I am a TA who is helping to grade student homework assignments for an undergrad engineering course which involves a lot of mathematics. The homeworks all together count for miserly 5% and is only graded based on completeness. One of my biggest petpeeves is poor hand writing for written work. I don't exactly have good hand writing, but for things that are turned in or show other people (i.e. for communication purposes), I always ensure that the quality of work is top notch quality.

However, most students in my class have terrible handwriting to the point I cannot even decipher what they are trying to communicate. Wherever there is supposed to be a straight line, I see a curve, not even a well drawn curve. If students run out of space on their piece of paper, many resorts to cramming massive amount of calculation in the margins rather than starting a new page or even flipping the sheet over to the other side. Even worse is that most students write in pen, and when there seems to be an error, they have no qualm of scratching it out using a scribble. I am not a pen person so this is something I have difficulty in understanding. Homeworks are rarely stapled. Let's not even talk about the diagrams, I have no idea why they even bother drawing one. Most people just don't seem to care.

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(a picture I found online just to give you an idea what it looks like, sometimes the entire page is crossed out because of some mistakes in the calculation)

I have been telling them to write neatly since homework 1. Yet this problem persists. The main problem is that the homework grades counts for so little, and there is nothing to enforce quality of homework. If a homework is completely done, even if the hand writing is so poor that I could not decipher exactly who handed in the assignment, I am still required to give full grade. I have talked to the professor who is running the course, and he basically gave me a "I don't want students whining over grades" sort of reply. I am powerless to change the policies of the course, and at maximum all I can do now is giving out recommendations to the students on expected, but not enforced, handwriting standards.

Is there anything I can do in my situation? I had hoped I could see a reflection of myself in this pool of students but I have yet to see that person which makes me a bit disappointed to be honest. Whether if these people go directly into the workforce, or remain in academia, clarity in communicating is very important and I fear if they do not change their habits quickly it could lead to some very negative consequences in their professional life.

Am I overreacting?

Should I tell them a white lie that I am going to give zeroes for unclear, poorly written homework but in actuality I will still give full grade for completeness?

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    – ff524
    Commented Oct 30, 2016 at 2:00

14 Answers 14


The homework is worth 5% and the professor wants to give full grades to anyone who completes it. I'm basing my answer on the assumption that the students can get their graded assignments back after you mark them.

If that is the case, explain to them that for you to give adequate feedback, you have to be able to read the assignments.

The assignments aren't worth much, so I imagine the professor is giving them out as an opportunity for the students to make sure they understand how to do the problems assigned. Although it may not directly change their grade, your ability to understand their answers will change the quality of feedback you can give. Explain to the students that if they want constructive feedback, they must write neat enough for you to understand.

The professor doesn't seem to care about giving that 5% away, so you shouldn't worry about it either. Legibility of the answers isn't as much for your benefit as it is for theirs when they receive comments back on their work. If they don't make it legible for you; then it's just less thought that you have to put towards giving feedback (since you can't give feedback on answers you can't understand). That way you aren't wasting your time giving feedback to students who don't really want it; and those who do want it will do a better job.

  • 4
    shall... not... provide... illegible feedback
    – Ángel
    Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 23:50

My approach is simple- homework is submitted as a typed .pdf file, no exceptions. Homework is submitted online through the course management system (Instructure's Canvas in our case), which enforces the required file extension.

Yes, this means that my students need to learn how to produce typed mathematical equations. They're welcome to use LaTeX (probably the best choice in the long term), Google Docs (which has a pretty intuitive system for math formulas that's adequate for most purposes), MS Word (which has an awfully complicated and hard to use equation editor), Apple Pages, or whatever software they like, but they have to convert the output to pdf so that I don't have to deal with all of these different word processing software packages.

  • 39
    This may be fine for coursework with mostly symbols, but as soon as it requires drawing (graphs, plots, diagrams, etc), I think it becomes unreasonable to ask for typed coursework. Unless you somehow mitigate this, e.g. by providing example \LaTeX (or gnuplot, or matplotlib, or whatever) code, and/or give students extra time. Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 7:21
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    @101010111100 graphs and plots can all be done with a computer much easier than by hand:) There's matplotlib, origin, Powerpoint, Excel...
    – Ajasja
    Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 7:28
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    @Ajasja Agree, but only once you are experienced with the software. Ask a 1st year (or even a 2nd year) student to draw you one of those more involved state diagrams, or a non-trivial circuit diagram. Then suddenly, something which would have taken them a few minutes to draw by hand, takes them up to an hour (especially with LaTeX or gnuplot). Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 7:42
  • 30
    I suppose "typed .pdf file" does not exclude the possibility of drawing a graph by hand, scanning it, and including it as a figure in the PDF?!
    – Thomas
    Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 7:48
  • 7
    I actually took most of my notes in college in Word, as an electrical engineering student. The equation editor wasn't really a problem (fun fact: it accepts LaTeX-like syntax that it converts to it's graphical system on the fly—works pretty well!), though circuit diagrams were miserable (and some classes featured enough of them to force me to use pen and paper).
    – KRyan
    Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 13:48

Make a pile of homework submissions that are not legible enough for you to do a good job of grading. Put those in a separate envelope in the professor's mailbox, along with a cover note explaining that you were not able to grade those.

Let the administrator in charge of TAs in your department know about the problem.

If you are given responsibility, and authority, to address this problem as you see fit, then I would suggest paperclipping a quarter sheet to each illegible submission, with a xeroxed note, letting the student know that the temporary grade is zero, but that if the assignment is resubmitted in legible form by (deadline), you will grade it as though it had been submitted on time. Explain that if a student is unable to submit a legible version in writing, s/he can see you in office hours to use an alternate method of demonstrating that s/he did the work. Keep a record of which students submitted illegible homework. Use this list to work toward getting the homework submitted legibly and on time.

  • 7
    If the student is unable to submit a legible version, then it would be a good idea to get the university's disabilities office involved. Special accommodations would likely have to be made for exams as well. Commented Oct 29, 2016 at 0:29
  • @200_success Clever approach! And in some cases, potentially a correct approach. Commented Oct 29, 2016 at 8:23
  • 1
    Yes, in a situation like this, you "buck it up to the boss."
    – Tom Au
    Commented Oct 30, 2016 at 18:45

You're not overreacting. Your instincts are good, but you cannot do anything about it at this time. Do not white-lie. Krantz, How to Teach Mathematics (sec 1.5):

If there is any circumstance in which honesty is the best policy, this is it.


Although it is plausible and practical to simply demand typeset homeworks, there might still be issues of a similar-though-different nature.

I think the more genuine point is not about handwriting per se, but about readability (which could include issues about broken fonts in electronic documents...). Non-readability is basically a no-op, and gets a "0", or perhaps a low mark and pointed warning on first occurrence.

The question of whether 5 percent is enough to motivate students is different. Odd that even kids would bother to turn in obviously illegible work for a very small percentage of grade...

Rationally, that is, game-theoretically, if you want people to do a thing, it has to be plausibly doable, and not cost more than they can pay, first, or, surely, than they are willing to pay. The idea that one explains to immature people that illegibility will do them harm, or any other such thing, is a second-order effect for kids at that age.

  1. If you can decipher who wrote the assignment, give them full marks.

  2. If you can decipher the assignment, give them feedback on the assignment.

  3. If you can not decipher the assignment, give them feedback about that.

  4. If you can not decipher who wrote the assignment, give them 0. If they complain about it, then they have to identify themselves. Then give them full marks.

  5. If they did not do the assignment, give them 0.

The primary purpose of these homeworks is for students to get feedback from you, but if they don't want it, why force it?


It can be frustrating if one does not have the power to enforce the standards that one expects. I would try to be more relaxed about it:

  1. I would explain to the students that very poor handwriting is rude and does offend you and possible other TAs in the future.

  2. On the other hand, I would be completely open and honest about the grading standards. If a paper full of unreadable rubbish counts 10 points, then say it. The rule is the rule.

  3. I would try to minimize the time I spend with grading poor answers. If the student does not put effort into the answer, just barely read through it and give him the points. If I student really tries and is willing to learn, show him that you acknowledge this.

  • Thanks, I would say I have been approaching this issue according to your third point. I would like to give every student some feedback, but if the handwriting is so terrible and the homework is basically looks like a scratch paper, I just give them the full mark and move on. Although what frustrates me is that only 1 or 2 students have good enough quality homework that I actually give feedback to, I would like more students to be able to receive feedback as well but this can only come from more effort on their part
    – Fraïssé
    Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 16:02
  • Actually, they may be a variety of reasons for them not putting effort into the work: Some are just lazy, some are concentrating on other classes, some are bored by the assignments etc. You can only help those who want help. Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 17:34

Even worse is that most students write in pen, and when there seems to be an error, they have no qualm of scratching it out using a scribble.

Er, that is completely normal behaviour. If writing in ink and crossing out errors are unacceptable to you, then the problem is that you have bizarre and unrealistic standards.

  • It is completely normal behavior, given that the frequency of crossing out using scribble is low. If a page only has a handful of scribbles spread out over the entire page, I probably won't even notice it. I have not mentioned that it is unacceptable to me. But what I am seeing in the homework is that the the scribbles will span horizontally or vertically across entire page, overlapping with other answers, and the frequency will be so high that in a single line of calculation there would be multiple instances of scribble. This makes me think they are handing in scratch paper.
    – Fraïssé
    Commented Oct 29, 2016 at 21:13
  • For example, even for things that are not a part of the calculation or the solution will sometimes be crossed out using a scribble, such as homework number, or description of the problem - I have no idea how they could have made a mistake when jogging down a problem. Sometimes there would be a scribble, but no correction is presented. If scribble is for erasing a mistake, then one should appropriately expect that the mistake would be subsequently addressed. Obviously that has not been the case from what I am seeing
    – Fraïssé
    Commented Oct 29, 2016 at 21:16
  • There are other cases when there is no apparent calculation or mistakes of any sort, the student(s) would just start to write something (this is at the beginning of a problem), and after the first character, suddenly changes his or her mind about if this is a "good place" to write down the solution then cross out the entire line. So all you see in the homework are blank spaces filled with scribbles. Again, no calculation, no mistakes of any sort, just like a single character, or a symbol, then completely crossed out. The calculation would start elsewhere.
    – Fraïssé
    Commented Oct 29, 2016 at 21:26

Frankly, I am a bit confused that you are asking. The writing is of secondary importance. What is important is that the student solves the problem and that you can read and grade it. If the student fails to communicate his solution to you, it is their problem.

If half of their text is just not readable, then they did not solve the problem, and cannot get full grade for completeness. It does not matter how beautiful the handwriting is, but whether you can read it. If they write in the most beautiful calligraphy style, and then pour some coffe over it so nobody can read it anymore, then they still get 0 marks.

Speaking of which...

full grade for completeness

If this really is what your professor is suggesting, then you have wildly different problems than handwriting.

Try to get it in writing from your prof (maybe in a mail), and then basically do as he says.

If a student hands in an assignment where you cannot read the name, then do not grade it! If you cannot decipher it, then it is hardly complete, so you cannot give full marks.

If your prof is afraid of having to handle angry students, then make sure that they come to you instead of the professor.


I had a professor with extremely strict homework guidelines. One example, if your name was not in the top-right corner of very first page in the format last name, first name you got a zero. You could easily spend hours on the homework and get a zero because of that. Homework that was not stapled? Zero. Homework handed in A4 instead of 8.5x11? Zero.

Being able to communicate clearly is a core concept of engineering. An engineer needs to be rigorous. Handing in sloppy work, with unintelligible writing and diagrams is hardly rigorous. Imagine them attempting to send a rover to mars with this kind of approach. It's not sustainable and thus it is your job to help inculcate these values in these aspiring minds.

Therefore, if anything, I believe you are being too lenient. Predetermined requirements, such as legibility, clarity, format, etc... should be established at the beginning of the course and then dole out grades accordingly.

  • 2
    Those are just arbitrary rules that have nothing to do with legibility. Sure, they're formatting, solely for the convenience of the grader. Most people, me included, would object to that level of arbitrariness. Also, that was a different professor, at the other end of the spectrum. That has very little to do with this question where the professor (for better or worse) has advised oppositely.
    – smci
    Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 19:20
  • Those are just arbitrary rules that have nothing to do with legibility. Incorrect. "Arbitrary rules" are any rules. Legibility is one of any number of "arbitrary rules." My point is to establish a specification at the beginning of the course. Deviation from the specification results in zero grade. That is why I listed "arbitrary rules." The specification/contract must be adhered to with impartiality. Regarding OP's particular predicament, you are 100% correct. I re-read his question and I should address the situation he faces as a failure of management (his lazy professor).
    – James
    Commented Oct 31, 2016 at 18:18

Yes, you are overreacting. You're not going to get neat homework with this policy, period. Most of these students probably don't write by hand very often, and so they have not spent the time to get good at it. That means it takes a lot of effort to make their handwriting look nice, possibly including carefully rewriting the entire problem on a new sheet off paper once they are done with it. These students have other things to do, possibly including assignments worth more points in this class, other classes, jobs, kids, etc. Time is a finite resource, and they have zero reason to spend it on this. I've had many math classes that graded practice problems in this same way, and I never bothered to do them neatly either. The grader wasn't reading through each problem to give feedback anyway, so it didn't matter. Neat handwriting may be a noble skill, but I guarantee that proper prioritization and time management are more useful ones.

This leads me to your solution: stop trying to make sense of their work! I have never seen an instructor give feedback on homework like this. That's not the point of it. You're just going to give the same feedback 20 times anyway because half the class made the same mistake, so it's a poor use of your time, too. The purpose is to get the students to attempt the problems so that they know which ones they understand and which ones they don't. It's then their responsibility to ask for clarification the next class. This does not require or even benefit from you being able to read their work.

Summary: Practice homework is for practice, and a small amount of points are given to encourage people to actually practice. It's not meant for you to dissect and comment on, so don't worry if you can't do so. They should know if they got the problem wrong and can seek help if they need it.


This might be a bit hard for this year, but of future, maybe you could consider making other extra incentives available for those who submit homework.

Here's an example from a course I had:
The homework carried low amount of points (5% or 10%, can't remember now), but it was so spaced out that we'd get graded homework around 1 week before midterm exams and then the other set of homework assignments sometime before the final exam.

The assignments themselves were also quite similar to what we would normally get for the exams. So by turning in a good, readable, homework, you'd get good feedback with enough time to fix all the things you didn't understand before the exam which carries a lot of points. On the other hand, the amount of points carried by the homework was low enough so that cheating on homework wasn't very interesting.

This way, people who cared about the course got the practice and people who only cared about the grade of the course got points and feedback for the exams.


In my university there's no standard that students have to submit electronically typed assignments. We encourage them, but it's not always easy for them to learn and many of them rather just write by hand (and scan, if the submission is online).

My general approach is to say that if I cannot read the assignment, I am not grading it; if the scan is incoherent (you answer 1A, 2C, then 3A, 2B, 3C, 2A, and so on; often due to a misplaced page in the scan), I don't grade the out-of-order answers.

One may appeal, but only by submitting a typed solution instead. It is their responsibility to make their work presentable, and to make sure that the scan is readable, in the correct order, and nothing is cut in the margins.

Others in my department often give an automatic 5-10% bonus for a typed solution as well, which can be encouraging.

In the situation where the homework only count for 5% of the grade, these might not be sufficient incentives, though. In which case your frustration might never be alleviated. Remark this to the students, and if all else fails, talk to the professor. In most cases, if something is truly unreadable, you should have some backing to give a zero grade on that particular assignment.


However, most students in my class have terrible handwriting to the point I cannot even decipher what they are trying to communicate.

Fail them. End of story.

If you can't understand the answer, you can't verify that it's correct.

Zero marks; move on.

The handwriting will quickly improve, from anybody who wishes to pass the module.

Make this policy clear in your lectures then the responsibility is known to be on the students. Frankly this should be blindingly obvious to everybody involved, but I am aware that students sadly take no responsibility for anything nowadays.

  • 4
    OP made clear that failing is not an option; decree from the powers-that-be. Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 10:24
  • @CaptainEmacs: I see no evidence of that in the question. Besides, if TPTB have dictated that the OP may not fail a student whose homework cannot actually be read, then, well, there's no solution. That's just silly. Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 11:14
  • 7
    OP says: 'I have talked to the professor who is running the course, and he basically gave me a "I don't want students whining over grades" sort of reply' - yes, it's silly, but some departments have targets like that, and if you are not a prof that can stand up to such pressures, that's what happens. And do not think that I abet that. Zero marks is just the response - it's just not what he seems to be allowed to do. Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 11:19
  • 1
    @CaptainEmacs: Then the institution mandates giving marks for literally nothing. Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 13:28
  • 2
    Not for nothing, but for submission, only. Yes. And that's bad. Yes. Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 13:29

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