination of the two ensures that assessment has an effective developmental impact on learning (provided the student has the opportunity and support to develop their own evaluative skills in order to use the feedback effectively). (HE Academy, 2013)
Decorative: "Feedback"

6. Appropriate Use of Comments – And Sample Comments (Hookham, 1996) 

a. Strengths and Weaknesses 
At appropriate places in the assignments markers should point out both strengths and weaknesses, always with examples. There is little point in writing “This is weak...” if there isn’t an explanation of what is required to make it better. 

  • “This is an interesting point; perhaps you could have developed it further by....” 
  • “I find this a little confusing because... how about...?” 
  • “You seem to have trouble establishing (x), perhaps it would help if you did (z).” 
  • “You write well, but could concentrate more on analysis of the topic. For example....” 
  • “Your grade could have been improved by evidence of wider reading... articles by(x) or (y) are examples of relevant material.” 
  • “An excellent introductory/opening paragraph - all main points listed” 
  • “Well-written section,” “Well-chosen example” 
  • “Clear and concise,” “Sound definition”
  • “Another paragraph on... would have made this section clearer/more complete” etc.
  • “An example/definition would have been useful here.” 
  • “Well presented conclusion/bibliography” etc.
  •  “Your bibliography shows wide reading.” 
  • “It is pleasing to see that you have taken account of the suggestions I made on your last assignment.”

b. Structure and Content 

  • “Your introduction made me anticipate X but I couldn’t find X in the report.” 
  • “I don’t understand the transition between idea A and idea B. Are you trying to set up a contrast?” 
  • “You explain the cause and effect quite clearly. Would explaining the consequences of the effect help the manager in deciding to approve the project?” 
  • “The structure is very clear. I had no problem reading it. The last paragraph seems to deal only with your frustrations. In terms of content, is that the last thing you want to leave the reader with?” 
  • “This paragraph seems to repeat the content of the previous one. Have you said the same thing twice or are you trying to make two different points?” 

c. Suggestions for Improvement 

  • “Your introduction is rather brief - remember to include a statement of your main points.” 
  • “Not very clear here - perhaps an example/definition/research support would have been helpful.” 
  • “You should support this fact/assertion/viewpoint by referring to research! theory e.g....” 
  • “Please present your references as shown in the style indicated for this paper,” e.g. MLA, APA, Chicago, etc.

d. Inappropriate Comments 

Some comments are best avoided. They demoralize the student and are often negative, judgmental, vague or hard to understand and therefore not useful. 

  • “Awkward” 
  • “Don’t like your verbs. You’ve got a funny style.” 
  • “Great!” 
  • “You should be more clear and explain things better.” 
  • “Lacking in depth” 
  • “Very nice: could be worse.” 
  • “Try to improve your punctuation and organisation.” 
  • “You don’t address the issue.” 
  • “Reference?” is more abrupt than “Please show references.”


7. References

Bandaranayake, R. C. (1982). Setting and marking essay questions. In K. R. Cox & C. E. Ewan (Eds.), The medical teacher. New York: Churchill Livingstone.

Christenfeld, N., & Larsen, B. (2008). The name game. The Psychologist, 21(3), 210 - 213.

Dunn, L., Morgan, C., O'Reilly, M., & Parry, S. (2004). The Student Assessment handbook. New directions in traditional and online assessment. London: Routledge Farmer. HE Academy (2013). HEA Feedback Toolkit from

Hookham, M. (Ed.). (1996). Extramural assessment and marking: A handbook for Massey University staff and sessional assistants. Palmerston North: Massey University.

Race, P. (2007). Compendium on Feedback, from

Race, P. (Ed.). (1999). 2000 tips for lecturers. London: Kogan Page.

Rotherham, B. (2009). Using digital audio for assessment feedback: Some practice tips from 

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