General Comments On Essays

It’s worthwhile discovering methods to make marking more enjoyable. The same methods can be used to tackle other dreaded tasks.

Sitting on your desk is a pile of essays that need to be marked. There might be just 10 or 20, or maybe 50, 100 or more. For most teachers, this is not an eagerly awaited task. Is there some way to make marking easier and more enjoyable?

I’ve been marking undergraduate essays for over 25 years and have tried out various methods to make the task less onerous. Gradually I’ve discovered ways that work well for me. You may or may not want to adapt these for your own circumstances. In any case, I encourage you to undertake your own search for better methods. If you’re looking ahead at 25 years of marking, surely it’s worthwhile to explore better ways to go about it.


Because marking is generally seen as unpleasant, it is very common to postpone starting. Doing other things, such as reading a book, checking emails, searching the web or even doing housework, suddenly seems more appealing. After all, it really won’t matter much if you start tomorrow. Days and sometimes weeks go by until it becomes urgent to do the marking. Then it becomes a matter of long exhausting hours of mental labour. It seems like a marathon, and only goes to prove that it really was something to be avoided.

The habits of procrastination and bingeing are deep-seated. Most teachers learned them when they were students, cramming for exams or doing all-nighters to write essays.

The solution to the syndrome of procrastination and binge marking is simple: tackle just a few essays each day. If I have 80 essays and need to finish marking them in two weeks, I set myself a target of six every day. Six essays seem much less daunting than 80.

The hard part is getting started. It’s best to begin marking the very first day or, if some essays come in early, before the due date.

Robert Boice researched the habits of highly productive new academics, and found the secret of success was working in moderation. Academics who did a little every day — research, writing, class preparation — were vastly more productive than those who waited for big blocks of time to complete tasks in lengthy sessions. Furthermore, the ones who worked in moderation were less stressed.

I can’t tell you how to change habits of procrastination and bingeing; you can learn a lot from various self-help books. All I can say is that it’s one of the most important things you can do to make marking easier.

Staying fresh

My goal is to approach each essay feeling fresh and positive. Doing only a moderate number of essays per day helps. So does taking breaks. After marking one or two essays, I’ll take a break: a stretch, a snack, some research work, some reading, perhaps the dishes.

If I’m doing only an hour’s worth of marking per day, a break may not be needed. For anything longer, breaks are vital.

Marking requires mental effort, and the mind behaves like a muscle. Do too much and it gets tired and cries out in pain. Do the right amount and it gets stronger day by day. This is another reason for pacing: marking gradually becomes easier. So often it’s better to start with a few essays on the first day and increase the daily target later.

Going faster

How long does it take to mark an essay? A few teachers I’ve met may spend an hour or more, reading and rereading the essay, writing lengthy comments and agonising over the mark. My goal, though, is to go faster while maintaining quality.

Many people read at 200 to 300 words per minute. Yet it is possible to read several times this fast while maintaining comprehension. To do this requires practice, going a little bit faster until it seems natural, and then pushing to go faster still.

Going faster is similar to progressive training of the body, with greater speed or strength developing over time. It’s also similar to typists who train so they can achieve amazing speeds with great accuracy.

My aim is to be fresh and to maintain concentration so I need to read an essay only once and retain a short-term memory of it, perhaps jotting down a few notes along the way. I then type all my comments. If I feel a need to read the essay again, it usually means I haven’t maintained concentration. Time for a break.

Marking less

Even the most efficient marker can be daunted by the prospect of hundreds of essays. If you have some control over assessments, then there are ways to cut back on the marking load.

One option is to simply reduce the number of assignments. Students are often overloaded with work, and could do a better job on fewer assignments, putting more effort into each one.

Another option is to mark some student performance during class. I used to have students do short oral presentations. With a simple template, I would scribble feedback on a sheet of paper and give this to the students at the end of the class. One advantage for students was getting feedback promptly, which seldom happens with essays.

Yet another option is to have frequent small assignments, but only mark some of them. For example, in one class students had to write eight mini-essays, one per week. However, only two these were marked, in weeks chosen randomly after weeks four and eight. Some students complained that they wanted all their submissions marked; I responded by saying that marking just two of them was equivalent to having an exam in which only two of eight possible questions were asked.

Another source of essay marking overload is writing too many comments. I discovered that some students were discouraged by too much red ink. Others never bothered to read my comments at all. In one case a student – one of the weakest in the class – glanced at the mark and immediately deposited the essay in the rubbish bin. All the effort I had put into commenting on strengths and weaknesses was for naught.

For final assignments, some of my colleagues have a policy of asking students to say in advance whether they want comments. Students who don’t ask just receive a mark.

Years ago, I used to correct spelling and grammar as well as give comments on content. But I don’t teach English composition, so why become a proofreader? So I stopped giving detailed feedback on expression, and concentrate on content.

My current system is to write brief comments on each assessment criterion, mentioning strengths and ways to improve, and to supplement this with “general comments” that are generic for the whole class. The general comments explain my expectations and elaborate on how essays could be better. I say in my feedback that if my specific comments don’t say anything about a particular aspect of the assignment, then the student should look to the general comments. This approach avoids the need to write the same comments on essay after essay.

Varied assignments

Monotony is a great source of pain in marking. If there are 50 essays each answering the question “What are the factors behind the rise of social media?” the task quickly becomes tedious. If you are marking essays for someone else’s class and have no control over essay questions, you have my sympathies. Luckily, I’ve usually been able to set my own assignment topics. One of my goals has been to make it interesting for me to mark essays — even the ones that aren’t so good.

Thinking up assignments that are stimulating for students to carry out and for me to mark is not easy, but it has been worthwhile. Two ways of doing this are to give students quite a bit of choice in their topics and to invite or require them to use unconventional formats.

In an environmental politics class, we covered a series of topics such as sustainable development and the precautionary principle. Each week I asked the students to write a comment on that week’s environmental topic using a randomly chosen political, economic or other theory or framework, such as liberalism, militarism, feminism or Buddhism. Then for the final assignment, students had to write a dialogue between two characters, as in a script for a play, with footnotes as appropriate. Each character had to represent or embody some theory, for example Mao Tsetung for Marxism and Gandhi for pacifism. The characters had to discuss some environmental topic. So one possible dialogue would be between Mao and Gandhi discussing sustainable development.

For marking purposes, this assignment was delightful. Every submission was different, and many students were creative in their choices. One student crafted a discussion between Thomas the Tank Engine and Percy the Small Engine. Percy was a Rastafarian and used rasta slang; footnotes explained unusual terms.

When designing such unorthodox assignments, it can be challenging to explain to students exactly what is expected. I’ve found a fairly good method: with students’ permission, I post top assignments from previous years on my website. These show the format expected, for example a dialogue, and by demonstrating really good work can provide an inspiration to do well.

Designing an assignment that is interesting to mark has a spin-off effect. It can change the mode of covering the content. In many cases, I’ve found it effective to let students investigate topics themselves rather than me delivering lectures. For the environmental politics class, we had an excellent textbook for the environmental topics, and I let the students (many of whom were doing an environmental science degree) look up topics like liberalism and Buddhism on their own.

To some, this might seem to be abdicating a teacher’s responsibility to provide authoritative perspectives on content. For me, it is part of encouraging students to learn on their own, including finding relevant readings, understanding concepts and applying them to case studies.

In making marking more enjoyable, I also hope to make learning more enjoyable for students. By getting students to do more work on their own and tackle unorthodox assignments, I hope to encourage student creativity and initiative. I remind myself that for the teacher to work hard often is not all that relevant to student learning. Students learn more when they work hard, and they are more likely to work hard on an interesting assignment. When the assignment is interesting to both students and the teacher, it is a win-win solution.

Other applications

If marking can be made reasonably enjoyable, what about other dreaded tasks? What is dreaded depends on the person, and might be paperwork filing, housework, gardening, tax returns or practising the violin. Often it’s whatever you’re avoiding. Whatever the challenge, the same sorts of principles can be applied.

1. Work in moderation, a little bit each day, rather than procrastinating and bingeing.

2. Remain fresh and alert by taking breaks when needed.

3. Practise going a bit faster while maintaining quality.

4. Aim to do what’s good enough, not at perfection.

5. Redesign the task to make it more interesting.

Brian Martin

Further reading

Robert Boice, Advice for New Faculty Members: Nihil Nimus (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2000): on moderation as a philosophy for academic work.

Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (New York: Random House, 2012): a fascinating account including advice on changing habits. (See Brian’s commentary.) subject outlines and outstanding student work illustrating unusual types of assignments.

Acknowledgements Thanks to Paula Arvela, Don Eldridge, Kathy Flynn and Anne Melano for helpful comments.

essays; teaching

The Essay as a Whole

1. Thesis

The thesis comes out clearly

The thesis needs to be more clearly stated

Superior argument: extraordinary synthesis of analytic ideas & command of course material

Very good argument, showing good comprehension and engagement with course material

The thesis needs to be strengthened

The thesis needs to be more closely related to its supporting points and/or textual evidence

The essay does not address its chosen topic, but deals partially or entirely with another concern


2. Organization and coherence

The organization of the essay is clear

The essay needs to be more clearly organized

The essay is organized more according to the plot of the text(s) it discusses than according to the analytic points that would best support the thesis

The essay makes some viable points, but the points are presented randomly at times; the essay needs more structure for its argument


3. Paragraphs

Each paragraph is unified around a clear main point

Some paragraphs include details or discussion unrelated to their main points

Paragraphing needs work (as a rule of thumb, think of PIE: each paragraph in a critical essay needs a Point, an Illustration, and an Explanation).


4. Transitions

The transitions work well between paragraphs

Edit for more effective transitions between paragraphs


5. Supporting arguments

Thesis is well supported by argument and analysis

Supporting arguments need further evidence from the text(s)

Supporting points are too general and need to become more concrete

Supporting arguments need more elaboration and/or evidence to better defend their claims

Supporting discussion give more plot summary than is necessary, crowding out the substance of the argument

Supporting discussion is almost completely plot summary

Supporting analysis needs to consider textual details and literary composition more fully. That is, the arguments that comprise an essay in literary criticism should talk about the writing in the text -- not so much what a text says, but how it says it. (For more on this point, see Prof. Jack Lynch's explanation of close reading.)

Supporting discussions contain many details that need connection to analytic points


[For comparative essays]

The grounds of comparison between texts are clear

The grounds of comparison between texts need to be clearer

The essay discusses too many texts for an assignment of its scope and word count (essays of comparison and contrast should stick to two or at most three texts)


6. Introduction

The introduction fits the body of the essay

The essay needs a clearer introduction

The essay’s introduction could open with finer focus on the text(s) under discussion


7. Conclusion

The conclusion is effective

The conclusion repeats the introduction without varying wording enough

The conclusion could better close the argument with an “open question” for your reader


Sentence by Sentence

 1. Wordiness:

Sentences are clear and well worded

Edit sentences for excess wordiness


2. Credibility:

The thesis demonstrates unusually excellent independent thinking

The thesis is credible and makes a reasonable claim

The thesis is implausible /

The thesis makes an implausible supporting argument; see

The essay misreads some textual evidence; see

The essay contains factual errors; see

The essay makes hasty, sweeping, or otherwise insupportable generalizations; see

The essay suggests a need for closer engagement with (and greater comprehension of) course material


3. Grammar:

Edit for run-on sentences (statements needing more than one sentence)

Edit for sentence fragments (statements less than a full sentence)?

Edit for subject-verb disagreements

Edit for subject-modifier disagreements

Edit to correct parallel constructions in sentences

Edit to place modifiers as close as possible to the words they modify


4. Punctuation:

Edit for recurring punctuation errors in comma use

Edit for recurring punctuation errors in semicolon use

Edit for recurring punctuation errors in colon use

Edit for recurring punctuation errors in quotation-mark use


5. Spelling:

The essay needs closer proofreading

Edit for recurring spelling errors, e.g.:


6. Handling and accuracy of quotations:

Quotations are punctuated correctly

Edit to punctuate quotations correctly; please refer to MLA citation format:

 Quotations are integrated effectively into the prose

Edit to integrate quotations more effectively and less awkwardly into the prose

Check accuracy of quotations

Edit quotations to conform to MLA citation format:

The essay quotes extensively but needs more supporting commentary. Try to quote more selectively and discuss specifically what you want your reader to see in a quotation

The arguments would be stronger with more quotation of textual evidence and/or examples

The essay is well substantiated with judicious examples and/or textual evidence

The essay makes strong connections between examples/evidence and analytic ideas

The essay makes good use of examples and/or textual evidence


7. Word choice:

Some awkward wording

Some unclear choice of words

Some wording is unnecessarily complicated

Good use of critical terms for literary study

Unclear use of critical terms for literary study

Essay could benefit from use of critical terms for literary study, e.g.


8. Sentence style:

Essay is persuasively written and eloquent

Sentence structures are varied in length and structure

Sentence structures are repetitive; edit to vary wording

Edit long / complicated sentences for concision and clarity

The essay has a distracting number of writing errors: e.g. spelling, grammar, punctuation. Please contact the AU Write Site for coaching and feedback on academic writing:


Adapted from:

Rooke, Constance. The Clear Path: A Guide to Writing English Essays. 2nd ed. Toronto: Nelson, 2000.

Shepard, Alan. English 3120: Shakespearean Receptions. Undergraduate lecture syllabus, School of English and Theatre Studies, U of Guelph, 2003.

See also the English 255 Marking Scheme, which outlines grading criteria with which the above comments are consistent, but is more generally applicable to writing across the curriculum.

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