Sample Evaluation Criteria for Papers in History

Professor Stephen Kantrowitz, History Department, UW-Madison
Giving students explicit evaluation criteria, tailored to a particular assignment, helps students meet your expecations and helps instructors be consistent in their evaluation.  Here's a sample from the TAs and professor in a history course.

We will grade your papers on the following criteria:



Begin your paper with a brief description of the narrative, or a brief episode from it that suggests or illustrates your thesis.  Give your thesis statement, which is a concise statement of your central argument.  Then build your argument in a series of well-structured paragraphs.  Each paragraph should have a topic sentence, and 3 to 5 sentences that clearly support that topic sentence.  Each paragraph should explain ONE idea, not 3 or 4.  Each paragraph should have a clear connection to the ONE idea, not 3 or 4.  Pay attention to transitions!  Each paragraph should have a clear connection to the next.  End with a strong conclusion that explains what your thesis tells us about the era of the Civil War.


2.     ANALYSIS:           

Remember that each paragraph should advance your argument.  Support your thesis with evidence from your narrative, always remembering to explain what that evidence means.  Where necessary, provide context from other course material, but don’t lean too heavily on textbooks or lectures.  Your analysis should offer specific insights into aspects of this history that other course materials describe in general terms; it may also suggest how your evidence challenges other historians’ analyses.  Without trying to make too broad a claim about the entire Civil War, show how your narrator’s experience of change tells us something interesting and important about the era.


3.     STYLE:

Clarity comes from knowing what you mean and saying it plainly.  Don’t try to write like a writer—write like a person who wants to be understood.  We will reward clear, active, powerful writing.  PLEASE do not use the passive voice.  Do not start sentences with “It is. . .,” “There is. . .” or “There are. . .”   Use active verbs.  Revise your paper to remove wordiness, redundancy, passive voice, and inactive verbs.  Make sure that your grammar and spelling are correct.  Careless errors, especially run-ons and comma splices, WILL lower your grade. 


This is an example of BAD writing:  “There were changes in southern society during the war that made southerners turn their anti-government beliefs against the south.”


This is an example of BETTER writing:  “Many white southerners interpreted wartime taxation and conscription as the same sort of interference with southern ‘domestic relations’ that the Confederacy founders had promised to prevent.”


What’s the difference?  In the first sentence, “There were changes” is in the passive voice and offers no specifics.  What sort of changes occurred, and in what context?  The passive voice allows you to evade these questions, but specificity and context are essential to good history.  “Southerners” is too general; the group in question consists of many (but not all) white southerners.  “Anti-government beliefs” and “the south” also lack precision.  White southerners tended to resist some forms of political authority, but not others; this dynamic shaped both the Confederate state (which was not the same thing as “the south”) and the emerging opposition to that state’s policies.



Although you can get a good grade (a B) for a paper based on arguments presented in lectures or readings, “A” papers must offer more original insights and arguments.  We strongly encourage you to think for yourselves, building on evidence and arguments from the course but pushing your insights further than what we cover in lectures. 


The Superior Paper (A)

Structure:  Your thesis is clear, insightful, original, sophisticated, even exciting.  All ideas in the paper flow logically; your argument is identifiable, reasonable, and sound.  You have excellent transitions.  Your paragraphs have solid topic sentences, and each sentence clearly relates to that topic sentence.  Your conclusion is persuasive.  

Analysis:  You support every point with at least one example from your primary sources.  You integrate quoted material into your sentences well.  Your analysis is fresh and exciting, posing new ways to think of the material.

Style: Your sentence structure, grammar, spelling, and citations are excellent.  You have NO run-on sentences or comma splices.  Your writing style is lively, active, and interesting.  You use active verbs, and do not use the passive voice.  You are not wordy or redundant. 

Originality:  Your arguments show a great deal of independent insight and originality.

The Very Good Paper (AB)

Structure:  Your thesis is clear, insightful, and original.  Your argument flows logically and is sound.  You may have a few unclear transitions.  You end with a strong conclusion.

Analysis:  You give examples to support most points, and you integrate quotations into sentences.  Your analysis is clear and logical, and even makes sense.

Style:  Your sentences structure, grammar, spelling, and citations are good.  You have no more than one run-on sentence or comma-splice.  Your writing style is solid and clear.  You use active verbs and do not use the passive voice.  You are not wordy or redundant.

Originality: Your arguments show independent thought.

The Good Paper (B)

Structure: Your thesis is clear, but may not be insightful, original, or easily identified.  Your argument is generally clear and appropriate, although it may wander occasionally.  You may have a few unclear transitions, or paragraphs without strong topic sentences.  You may end without much of a conclusion. 

Analysis:  You give evidence to support most points, but some evidence may appear where inappropriate.  Your argument usually makes sense, although some gaps in logic may exist. 

Style: Your writing style is clear, but not always lively, active, or interesting.  You sometimes use the passive voice.  You may become wordy or redundant.  Your sentence structure, grammar, and spelling are strong despite occasional lapses.

Originality: You do a solid job of synthesizing course material but do not develop your own insights or conclusions.

The Borderline Paper (BC)

Structure: Your thesis may be unclear, vague, or unoriginal, and it may provide little structure for the paper.  Your paper may wander, with few transitions, few topic sentences, and little logic.  Your paragraphs may not be organized coherently.

Analysis:  You give examples to support some but not all points.  Your points often lack supporting evidence, or else you use evidence inappropriately, often because there may be no clear point.  Your quotations may be poorly integrated into sentences.  You may give a quote, but then fail to analyze it or show how it supports your argument.  Your logic may fail, or your argument may be unclear.  Your end may dwindle off without a conclusion.

Style: Your writing style is not always clear, active, or interesting.  You use the passive voice, or become wordy or redundant. You have repeated problems in sentence structure, grammar, punctuation, citation style, or spelling.  You may have several run-on sentences or comma splices.

Originality: You do a fair job of synthesizing course material but do not develop your own insights or conclusions.

The “Needs Help” Paper (C)

Structure: Your thesis is difficult to identify, or it may be a bland restatement of an obvious point.  Your structure may be unclear, often because your thesis is weak or non-existent.  Your transitions are confusing and unclear.  Your paragraphs show little structure.  The paper is a loose collection of statements, rather than a cohesive argument. 

Analysis: Your examples are few or weak.  You fail to support statements, and the evidence you give is poorly analyzed, poorly integrated into the paper, or simply incorrect.  Your argument may be impossible to identify.  Ideas may not flow at all, often because there is no argument to support. 

Style: Your writing style has problems in sentence structure, grammar, and diction.  You have frequent major errors in citation style, punctuation, and spelling.  You may have many run-on sentences and comma splices.

Originality:  You do a confusing or poor job synthesizing material presented in lectures and sections, and you do not develop your own insights or conclusions.

The Bad Paper (D or F)

A bad paper shows minimal lack of effort or comprehension.  The arguments are very difficult to understand owing to major problems with mechanics, structure, and analysis.  The paper has no identifiable thesis, or an incompetent thesis.  It’s difficult to tell that you’ve come to class.