Tips for Grading a Philosophy Paper
The following is a generalized version of a document that I provide to my teaching assistants, as a resource for grading papers in my courses.
(Important caveat: grading philosophy papers is an art, and one’s grading techniques will largely reflect one’s unique values and goals as an instructor. These are things that will evolve throughout your career, and you may find that how you grade five years from now is quite different than how you grade today. This is natural and important and good. The following advice does not represent the only way to grade philosophy papers well; rather, it attempts to provide some general guidance on what reasonable and fair grading looks like.)
Good course design typically works backwards: the instructor begins by defining the learning goals that they hope their students will achieve, and then builds class content and assignments in service of those goals. Grading is the process by which you assess whether your students are achieving your learning goals.
So, it is important to think not only about what you are grading, but why you are grading the way that you are. What value will students get from your grading practices, and therefore from your course? What do you hope students will take away from the feedback you give them? Determining your goals before you begin grading allows you to streamline your time and focus on the things that matter most to you.
In a standard undergraduate philosophy paper, there are a large number of things you could look for while grading. The following is a non-exhaustive list of possible grading considerations. It’s important to note that not all instructors will consider all of these things. Once I’ve provided the list, I’ll mention my own grading emphases, and why I don’t consider some things on this list in my own courses.
Has the student written a convincing argument in support of a thesis?
Has the student accurately represented the views of any philosophers whom they’ve referenced?
Does the student’s work reflect a process of critical thinking?
Is the paper well-organized and easy to follow?
Has the student justified their claims, instead of appealing to “common sense” or unexamined beliefs that they personally hold?
Is the student synthesizing material from your course with material from other courses they’ve taken, or with things they’ve learned outside of the classroom altogether?
Is the paper free of logical fallacies?
Is the paper well-written, free of grammatical and spelling mistakes?
Does the paper provide original research, instead of merely drawing from class material?
Does the student represent all sides of a relevant philosophical conversation fairly (e.g., giving fair weight to both sides in a debate on dualism vs. materialism), or is their account one-sided?
Has the student anticipated and addressed possible objections to their view?
In theory, a good philosophy paper will satisfy many of these requirements, if not most or all of them. However, while these are all worthy considerations for a good paper, in grading I only emphasize a few of them – and I ignore a few entirely. This is due to my personal goals as an instructor, and the skills that I want students to gain from my courses.
In my undergraduate philosophy classes, students write papers instead of taking tests or quizzes. So, my goal as a grader is to do two things: 1. To ensure that students understand the material accurately, and 2. To determine whether students are thinking deeply and critically about philosophical ideas. My paper prompts all follow a similar formula: I ask students to reconstruct the arguments of several philosophers whom we’ve discussed in class, and then to provide an argument defending their own view on some subject.
I find that this two-pronged approach, where students first reconstruct what others have said and then provide an original contribution to the conversation, is highly effective. The first “prong” provides students with a strong historical foundation in the discipline of philosophy, discouraging them from writing rambly papers based solely on their own opinions.
(What students tend to think of when they think of philosophy.)
The second “prong” asks them to move beyond the standard regurgitation of facts that is so common in other types of courses, and to actually do philosophy. This allow students to recognize that they are part of the historical conversation, and requires them to examine their own views in light of the thinkers who came before them.
One of my strongest commitments as an instructor is that my grading practices must be just. For me, this means only assessing my students on things that I have personally taught them. And this brings us to the points above that I don’t grade on, or even necessarily agree with. I do not take time in my courses to teach students about English grammar and spelling, or how to do citations in a particular format – so I don’t grade these things.
Some people believe that in order for a philosophical argument to be convincing, it must be written in perfect English, with no spelling or grammar errors; while I can see how one would come to hold this view (and indeed once held it myself), I’ve become quite wary of it as my career has progressed.
Over the years I found that taking off points for spelling and grammar always impacted certain populations of students more than others: namely, those who weren’t native English speakers, or those who didn’t have the best opportunities for their high school education. I was giving bad grades to students who had good philosophical ideas, simply because they weren’t expressing them in the single way I took seriously. This was unfair on my part, and I’ve changed my approach on this.
I now only hold students accountable for material that I have directly taught them. This provides my students with a more level playing field, so that they can succeed in my courses regardless of their previous educational backgrounds.
(I’m currently working on a paper that goes into more detail on this subject: it’s my view that giving a student a poor grade for a well-reasoned but poorly-written argument constitutes a form of testimonial injustice against that student. If you’re interested in this stuff, contact me in January, when I should have a draft of that paper finished.)
In short, my own grading practices emphasize a strong understanding of course content, with the goal of being able to utilize that content to defend an original position. Different instructors may have different goals for their courses, which may result in different grading practices. But I think my approach provides students with a good introduction to how one does philosophy, and sets them up for success in more rigorous courses.
Addendum: Practical Tips for Grading
What I’ve written so far is a rather philosophical discussion of grading practices. However, I also like to provide my teaching assistants with some practical tips and strategies to utilize while they’re grading. I’ve addended those below.
It’s important to be as timely with feedback as you can, within reason. Students will need time to review your feedback and incorporate it into their next assignment. I like to release student grades within two weeks of the due date, and I keep my students informed of where I am in the grading process until grades are released.
Words matter. Be generous with positive feedback where it’s warranted, and gentle with criticism. Try to find one nice thing to say about each paper, even if it’s just “this paper is off to a good start.”
Students are often extremely nervous about their grades. This is especially true for those who have not taken philosophy classes before. If your grading style is very harsh at the beginning of the semester, students may mentally check out after their first paper, because they don’t believe they can be successful in your course. You must strike a balance between maintaining rigorous standards, and not demoralizing your students.
Avoid grading if you’re in a bad mood. Grading while stressed or annoyed can make you unfairly harsh towards your students.
I require a 24-hour “cool down” period after releasing grades before I will discuss them with students. This is to mitigate emotional responses from students who are unhappy with their grades. If a student wishes to discuss their grade, I highly recommend that you require these discussions to take place in an in-person meeting. Such meetings are less emotionally charged, more professional, and ultimately more productive than frantic emails between you and an upset student.