Efficient teaching: marking down for grammatical errors


I used to be appalled at the quality of my students’ writing on exams and other in-class assignments.

Now I’m slightly less appalled. Here’s what changed things:

About ten years ago, I got overly fed up with sloppy errors on exams and quizzes. Students would misspell the most basic words, and make standard homonym errors (such as there/they’re/their) and just sloppy phrasing. It was unbefitting of any college student, or actually of any student in general. These errors indicated an overall lack of pride in one’s work. Grading these could slowly eat one’s soul.

So then, here’s what I did: I told my students that any error in writing (grammar, diction, syntax, spelling) that would not be accepted by a middle school English teacher, wouldn’t be accepted in my class. I said that every single error would result in a loss of a tenth of a point. If you did the same error four times, then that would mean that you’d lose four tenths of a point. If you had a hundred errors, you’d lose ten points.

I put the policy in the syllabus, and I told students every time I handed out a quiz or exam.

When I started grading quizzes, I would mark down a “- 1/10” for every stupid little error. Even on short one-page quizzes which only contained short responses, there could have been up to a score of such errors for some students. Others had none, and many had just one or two.

So, instead of getting a full 10 on a quiz, an otherwise perfect quiz with two lame-o errors receives a 9.8. How would this affect a student’s grade? Negligibly.

Each semester, I would get predictable outrage from a few students (at the expensive private school), that I would try to teach something other than science. I asked if it was reasonable for a college professor to expect proper grammar and spelling of a college student regardless of the discipline. That usually quieted things down, though earning the respect of these students would be an uphill challenge. At my current job, it’s just accepted as par for the course.

What is the outcome of marking down points for sloppy writing? It’s actually amazing. Their writing improved dramatically. The writing more closely resembles the professional output they always should be generating.

This is what I find depressing about this whole affair. If students don’t think that they’re being graded on spelling and grammar, then they actually misspell words far more frequently, by about two orders of magnitude. They also are more likely to craft nonsensical sentences, use adjectives in place of adverbs, and use apostrophes with abandon except where needed.

My students actually can spell, and follow basic rules of grammar. They just don’t bother to do so unless it’s required of them.

If I make my students do it right in my classroom, that’s one small part of it becoming a routine. However, in one semester I can’t undo a decade of other instructors who weren’t maintaining similar standards.

16 thoughts on “Efficient teaching: marking down for grammatical errors

  1. Only question for me: how do you deal with ESL students? I teach mostly grad students, and there is always one or two first-years from abroad whose written English is helpless – but who end up learning it over the course of their PhD and doing very well. The ones who I would want to target with such a policy are the native English speakers, but I don’t want to apply any kind of double standard.

    • Great point. The international students tend to have the best writing. If there are errors tied to not having English as a first language, I give a lot of slack. However, all of our undergrads have to pass an English language class or go through a remedial course. Many need that remedial course, and I know what’s expected of those who pass.

      Over all, the worst offenders are those that only know one language, and not well enough.

  2. I have a question as well: What did the time commitment look like on your part? This approach appears to be sound in many ways, but I still don’t know if writing “-1/10 points” 10 to 100 times per student per assignment and dealing with fractions in the gradebook is worth it from the instructor’s point of view. Thanks for the intriguing post.

    • It doesn’t take much more time. If it happens more than once, I just circle ’em when I find ’em. And I miss some, I imagine.

      The key point, though, is that after a few assignments I don’t have to be vigilant because they’ve shaped up. I don’t know exactly how misspelling comes from laziness, but that seems to be the case.

      • I’d posit that its not necessarily laziness, but culture, lack of accountability, technological dependency, and, most importantly, economics. Culturally, we can understand the positive social feedbacks with respect to ways in which people interact with each other, and written communication is a major part of that. In my experience, spending the last seven years teaching at two institutions (including Cal State), there is no precedent on which to place grammatical standards. Technology is also an obvious reason for misspelling because of autocorrect functions and similar features.

        Economics, however, needs a bit of justification. From my experiences and similar experiences from colleagues and readings from instructors elsewhere, there seems to be a shift towards commodification of education in a consumeristic fashion. Barry Schwartz from Swarthmore treats this idea particularly well in his mid-200s book “The Paradox of Choice.” We see institutions in the US conforming more to an education “market.” Across all universities in the US, for instance, there is a growing number of courses and degrees as an institutional response to consumer demand. As another example, many institutions are requiring instructors to explicitly “label products” in a binding document (e.g., syllabus) that consists of learning objectives that allows students to “shop” for the classes to ostensibly make informed decisions. This, in my opinion, exacerbates the consumer entitlement in the same way that is regularly observed in other markets. This leaves us with the argument that students regularly and frequently make, which is that they enrolled for the subject (e.g., biology, chemistry), they should be assessed only on that material, and the corollary that they should not be assessed on other material like grammar. I think economy largely explains the emergence of this phenomenon, but I also think that it is fallacious.

        • Thanks – I agree with of most what you say. However, I don’t think that “laziness” is not mutually compatible with the contributing factors you mention. These factors (digital media, culture, economics, and so on) are the things that facilitate or enable the laziness.

          The fact that they *can* write well, but choose not to (or do not even though they do not make a conscious choice) indicates that they just aren’t putting in the effort to do it unless it’s required of them. I don’t think laziness is a shorthand term for the phenomenon, I think that’s exactly what it is. I’m entirely pleased for others to disagree with me.

  3. This reminds me of adding a few cent charge to plastic bags and the apparent dramatic reduction of their use that follows.

  4. Out of curiosity, is this approach something you would recommend trying pre-tenure? I like the idea, but am not sure if I have the courage to take the hit on student evaluations while I am at a career stage where these can affect my tenure prospects.

    • I think whether you do this pre-tenure depends on the culture of your institution. Where I am now, it would be wholly acceptable, not just with faculty but with the students. Out of a few hundred students, I’ve never had any complaint (other than a student who didn’t understand that what he wrote was misspelled egregiously, who was satisfied when I explained it). It’s never came up in evals and actually I think more students care that I pay attention to this kind of thing rather than sweep it under the rug like most others in their past. At my old job, in which students felt more entitled to get the education that they were paying for – and not the education that they didn’t want – a few students got seriously annoyed. I did get remarks on my evaluations, “This is a science class and not an English class!” That’s a double-edged sword. Those kind of remarks make me look great with the department, actually. Nothing better than students complaining about high standards. On the other hand, if you have annoyed students that taints the whole environment of the course and that can really drag down evaluation scores and can create a negative vibe that you don’t want.

      Maybe I can do it now because I have more experience teaching and my interactions with students are that I can maintain respect even though I smack down their grammar. Or it might be the different student population, I don’t know. I wouldn’t do it unless I knew that I could maintain the respect of the students. If it’s done in a positive light, it’s a clearly established expectation, and you always offer more praise than criticism, then in theory you should be fine. But on the other hand, if the route to tenure ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

      So, my answer is, “maybe.”

  5. As a TA, I grade hard on grammar for all writing assignments. My students have to write a review paper, and we do a whole discussion on why writing is important in the sciences (I emphasize this, as I have had students argue that this is a science class and they should only be graded on knowing the science). However, no matter how much time I spend on writing, the papers are always riddled with grammatical errors. I have been TAing for quite a few years, and this has only gotten worse. In part, it seems to be laziness and not proofreading, but it is common enough across all students that I also think something isn’t working in how they are learning to write prior to college. I’m not sure if it is that they aren’t learning proper writing skills, not writing enough, or something else. I do think they should be exposed to a larger variety of writing formats, however, as they really struggle when asked to write a review paper as opposed to a “standard” English essay (and they do not understand that there are a variety of citation formats other than APA or MLA). I even let my students turn in rough drafts for comments because I want them to actually be able to apply the feedback I can give them, but less than 1/4 of them take advantage of this. These usually end up being the “A” papers, but not always.

    Back to grading!

    • That’s a good point – most students out there lack adequate writing skills. What I’m doing doesn’t fix this. However, I’ve found that the most horrible and stupid errors tend to disappear. It’s disappointing that, if their grades hurt, that they

      It’s like the old joke, wherever I heard it I can’t recall: Why did the undergraduate cross the road? Extra credit! Students seem obsess about something that’s a tiny fraction of their grade (like, say 0.5% extra credit, or a very tiny grammatical deduction), but not focus on the heart of their grade. It’s a myopia about what really counts. I’m just using that to my favor in this case.

      Maybe instead of marking down really hard for grammar, but instead just having tiny little deductions for every little error, they’d focus on it more? Having a bad grade overall for crappy writing is something the students see as something that they can’t fix. But if every error, word by word and line by line, matters, then maybe they’ll take the time? Just a guess.

      It’s stuff like this that makes me realize that K-12 teachers are the most important people in our culture and in our lives, that we need to value far more than we do.

      • Yes, I think I do this in my head (marking off tiny bits for each error), but I am not sure I have always made this clear to them — I think I will be very straightforward about this in the future. I think you are right that if they see huge deductions they feel like they can’t do anything about it, but they often obsess over fractions of a point.

        I also agree about the value of K-12 teachers — in no way do I think they are at fault for not teaching adequate writing skills, but I think that the system (at least in the US) is failing because there are so many standards and such that have to be met (and this obviously applies to all subjects).

  6. When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment
    is added I get several e-mails with the same comment.
    Is there any way you can remove me from that service?

    Many thanks!

    • Actually, since this is a public blog, I can’t keep you from following it. The software doesn’t give me a way to do it. The mail that you received when you originally wanted a notification should tell you how to unsubscribe, though. (This is a chattier post, but I bet it’ll slow down soon and you won’t have to worry about it much.) I’m sorry I couldn’t be more helpful.

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