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On Being the Judge and the Jury

A teacher must be impartial when grading essay questions. The test question should discriminate among students, but the grader should not discriminate against students. Although maintaining complete objectivity is difficult, the following practical pointers will help you succeed.

Organize the test so the pages containing essay questions do not contain the students’ names. Anonymity and objectivity go hand in hand.

Always create a key. This is particularly important when grading essays. Jot down the three or four points you consider to be a complete answer. Decide if you will award partial credit for inclusion of only some of these points. You now have the scoring criteria for each of the essays. Always make these decisions before you pick up a single paper.

Grade questions, not papers. When grading a set of student papers, grade every student’s response, and then move on to the next question. This will focus your attention on the performance of the question, not the individual student. If there is a pattern in the class’s response, it will be apparent.

Just as important, don't begin a new question if you can't grade all the students’ responses at that time. No one can completely ignore the influence of his or her mood. If you practice this policy, all the students will benefit (or suffer), but no one will be singled out.

Stick to your answer key, at least the first time around. Occasionally you’ll be halfway through a stack of papers and encounter a response to a question that you did not anticipate, but do consider legitimate. The temptation will be to award that student credit for the answer. Don’t. If an answer does not match your key, mark it wrong. Then, after reviewing all the responses to that question, decide if you want to accept any alternate answers. If you choose to award credit for a different response, adjust your key and re-grade the entire set of papers. This extra step will maintain consistency in your grading process as well as ensure objectivity.