Why correcting student papers is a bad idea

I am returning this otherwise good typing paper to you because someone has printed gibberish all over it and put your name at the top.
English professor, Ohio University

I took part in another workshop on teaching last week. The focus was on managing students’ term papers and correcting them efficiently. So far, I’ve usually used written examinations in the last session of the course. But in one course, I asked the students to write essays as term papers. Many students were glad to get detailed feedback on their writing. But correcting a 15-pages essay took me about 4 hours. Much too long. So I was curious about correcting them more efficiently. And the workshop did deliver.

You should not correct a paper, you should evaluate it

There is a large difference — esp. in time spend — when it comes to correcting a paper vs. evaluating it. In correcting, you are essentially making the student paper ready to be published. It’s something Academics are used to do. But this is not needed for a student paper. It won’t get published. The student will not revise it. It’s done. It gets the student a grade and that’s it. Even learning from the corrections is difficult if the corrections are detailed. The student cannot identify the patterns.

Instead, the instructor should evaluate the paper. This means highlighting instances of typical mistakes — but only as examples. This means pointing to areas of improvement, e.g., have a look at the rules of citation, but not correcting them for the student. A list of recommendations might do more for the students’ future works than a detailed correction. Except for the content, it’s even okay to skip looking for, e.g., spelling or grammar errors if the paper is already below a certain level.

Prerequisite: Make the standards transparent

Evaluating the paper requires a comparison standard. The evaluation criteria should be broken down into sub-criteria, and the best performance and the minimum standard should be made explicit. You can then measure the deviation of the work of the student to these criteria. Giving student a checklist might also help them in improving the paper before submitting it.

I am not sure whether I can manage to evaluate a paper and not drift into correcting it, but I see the value of this mindset. In any case, the workshop was pretty useful. I’m glad I took part in it, even if it is not required at my university. Even worse, it is usually not seen as important either. But I think we are shortchanging the students if we don’t improve our teaching. Shortchanging students, who are, after all, the next generation of scientists and citizens.


  1. Your quote about the ‘gibberish’ paper reminds me of what a public figure used to do with the ill-tempered mail he received. He sent it back to them with a note politely informing them that someone was falsely using their name to send out hate mail.

    –Michael W. Perry, Untangling Tolkien

  2. Outch, that’s a pretty good strategy 🙂 If it’s fan mail and you don’t have to read it (compared with student papers), perhaps a filter would be in order too. I don’t mind critical comments, and I love them if I can learn something from them. But just “I disagree” or “I’m offended” — waste of time. But there’s a posting in the pipeline about that …

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