A Guide to Grading Exams

It’s that time of year again. Students have taken their finals, and now it is time to grade them. It is something professors have been looking forward to all semester. Exactness in grading is a well-honed skill, taking considerable expertise and years of practice to master. The purpose of this post is to serve as a guide to young professors about how to perfect their grading skills and as a way for students to learn the mysterious science of how their grades are determined.

Grading begins with the stack of exams, shown in Figure 1 below.


The next step is to use the most precise grading method possible. There never is 100% accuracy in grading essay exams, as subjective elements can never be eradicated from the process. Numerous methods have been proposed throughout history, but there is one method that has clearly been proven superior to the others. See Figure 2 below.


The key to this method is a good toss. Without a good toss, it is difficult to get a good spread for the grading curve. It is also important to get the toss correct on the first try. Exams can get crumpled if tossed too much. They begin to look as though the professor actually read them, and this is definitely to be avoided. Additional tosses are also inefficient and expend needless time and energy. Note the toss in Figure 3 below. This is an example of a toss of considerable skill — obviously the result of years of practice.


Note in Figure 3 above that the exams are evenly spread out, enabling application of the curve. Here, however, is where the experts diverge. Some contend that the curve ought to be applied as in Figure 4 below, with the exams at the bottom of the staircase to receive a lower grade than the ones higher up on the staircase.


According to this theory, quality is understood as a function of being toward the top, and thus the best exams clearly are to be found in this position. Others, however, propose an alternative theory (Figure 5 below).


They contend that that the exams at the bottom deserve higher grades than the ones at the top. While many professors still practice the top-higher-grade approach, the leading authorities subscribe to the bottom-higher-grade theory, despite its counterintuitive appearance. The rationale for this view is that the exams that fall lower on the staircase have more heft and have traveled farther. The greater distance traveled indicates greater knowledge of the subject matter. The bottom higher-grade approach is clearly the most logical and best-justified approach.

Even with the grade curve lines established, grading is far from completed. Several exams teeter between levels. The key is to measure the extent of what is referred to as “exam protrusion.” Exams that have small portions extending below the grade line should receive a minus; exams with protrusions above the grade lines receive a plus.

But what about exams that are right in the middle of a line. In Figure 6 below, this exam teeters between the A and B line. Should it receive and A- or a B+?


This is a difficult question, but I believe it is clearly an A-. The exam is already bending toward the next stair, and in the bottom-higher-grade approach, it is leaning toward the A-. Therefore, this student deserves the A- since momentum is clearly in that direction.

Finally, there are some finer points about grading that only true masters have understood. Consider the exam in Figure 7 below. Although it appears on the C stair and seems to be protruding onto the B stair, at first glance, one would think it should receive a grade of C+. But not so. A careful examination reveals that the exam is crumpled. Clearly this is an indication of a sloppy exam performance, and the grade must reflect this fact. The appropriate grade is C-.


One final example, consider in Figure 8 below the circled exam that is is very far away from the others at the bottom of the staircase. Is this an A+?


Novices would think so, as the exam has separated itself a considerable distance from the rest of the pack. However, the correct grade for this exam is a B. The exam has traveled too far away from the pack, and will lead to extra effort on the part of the grader to retrieve the exam. Therefore, the exam must be penalized for this obvious flaw.

As you can see, grading takes considerable time and effort. But students can be assured that modern grading techniques will produce the most precise and accurate grading possible, assuming professors have achieved mastery of the necessary grading skills.

DISCLAIMER FOR THE GULLIBLE: This post is a joke. I do not grade like this. Instead, I use an even more advanced method — an eBay grade auctioning system.

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175 Responses

  1. Joshua K. says:

    No kidding, but when I was in college, I was visiting my English professor in her office, and I noticed a Oujia Board on her desk. Given the context I bet you can see where I’m going with this… so I ask her, “hey what’s the Ouija Board for?”, and she says to me, “that’s how I figure out my grades!”

    I was wondering why my grade was a Q in that class.

  2. Playos says:

    Have any of you heard of these methods being applied to admission?

  3. Laura says:

    Dad says my grandpa used to grade physics students’ papers like this, but never did Grandpa achieve such precision!

  4. Sara says:

    I’m halfway through grading middle school history projects and wondered why I didn’t use your system.

  5. Quet says:

    These methods are all well and good for higher education, but for the high school level, the preferred method is to sit in an over-stuffed recliner and fling the papers upward. Any papers landing directly in the lap, thus making name-reading quite easy, get the A’s. The ones landing on the arms of the recliner are B’s. Those on the leg lift are obviously C’s. All papers on the floor are F’s. There are no D’s, as too many students try to defend, and thus enhance, their grade in order to obtain the coveted “passing” grade.

  6. Joew says:

    The method is too time consuming. I use it only for Mid term exams. For the final you need only reverse order the mid term grades.

  7. themexcellentone says:

    If only I could grade my papers like this…

    But then I’d have to pick the damn things up again. Poo.

    Great post, though. šŸ™‚

  8. ched says:

    This is why I’m a huge fan of the TMP Center for Primate Grading of Law School Exams. Why should people expend their energy grading these things when Chimps can achieve the same result?

  9. Ariella says:

    Professor Solove — I knew this was how it was done! It always seemed too random to be otherwise… šŸ™‚

    I am enjoying my time here in WI and interviewed for a 2-year federal magistrate clerkship the other day. I will let you know how it turns out (I really hope I get it; I would love to do a federal clerkship).

    Happy Holidays!

  10. John Partacz says:

    I think every teacher who uses essay type questions, and has experienced that sick feeling while peering over a stack of ungraded papers has dreamed of using this method.

    Every semester I agonize over using a 25 T/F question scantron or an essay type test. And I want to strangle the teacher that convinced me that finals should be “a learning experience”.



  11. graduate says:

    Thank you for disclosing this academic secret. I had assumed the puppy method was used, but the stairs method is cleaner. It’s the only way I could have managed a B on that bizarre ConLaw exam I was so sure I flunked.

    I had one professor who used the random assignment method, with a twist. He managed to give all his students grades better than expected on our unread papers. Then he signed off on our upper-level writing requirement, as added insurance that we would keep our mouths shut.

  12. Sylvia says:

    I demand that this process be performed on an escalator!

  13. Richard says:

    I perform my tosses during a Redskin football game.

    Somehow, the tosses slope toward A’s when the Redskins are winning and toward F’s when they are way behind.

  14. Jay says:

    This is hilarious. Although, there is nothing funny about getting a D+ or a C-. I still contemplate putting glue in a professor’s chair.

  15. Matt says:

    So funny- I’ve shared you method over Here on my blog

  16. c says:

    Ha! NOW I know why one of my professors last semester said we would NOT get our finals back…it wasn’t so we would share them with other students – it was because he used the cruise ship grading mentioned earlier in comments!

  17. J says:

    All of the work you are doing for finals seem really more difficult than necessary. By the time the midterm rolls around I already know who has potential and who does not. Knowing this, it is a waste of time to read student’s papers who have no real potential. ( added bonus you get to decide who has potential) Depending on how poor the potential the lower the grade. The higher the potential the higher the grade. This way I only have to go through the papers once, mark them and then record the grade. Finished, now I can go on to more important things.

    In this method it is important to keep the test a bit longer than usual before returning them and helpful if you leave them on the backseat of the car for most of that time so that they get bounced around and look ruffled. The illusion helps the students feel better.

    Of course this presupposes that the student who has some actual interest in the studies has more potential. However, if this causes undo stress deciding who actually cares then using the “Who is the better suck up” has the better potential also works.

    th nice thing is there is no picking up the papers from the stairs.

  18. Years ago, I taught in a boarding school. I lived on the fourth floor of one of the dormitories in a garret apartment. I didn’t have any students on the floor with me… I marked the stairs leading up to the fourth floor with grades; when students came up to visit, they’d ask what the letters on the stairs were… I certainly got them talking… šŸ˜‰

  19. HappyChyck says:

    I love this so much! I was explaining to some of my students how I would be grading their last essays (I guess the detailed rubric wasn’t enough). This deep explanation would have helped a lot because my students didn’t seem to believe that’s how it was done.

  20. Dr. Martzeh says:

    This reminds me of the rabbi, priest and minister joke. One of them (take your pick) throws the coins from the collection plate in the air and whatever lands on one side of a line drawn on the pavement he keeps, the rest he donates to the needy. Religious functionary #2 does the same thing only using a circle rather than a line. Whatever lands in the cirlce goes to charity, out of the circle he keeps. The third guy throws the coins up to heaven and says “What God wants he keeps, I keep all the rest.” I think the divine slection methods also works in the case of grading. We toss all papers heavenward. Those that stay in the lofty domain are divine and worthy of an outstanding grade, those that return to the world of mortal men are in no way exceptional and deserving of a C. By the way, this method requires much less effort than the above proposed methods, as it involves the retrieval of fewer papers over a smaller area. Let’s hear it for efficiency!

  21. The toss method seems to involve assigning individual grades to specific assignments. I prefer a holistic grading method that I affectionately call the “survivor system.” Students who finish the entire course get an A+. Students who finish all but the last week get an A, and so on down to students who finish barely half the course or less, and get an F. At the end of each week of class, the students themselves convene a tribal council at which they vote on which of their colleagues should be dropped from the course that week.

  22. John Platten says:

    This is also the method commonly used in IT and business consultancy to check whether a report is ready for the client or not. Generally in my experience the methodology is that when at least one sheet reaches the foot the report as a whole has enough content. My partners thought I was joking too. How obliging of you to have posted the corroborating evidence that I am not the only person who has heard of this technique. Many thanks.

  23. Anxious Student says:

    So why haven’t the professors issued their grades yet?!? This method doesn’t seem to be particularly time consuming…

  24. berta says:


  25. dave says:

    My home has no stairs.

    I am being hounded by administration to submit grades from last semester and they are threatening to fire me. I have told them why I cannot finish my grading and now they want me to undergo drug-testing. I know someone with a 2-story home but how in the world could I explain grading based on someone else’s criteria.

    If I lose my job my wife says she is leaving me.

    Thanks for ruining my life.

  26. Jason says:

    HAHA! great post!

    I was just curious if you accept papers on really heavy stone tablets?

  27. YLlama says:

    Eerie. When I started law school four years ago, there was a rumor that my torts professor used this method exactly. Right down to the tie-breaking for teeterers.

  28. Well, that explains a lot of my college papers. The good ones that I was proud of ended up with C’s, and the worst ones that I spent as little effort as possible on got A’s.

    Wait… that also explains a lot of my high school papers, now that I think about it.

    Great post, hilariously scientific.

  29. ferramis says:

    Thanks for the nice post.

  30. Greg Lowry says:

    Should +s and -s be given as part of the grades, or just simple A, B, C, D, and F?

  31. Lissa says:

    After doing an academic year’s worth of research on issues in grading (Human Performance Technology project, doing my Masters in Ed Tech), this comes as a refreshing smile just as the project comes to a close. Thank you for the laughs – but I don’t think I will include this method in my columns…



  32. yvette says:

    very nice, I am sure I have been on the receiving end of this curve now I can rest assured that I will achieve the most efficient use of statistical curving of grades

  33. Laura says:

    Great!!! I’ve never seen such an excellent idea on how to grade students. Think I will do it myself

  34. Andres says:

    Any suggestions on how to grade this bunch of essays?

  35. Andres says:

    Any suggestions on how to grade this bunch of essays? They’re too bulky for the stair method.

  36. Andres says:

    Ugh, double post…

  37. Anon Prof says:

    Sigh, it’s that time of year again….

  38. Susan says:

    The post itself is funny…some of the comments actually scare me. o_O

    Excuse my paranoia – as a student I know I might be pretty stupid for thinking this, but I hope to God that no teacher actually uses this as a serious grading device.

  39. Stan Dauffische says:

    Surely, students can hardly expect teachers to take their exams any more seriously than the students do! What do you take us for? Masochists?

  40. Jane says:

    “extra effort on the part of the grader to retrieve the exam. Therefore, the exam must be penalized for this obvious flaw” ROTFLMAO XD

  41. EnTrustHome says:

    My mother is a teacher and sees this quite often.

  42. George says:

    As a professional in the field of educational assessment I object strongly to this information being given away for free. A good consultant would charge at least 1000 dollars a day for explaining this method and would drag it out for a week or more.

  43. ph.D. WIlliam Cum says:

    I must disagree from this method, according the chaos theory the probability of being accounted in this proportion in less than 1% so I prefer to use this formula:

    P=y = A*x^2 + B*x + C

    Where A is the mass of the sheet, x the air humidity, B the density of the floor and C is the amount of grease impregnate to the paper. The formula is copyrighted to the TOFEL studio to the math English method of teaching English.

  44. Tish Traster says:

    Response from my brother who writes exams for the NRC:

    Cute! The technique is known as the “randomized distribution”.

    It’s more accurate if you do one toss from the top of the stairs, one from the bottom, then one straightup in the middle. You then collect the data and enter it into a CONFIDENCE calculation in EXCEL

    You end up telling the student “I can tell you that you made a C with 67% Confidence.”

    Sounds quite systematic, does it not? When the student protests, you simply ask them if they understand the complex statistical calculation used to arrive at your learned conclusion, e.g. how the CONFIDENCE calculation works. They will be invariably mystified, so you simply send them on there way with a knowingly condescending smile…

    I have developed a similar tool that can be used to adjust the grades of female respondents to account for routine hormonal fluctuations and seasonal tide schedules. There is another that is used to adjust the grades of male respondents based on their statistical proximity to the last 10 World Series, Stanley Cups and Superbowls. However, there is a significant percentage of anomaly noted when these rules are applied to males at the University of Florida, no doubt due to their overdeveloped “reptile” brain functions.

  45. annon says:

    Obviously you all have overlooked the simplest way to deal with grading – DON’T GIVE ANYTHING TO BE GRADED TO BEGIN WITH!!!

    Use the random number generator in excel to assign the grades.

    If you are truly concerned about fairness multiply that number by attendence.

  46. jlm says:

    OMG! I LMAO! thanks for sharing some great insights with a new professor!

  47. Ray says:

    Another good method which practiced by my professor is to blow the papers using a electric fan for a few seconds. In the end, Those stays closer gets A, and lower grades for those far away.

  48. T. Ross says:

    Wow! This post was created long ago, but I sure did need the laugh today. As a new professor to the college level, I am slightly awed by my current students’ writing levels. Compared to my previous high school students, my college freshman and sophmores do not write as well. Who caused this problem and why are teachers so quick to pass students?

    Oh well, my best method is prayer for wisdom, guidance and strength.

  49. Steve Bruneau says:

    Illustration of my engineering marking scheme provided on the following link includes obvious advantages: clearer recognition of failed papers; irretrievability-thus unaccountability; entertainment value for prof.


  50. donna says:

    This is good, very good. But better is to stand in the middle of the gym and throw them into the air. That’s right, live a little. Those that fall face up are A’s; those that are face down are B’s. D’s are for those not turned in. p.s. I also pay my bills this way. Those that land face up get paid. Works for me!