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UIC TA Handbook - Grading Writing

By Lisa Cochran and Daiva Markelis
Former Teaching Assistants, English
UIC College of Liberal Arts and Sciences



Many new TAs, and even experienced TAs, have anxiety about grading student writing. At times, TAs may fall into habits which are time consuming and counterproductive. Here are some suggestions which will allow TAs to make their time grading more efficient, as well as more meaningful to their students. Other suggestions as well as the nuts and bolts of grammar, may be found in any standard reference, such as The St. Martin's Handbook, A Writer's Reference or The Little, Brown Handbook.

Making Assignments

  • Acknowledge the role that assignments themselves have on the quality of student papers and, therefore, on the grades the papers ultimately receive. Assignments that are challenging and well-thought-out are more likely to result in well-thought-out, well-written papers than assignments that are vague, unrealistic, and put together at the last minute.
  • In general, avoid "open-ended" assignments. A teaching assistant in Geology, in attempting to make the final paper assignment for his class easier, gave them the following instructions: "Write about rocks. Any kinds of rocks." When the baffled students turned in papers that lacked focus and were not very interesting, the teaching assistant wondered what had gone wrong.
  • Clearly state your expectations. Go over your grading scale in detail. (You may want to include it in your syllabus.) Hand out copies of papers that have received A's in previous classes. (Remember to ask for permission.)
  • Write out assignments and pass them out to the class, rather than just verbally presenting them or writing them out on the blackboard. Include such information as page length, due date, formatting instructions (margins, font size, etc.), and acceptable and non-acceptable sources. Clearly state your policy concerning late papers.
  • Longer papers can be overwhelming for students new to the university--many have not had much practice in writing shorter ones. Consider assigning two seven-page papers over the semester, or even three five-page papers, rather than one fifteen-page paper.
  • Whenever possible, encourage re-writing. A student who is allowed to respond to suggestions made on an early draft will usually turn in a much improved second one.

Commenting on Writing

  • Think of the comments as a means to help the student learn and improve rather than mere justification for the grade. Offer constructive comments. Be supportive and directive when appropriate.
  • Offer well-articulated final comments. Begin the evaluation with 2 or 3 specific things they did well (and thus should keep doing), then suggest 2 or 3 specific things they need to improve on for the next essay. (Any more than 3 will begin to be counterproductive.) End with an encouraging remark.

    Example: Todd, This draft shows a lot of relevant socio­ logical research. I especially like the way you have integrated the interviews into your text. Paragraphs 3 and 4 on page 5 are well-organized and relate to your thesis well. Now work on articulating that thesis more clearly in the introduction. (You seem to be getting closer to the thesis in the conclusion.) The long paragraph on pages 6 - 7 needs to be broken up and reorganized by main idea. Remember, spellcheck is your friend. Good start here! -­ Judy

  • Comments on some short, ungraded assignments will give the student a sense of your expectations.
  • Skim the entire paper before writing comments.
  • Address the student by name.
  • Do not use red ink. Students have negative associations with red marks.
  • Avoid abbreviations with no explanation. Not all students know that "awk" means awkward.
  • TAs should ask that students turn in a draft of the essay for comments, then grade and give a brief final comment on the revised version. Most TAs who try this method have found grading to be more rewarding and can grade the final draft more quickly! (If they cannot rewrite it, students will usually only pay attention to the letter grade and the final comment.)
  • Keep in mind how well the essay addresses the assignment and the expectations you made clear to the class.
  • Keep a perspective. Think about the essay in terms of
  • 5 categories in order of importance: Content, Organization, Use of Evidence, Sentence Structure, and Grammar. (Remember: Good ideas are more important than placing commas correctly.)
  • Do not correct grammar and spelling throughout the essay. Pinpoint problem areas (like the use of past tense or articles), point them out once or twice in the essay and refer to them as problems the student needs to solve in the final comment.

Grading Criteria

Here is a possible schema for grading a researched, argumentative essay:

A - Excellent. Well-organized, well-argued and critically insightful.  Relevant and well-analyzed evidence.

B - Above Average. Less insightful, but a good essay. Argument or analysis of evidence may need development.

C - Average. Demonstrates basic knowledge. More descriptive than argumentative. Perhaps not as well-organized as an A or B essay.

D - Below Average. Does not demonstrate basic knowledge. No argument. Poor organization.

F - Incoherent. Disregard for assignment.

Note: When grading exams, take time constraints into consideration. Spelling and grammar should not be crucial. Organization should follow the order of the question.


  • Plagiarism is generally accidental. Usually it is necessary to show students that they need to attribute even a phrase that they lift from a source, then allow them to correct it.
  • In the rare case when a student is trying to pull some­ thing by plagiarizing an entire paragraph or essay, the TA should discuss the situation with the student. TAs rarely expel students, but they do fail them on plagiarized assignments or for the course. Ask your department or faculty supervisor how they deal with plagiarism.
  • Plagiarism is hard to prove, but can usually be detected because of a shift in tone, sentence structure or vocabulary.
  • Photocopy plagiarized essays for your records. Some students protest failing or low grades later.

English as a Second Language (ESL) Students and Grading Writing

  • In classes at this university, students often bring with them knowledge of other languages, which they may use at home. Keep in mind the rich and complex nature of such language use, as well as the difficulties faced by students when they have to "switch" to another language at school and at work. Learning a language takes time. (Think of your own experience learning another language.)
  • ESL writing exhibits specific patterns of error, such as non-standard usage of articles ("a" for "the," for example), non-idiomatic phrasing, inappropriate word choice, inconsistencies of tense, etc. When grading, mark these errors once or twice, acknowledging that some are more important than others. (Verb tenses, for example, might need more consideration than articles.) Encourage students to work on one or two problems at a time instead of trying to tackle them all at once.
  • ESL students vary in ability, experience, and motivation, just as non-ESL students do. Some ESL writers will be "better" writers than some native speakers. Emphasizing global issues in writing such as content, purpose, and audience awareness will allow you to more fairly assess and grade all written assignments.


  • There are resources available for students:
    • The Writing Center,, 105 Grant Hall, provides advice on any aspect of writing essays.
    • ACE, the Academic Center for Excellence,, located in Suite 2900 in the Student Services Building, is a multi-faceted academic support program open to all UIC students.
    • Students should be encouraged to talk with their academic advisor in their home college.
    • LARES, the Latin American Recruitment and Educational Services Program offer various academic advising and tutoring services for Latino students.
    • AAAN, the African American Academic Network offer various academic advising and tutoring services for African-American students.
    • The Native American Support Program all offer various academic advising and tutoring services for Native Americans.

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