Teaching & Grading Research Papers

I have been a teacher for many years, and I have graded literally thousands of research papers. I have seen superior work, and I have seen abysmal work; nothing surprises me anymore.

Teaching an English class is often an act of faith. You never know how students are going to respond to the material, or whether or not you’ll be able to impress upon them the importance of learning to speak and write correctly. I am constantly finding notes on the floor between students who cannot find it in their hearts to properly punctuate sentences, let alone turn in an acceptable research paper. But there is hope!

Senior English in Grover, Missouri consists of seven books and three research papers. I sometimes vary the load administered to students depending on what I observe during the first semester, but we are, for the most part, confined to our curriculum. Because there are three research papers, I grade them with increasingly high expectations as the year progresses. A student’s third paper should be heads and shoulders above his or her first. That is my goal as a teacher.


I know that some teachers simply assign a paper and assume that the students have been taught the basics in previous classes. I know from experience that this is a grave mistake. During my first year of teaching, I asked my students to write a three-page paper about themselves; an autobiography of sorts. Rather than getting to know them slowly, I wanted to have an idea of their personalities before classes got underway.

What was turned into me was a revelation of sorts. One paper was written in one long paragraph with only six punctuation marks through the entire essay. Another was composed from the third person, which I at first thought innovative, only to discover that it was written about the student’s mother. I knew from that point on that I could never assume that students had been taught about punctuation or that they had been advised as to the definition of ‘autobiography’.

Because the public school system is less than perfect, I begin each year as though all of my students are foreign to this country and therefore to English. We learn about nouns, verbs, punctuation, spelling, vocabulary and sentence structure. After I feel that they have sufficiently mastered those concepts, we move on to structuring a paragraph, and then an essay. Research papers are advanced assignments for students who have never been exposed to writing before. And although it is sad that sixteen-, seventeen-, and eighteen-year-old students cannot label the parts of a sentence, it is something that teachers must deal with on a regular basis.

The Topic

I’ve found that you cannot expect students to get excited over a topic that does not interest them. Obviously, they have to learn the required material for the grade level and age, but that doesn’t mean that English teachers can’t help them along.

Our first research paper of the year is always about a famous author. The students must research their chosen author and write a biography about them from the information they collect. Most of my colleagues insist that no two students can have the same author, but I hate to hinder any student’s desire to write, so I inevitably receive hundreds of papers on Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott and William Shakespeare.

Regardless of the topic, however, it is more important that you allow your students to exercise their creative juices and to explore the subject at hand.

I knew one teacher at my old school who gave her students a topic, and then told them what needed to be explained in paragraphs one, two, three, four and five. She gave them which quotations to use, which sources to site, and received three hundred identical papers every year. She was a senior English teacher, which I found most appalling, because her students no doubt went to college and wondered why their hands weren’t subsequently held.

Doing too much for your students is a grave injustice; they must learn to stand on their own.

For this reason, I tell my students that the sky is the limit. They can write whatever they want as long as it pertains to the topic, and as long as they fulfill the requirements of the assignment. And as a result, I receive three hundred unique – often hilarious – research papers each semester.

Here is an example: one year, I assigned a research paper that combined history with literature. My students were to decide who they thought killed JFK, and they were to site three Internet or print sources to back up their reasoning. One of my students, an exceptionally bright young woman, wrote a fifteen-page research paper on the supposition that Elvis killed JFK. She had found occult references to substantiate her claim, and the paper was so well-written that she received an ‘A’.


When the time comes to hand in the papers, I am always excited to take them home and begin grading. My husband knows when it’s research paper time because I come home with plastic boxes full of reports, and I he gets excited as well because I let him read the interesting ones.

To grade the papers, I have a correction sheet upon which I make my notes, and students receive my comments as well as my grade. They learn why I took points off or complimented them for a passage, and I think – at least, I hope – that it helps them in the long run.

Here is my grading scale for research papers:

1. 60% Content
2. 25% Word Usage & Grammar
3. 14% Structure & Formatting
4. 1% Spelling

I display this for you because I want to emphasize how ridiculous it is to take three points off a student’s grade for a misspelled word. Chances are, even though I will read over it and run the spell checker, that there is at least one misspelled word in this article. E-mails from parents and even from administrators and colleagues are consistently fraught with spelling errors, and I think it is absurd that we cannot hold ourselves to the standards that we set for our students. So I don’t.

Here is another infrequently used rule of thumb:

Do not grade on whether or not the student came to your conclusions, but only that he or she can back up his or her own conclusions.

There are too many teachers who grade upon whether or not a students’ conclusions mirror their own. For example, take the JFK paper. I don’t think that Elvis killed JFK, and I seriously doubt that the student did, either. But she was able to back up her claims with documented resources, and she presented a well-written, logical research paper that supported her thesis.

End of story.

Be careful in your grading system that you do not punish a student for having his or her own thoughts and feelings; reward intense thought with a positive grade rather than an ‘F’ because their findings are preposterous or different than yours.

Research papers are a struggle for some and a “snap” for others. Approach the subject with an open mind and with a desire to teach and lead your students, rather than to point out incorrect spelling or word usage mistakes. Let your students use their own incredibly talented minds, and you’ll be faced with a much easier task of grading research papers.

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