A stack of psychology exam essays has just landed on my desk for marking. It was a 3 hour exam with 3 essay questions. This is a final year essay so I do not have to provide written feedback. How long should I be spending marking an essay?

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    Time you have for marking / number of exam papers
    – mert
    Commented May 28, 2012 at 9:57
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    Daniel: The problem is that the question is asking how long you should spend grading these essays. A more general question would be: "Are there general guidelines about how much time I should spend grading (exam problems/homework assignments/essays, etc.)?"
    – aeismail
    Commented May 28, 2012 at 13:50
  • @aeismail sorry to harp on it, but I don't see the difference. Is it I didn't ask for general guidelines or my question was localized to essays.
    – StrongBad
    Commented May 28, 2012 at 15:29
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    @DanielE.Shub: The fundamental issue is that the question sounds like you're asking about how much time to spend three essay questions written on a three-hour exam. If someone wanted guidelines for grading, say, a fifteen-page paper, this question wouldn't help them.
    – aeismail
    Commented May 28, 2012 at 16:14
  • 1
    This is an optimization problem. However, the information about constraints are lack. Commented Dec 3, 2013 at 10:39

4 Answers 4


I don't work in a field with essay exams, but I do ask my students to write proofs, so maybe my advice is still useful.

TAs at my university are contractually limited to at most 20 hours of work per week. You have 60 exams to grade in one week; that suggests an absolute limit of 20 minutes per exam. Since each exam has three essays, I would aim to spend at most 5 minutes per essay. It'll probably take longer at first, especially if you also have to develop a rubric, but you'll get faster as you work through the pile. Aiming for 5 minutes leaves you lots of slack.

Also, I strongly recommend grading vertically—grading all of essay #1 before reading anyone's essay #2—instead of horizontally—finishing each student before starting the next.

  • I cannot recall the last time I worked a 37.5 hour week (my contractual load). While 5 minutes per essay seems on the light side to me, I think it is probably close.
    – StrongBad
    Commented May 29, 2012 at 8:46
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    Although the logistics of the situation dictate one only spend this much time in the given situation I hesitated to give such explicit advice. If the essays were really expected to take 3 hours, I find it unlikely this is a reasonable amount of time to grade them.
    – Andy W
    Commented May 30, 2012 at 1:56
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    @AndyW: You may be right. But if the university wanted the essays to be given an obviously reasonable amount of grading time, they would have paid for more graders.
    – JeffE
    Commented May 30, 2012 at 4:15
  • Perhaps you meant the Professor for the class? If the class size was 60 one TA is not unreasonable, and the professor should help with the grading as well. Either that or other accommodations should be taken in the future to prevent such a shortened time (or reduce the scope of the essays). I know people who teach mass lectures without TA's, but they don't give essay final exams!
    – Andy W
    Commented May 30, 2012 at 11:54
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    The only analogy's I could come up with had to do with cooking food. Perhaps the external circumstances dictate you only have a minute to cook and plate a hamburger, and someone can say well it takes 10 seconds to plate, ergo I have 50 seconds to spend cooking the hamburger. That doesn't mean you can actually cook a hamburger in 50 seconds.
    – Andy W
    Commented May 30, 2012 at 11:57

The only hard and fast advice I have been given in general is to not spend more time grading than the person did writing the essay. Note in most instances you shouldn't spend anywhere near that amount of time, but in general you should be cognisant that grading essays is an arduous task, and for a size like 60 it certainly shouldn't be done in one day (I don't know anyone who grades that many by themselves to be frank, all classes of that size I am familiar with have TA(s)).

Other elements will impact how long the grading takes. Such as are you grading all of the exams by yourself or are there other professors/teaching assistants grading exams. If there are multiple people sometimes it is necessary to have a collaborative meeting, and even co-grade several essays to make sure you are being consistent.

For essays people typically make rubrics with which to grade, and this focuses the content for your review (as well as makes expectations explicit to students). The more focused the rubric the easier your task of grading becomes. The only other advice I would give is I typically read all of the essays once, making small comments, marks and notes for myself, and then go back through a second time and grade the papers. This obviously adds more time to grading though.

Not being able to give students feedback is awful for learning, so I would suggest (if possible) you at least keep notes for yourself and/or keep copies of the essays for a short period. Thus if a student requests feedback it will be possible to give them some.

  • I have 60 scripts and a week to mark them, so I don't think 3 hours per script is possible under any circumstance. I agree about the rubric, 2nd marking, and no feedback.
    – StrongBad
    Commented May 28, 2012 at 12:44
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    The first paragraph of this answer sounds like it is saying one should expect to spend three hours grading a three-hour exam ("you should make arrangements in the future..."), which seems wildly off-base to me. I don't grade essay exams myself, so maybe I am out of touch, but that sounds impossibly high. Commented May 28, 2012 at 13:44
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    I would agree with you Anonymous, and I didn't mean to imply 3*60=180 hours in this instance is appropriate. The advice is most of the time given somewhat in jest, as you don't want to slave over very poorly written essays that the student took very little time to write. I have attempted to rephrase my opening paragraph to make this clear.
    – Andy W
    Commented May 28, 2012 at 13:56

In the humanities 4000-5000wd an hour for commented responses on essays. Two to three times as fast for commentless grading of essays.

This is a "work norm" ala Taylorism, but it hasn't been subject to speed up as far as I've seen (unlike the head count in tutorials work norm, for example).

Source: Australian system, multiple essay based departments' work cultures amongst permanent members of staff; and multiple rounds of multiple sites of collective contract negotiations with casual employees; as a Trade Unionist and department level administrator with previous pay responsibility.


The answer by Andy W discusses the role of Rubrics, which I think is key to simplify grading. They provide better understanding for both expectations and evaluation from the student's perspective.

To add to that, one method that I find works in many situations to reduce grading is to gather students after the exam and discuss the answers in session. This way I can express the points I consider important for a good answer. I realize this cannot always be accommodated in the schedule of courses and exams. But, students appreciate the opportunity to ask questions etc. The grading can then be done quicker since I can refer to what was mentioned in session rather than making many detailed comments. The comments necessary will then be more of a summary connecting to the rubrics and how the answer fills (or not) these criteria.

To say how much time is needed for the grading is difficult in detail but I believe significant reductions can be made, including post-grading discussions with students.

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