Essay Grading Guidelines from Penn Faculty

Students want to know from the syllabus what sort of assignments they will be expected to complete and how these assignments will be weighted. Nearly every syllabus provides a breakdown of the percentage of the final grade for which each assignment counts but it is often useful to know how those grades will be assigned.

Stating your standards and explaining what constitutes A, B, or C work (and where you intend to draw the line between these grades) can help students have realistic expectations about the course and their grades. Even if you don’t include this in the syllabus, you should figure out your own standards before you start grading.

In quantitative courses, you might consider explaining if you intend to give partial credit and under what circumstances. For example, you may say that you will give partial credit for answers that use the wrong units or answers that have the right idea but calculate wrong.

There are two examples below of grading standards for qualitative courses: one from David Barnes’ HSOC 10 and one from Michael Gamer. These samples are intended to give you some ideas of the type of language you might use rather than to set out standards that would work in any course. As you think about what matters to you in written work, you should begin to find your own set of standards.


  • From David Barnes HSOC 10

A = outstanding, nearly flawless work; assignment(s) completed thoroughly; technically excellent; evidence of creativity and/or inspiration, deep contextual grasp of issues and connections among issues; and ability to synthesize individual elements into broader narratives or analyses.

B = good work; all aspects of assignment(s) completed thoroughly and competently; technically competent (though perhaps not perfect) in spelling, grammar, format, citations; presentation adequate; does not consistently show inspiration, creativity, deeper grasp of connections, interpretations, and/or synthesis among elements.

C = less than fully satisfactory work; assignment(s) not completed thoroughly or according to instructions; basic grasp of issues not always evident; more than occasional technical flaws.

D = basic work of course (or assignment) not done, little effort evident.

  • From Michael Gamer

“A” or “A-“ indicates outstanding performance, work that is above and beyond both my expectations and the work of your peers. It is interesting, lucid, nuanced, and, frankly, more impressive than the vast majority of the other work. It knows what it is examining, how it is going about examining it, what it wants to argue, and why the argument is important to make.

The “B” range of marks indicates that the student has tackled an interesting and challenging problem and has succeeded in elucidating it. The student has thought analytically and systematically, as well as beyond perfunctory treatment of the question. If the paper is marred by anything, it is a lack of independent thought. Most often, “B” papers know what they are exploring and make sound arguments but do not explain why the argument needs to be made.

A “C” indicates an adequate delineation of a thesis, but the argument does not succeed because it does not fully develop the issue. There may be some notable lapses in logic, a sparseness of detailed examples and a noticeable lack of illustrative demonstration of the major points. Often a “C” paper is competent enough, but its paragraphs are not structured by the argument and instead either make the same point, or may not make any point at all until the end.

A “D” indicates inadequate work, usually written the night before handing it in. An essay that merely parrots what has been said in class, or that merely paraphrases or summarizes what a text seems to say also gets this mark.