I have a professor who grades all his exams by himself (homework, midterm and probably the final). For whatever reason he seems to be a likeable guy during the lecture but he absolutely "wrecks" the homeworks, etc. when he grades.

For example, if you make a little error he will put a huge X across the page or over the entire question. Absolutely massive. And sometimes he will circle a solution or step he does not understand and write ??????????? in red. Finally, this didn't happen to me but happened to a class mate of mine, he wrote "fail" on a question that had some problems with the solution. Now I remember he put "big problem" on one of my answers, taking out all marks, without further comment.

Also he sometimes do not thoroughly read through a question but just marks it wrong, then he changes the marking a few moments later i.e. he will write a huge X over the entire question and put a minus whatever the total points and then scratch out his reading mistake but leaves the huge X there. His marking is also uneven, sometimes he will put -5 for a question and then for whatever reason scratchs it out with a red pen and put -10.

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(picture this, but imagine that the X is over your entire answer)

Honestly, I find that not just homeworks, but also emails. I think he has a way of overreacting to any little thing he doesn't see fit. For example, I asked him a simple question I had regarding some reference I found online which disagreed with his lecture. He said I need to review basic "insert course name here" because everything I said to him is totally wrong. Then I emailed him back telling him that the claim was contained in the link, by another professor. He just replied I should write my emails more clearly next time...what a guy.

By the way he never clarified that issue I emailed him about, which I think he believes is trivial and only tangetial to the course (he tends to cover only portions of his sum total lectures), but a question is a question even if it is not on the exam, isn't it?

Is his behavior reasonable? It just feels like he is on this power trip whenever he grades stuff. I am scared to approach him because I feel like he marked one of my question wrong after he wrote a huge X and probably discontinued to read my solution which was written on the back of the exam. What should I do?

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    Sounds like a busy and distracted professor, which is most of them. You should think about what you can do to learn better and not worry too much about what other people do or think. Dec 2, 2015 at 2:17
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    (+1) Philosophically your answer "LOVE" is awesome.
    – kaka
    Dec 2, 2015 at 2:58
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    "I have a professor who grades all his exams by himself": This is quite the norm in my country. Dec 2, 2015 at 6:12
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    Trust me -- from the faculty perspective we are anything but giddy with power as we grade exams. Your professor may be grading hastily, but power-tripping is the least likely hypothesis I can think of for the size of his X's or the number of question marks he uses.
    – Corvus
    Dec 2, 2015 at 8:47
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    One other comment. A few years ago the center-for-teaching people told us to use green pen rather than red when marking exams so as to avoid hurting students' feelings. I found this one of the most ridiculous things I'd heard from a university administrator -- a high bar indeed. You've persuaded me that I was naive. I'm buying a pack of green pens tomorrow.
    – Corvus
    Dec 2, 2015 at 8:49

3 Answers 3


I would recommend approaching this by thinking about the following question: what is your goal in receiving grades?

Some things that we commonly do with the grades that we receive are:

  • Use them as feedback on our strengths and weaknesses in understanding material
  • Certify our degree of education, thereby obtaining further opportunities
  • Obtain personal validation from good grades

It sounds to me like you're focusing primarily on the personal validation that you can receive from the professor. Otherwise, it would be the marks you receive that matter, rather than the size of the X used to mark them. I would suggest that you instead focus on the more concrete gains that you can obtain from the class, whether intellectual (point #1) or material (point #2).

In that light, the style of markings does not matter, but the precision of his grading does. When you are concerned that he has not graded you correctly, go to office hours and seek understanding of the reason for a grade. Perhaps he is being sloppy, or perhaps not---but if you approach him with an entitled attitude such as you are showing in your question here, you are unlikely to obtain the information that you desire.

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    +1 The fact that the professor adjusts grades (e.g. changes -5 to -10) suggests some degree of care - a really sloppy grader might not bother to rethink stuff he's already put down a grade for.
    – ff524
    Dec 2, 2015 at 2:06
  • @ff524 It was halfway through grading my first quiz the first time I graded anything that I learned it is wise to not grade or mark in haste. I would say someone with presumably a lot of experience in grading who frequently changes the marks they have made while grading might actually indicate a more sloppy grader, as opposed to less. If it weren't for the e-mail portion of the question I would have commented that it could be a student grader, in fact. Dec 2, 2015 at 4:45
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    @ToddWilcox I don't think changing a grade necessarily means "marking in haste."
    – ff524
    Dec 2, 2015 at 4:47
  • @ff524 It seems relatively hastier than carefully reading the entire answer, or even the entire test/quiz, even better reading through all the tests/quizzes before making any marks on any one quiz, which is what I decided to do in order to make sure I was grading fairly across the board. So I guess "haste" is relative and/or in the eye of the beholder. Dec 2, 2015 at 4:51

You will find that your future is filled with busy people who will read what you write as quickly and with as little preparation and attention as they possibly can. If what you write is not immediately, transparently clear, your words will be filed in the "get back to this if there is ever time" pile. (Spoiler: there is never time.) This has consequences:

  • Say what you mean.
  • Mean what you say.
  • Get to the point.
  • If there is a standard way to say what you are saying, say it in the standard way. The mental cost of parsing standard forms is much lower than parsing novel forms.
  • Produce valid sentences. The mental cost of parsing malformed sentences is much higher than that of parsing valid sentences. (Example of a malformed sentence: refusing to put equals signs between a sequence of equal things. As a result, that sentence no verb.)

Let's express the same idea in terms of grading: The grader reads through your answer until they can no longer see how you are making progress towards a solution. Based on the fraction of the (or a) correct solution you have produced by the time the grader aborts their attempt to make sense of your answer, a grade is assigned. The more harried the grader is, the less hard they will attempt to overcome deficiencies in your answer. The same five points apply. Unless the class actually is Creative Writing, the grader will not absorb and reflect on your answers; if they don't see that what you are writing is correct, it's wrong.

Let me tell you a story: I teach math. I have a one page "How To Write [subject]" that I provide every semester. It contains useful advice: "1. Draw a picture. 2. Label the picture. 3. Write top-to-bottom, left-to-write. ..." When I share this with my friends that teach at other Universities, they cannot stop laughing. "You have to tell them to write top-to-bottom, left-to-write?" Yes. Mysteriously, there are students in college who have not yet noticed that all of the long form textual information they read is in the same format, so they write their math in small islands randomly scattered on the page. If I had infinite time, I would go to the trouble of figuring out what order their answer is to be read and piece together whatever argument they were trying to make. However, life is short and this is not the only problem to be graded -- once the amount of effort to make sense of the answer exceeds the time available to do so, it gets whatever grade it gets.

On changing grades. I have done this. On a particular problem, students were to compute the surface area of the non-circular part of a cone. One student bafflingly had too much area but their computation was scattered around a diagram, so I it was not clear what they were doing. (Actually writing, "First, we compute ..." and "Then we find ..." would be great. It would be as if the answer were written in the style that one would answer the question in direct conversation. But for some reason students refuse to construct their answers in this fashion.) Several papers later, I found another student who had the same incorrect answer but they had organized their answer so it was possible to figure out that they had included the area of the circle. "Aha!" said my brain, "that's what that previous student did." I then went back and adjusted the grade. (The student had demonstrated the skill "compute this area", although they had obfuscated this fact.)

I require my students to write identities in columns -- this has a number of benefits. On the first assignment involving identities, I put friendly reminders that identities are written in columns and indicate with boxes and arrows where the student's work should be. On the second assignment, I just refer to "How to Write [subject]" by item number. On the third assignment, refer to the item number and take off a few points. By the fourth assignment, I just write a big, red "X" on answers that are not in the form that has been called out on three prior assignments, and both repeatedly demonstrated and called out in class.

No one will force you to drive on the correct side of the road, or not run with scissors. However, the action of failing to conform to conventions will have their own consequences. With as little context as you have provided for the instances of grading that you do not seem to like, it is difficult to draw any conclusions. Nothing you have written is inconsistent with things I have done in my own grading. Perhaps you and some of my students think that I am mean for doing this. But this is false. If I were mean I would tell my students: "I look forward to the future for my children, who can write complete sentences respecting margins and correctly fill out forms. They will have an easy time competing with you for resources. Why? Someone with a pile of 100 requisitions, or 100 proposals, or 100 resumes is not looking for a reason to keep every document; they're looking for a reason to discard them. And 'can't follow simple instructions' is an excellent reason to discard."

Perhaps you feel I am harsh. Excellent. Get out there and change the World so that what I have said is no longer true. I recommend that you find valid solutions to the World's problems and that you explain them clearly and cogently so that everyone can benefit from your wisdom. (Also, keep it short. Until all our problems are fixed, no one has time for long, complicated explanations. If you can't, you're just going to get the listener's equivalent to a big, red "X" -- they stop listening, switch channels, un-friend you, drop your message in "Spam", et al.)

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    Also, keep it short....no one has time for long, complicated explanations. Great advice to finish off a 1000-word post. :)
    – Corvus
    Dec 2, 2015 at 8:58
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    @Corvus: The ideal outcome is that no one reads it, so that it is self-describing at all levels. Dec 2, 2015 at 9:00
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    Despite the irony of the answer being a bit longer than it needs to be while recommending to keep it short, I think this is an excellent answer. Also, some people (me, for example) actually don't mind long, complicated explanations if they are interesting and well-written.
    – Dan Romik
    Dec 2, 2015 at 9:15
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    +1, that's actually a really common reason why I go back and re-grade questions. It sometimes takes a few different iterations of the same mistake by different students to understand where the first student went wrong.
    – Moriarty
    Dec 2, 2015 at 10:42

If you have problems with your professor's grading policy, there are a few ways to address this problem:

1) As mentioned earlier, you could attend office hours.

2) If, after a visit with the professor, you feel you have not received a satisfactory response, you will always have the option of appealing to the professor's supervisor - depending on the college, this person may be the head of the department for the relevant discipline.

3) If it is not too late, drop the course. This is what I did when I had a professor with a bad grading policy. Note: While I knew I could not get a refund due to the timing, I thought I would be able to register for another class at no additional cost. However, this was not so. Luckily, an Admissions and Records official approved my petition for a refund.

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    Dropping a class simply because the professor draws bigger-than-you'd-like X's on your wrong answers would confirm, if not surpass, even the most extreme negative stereotypes about the Millennial Generation.
    – Corvus
    Dec 2, 2015 at 7:13
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    @Corvus Well, if you phrase it as "Dropping a class simply because the professor draws bigger-than-you'd-like X's on your wrong answers" then, yes, it sounds totally unreasonable. If, on the other hand, you phrase it as "Dropping a class because the professor provides negative feedback in an aggressive and completely unconstructive manner, denying students an important learning opportunity by turning homeworks into nothing more than a check of who knows the material and who doesn't" then it starts to seem much more sensible. What is anyone going to learn in such a class? Dec 2, 2015 at 8:12
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    @NajibIdrissi Big red cross! You don't understand homeworks! Dec 2, 2015 at 9:26
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    @DavidRicherby Hm. I guess I see your point now.
    – user9646
    Dec 2, 2015 at 9:26
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    @NajibIdrissi Exactly. Grading homeworks provides a huge opportunity for the grader to give tailored feedback to the students that helps each student with the parts of the course that they don't understand. The point is not just to see if they understand but also to help them understand more. Dec 2, 2015 at 9:26

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