I grade exams question by question rather than exam by exam. This means that as much as possible I am unaware of who has written an answer as I grade it.
In bridge classes where I have both graduate and undergraduate students I grade the undergraduates first on the questions. Thus, I am not inflating my expectations of undergraduates.
Typically I will read the answers to a question at least four times. The first time I simply read through everyone's answer to give me a sense for the general qualities of good answers. This does not give me a notion of your grade, but overall is there something the whole class has missed? Sometimes material not mastered is because I have not explained it well enough. The second time, I place answers in piles: sometimes above average, average, and below average, sometimes A-F. There does not need to be an equal number in each pile (this is not a curving device), only a first sort on grade. Then I pick up each pile and read through it assigning the grade to each answer. Finally, to check myself, I reread starting with the best answer and going to the weakest (or vis versa) to make certain I have appropriately differentiated quality.
I do not have any checklist of items I am looking for in answers. Rather, I am reading for the overall control you have over the subject matter of the question. I may develop a list of characteristics of "A" answers after grading the questions to communicate to the class when I hand the exam back. But this list is post-hoc rather than a rule I use to measure answers.
Sometimes in classes I have students do journals or prepare abstracts through the semester to provide themselves quality notes to study in preparation for examinations and to better prepare them for class discussion. As extra encouragement for doing these, I may assign a portion of the grade to the journals or abstracts. Typically, in such cases I will pick these up on a certain number of unannounced days each semester and assign a grade of "S" or "U" to each. Because I seek to encourage you to do these every day, I do not announce in advance when I will collect the assignments.
An "S"/"U" scale is not the same as an A/F scale. The S grade means satisfactory. It means that you are doing at least the minimal necessary in reading the material and applying it properly and actively.
Because (1) I realize everyone may have a bad day now and then when they cannot keep up the prompt day-to-day grind, (2) because I realize there may be occasional reasons you cannot be in class, and (3) because the documentation requirement for excused absences can be onerous for you and for me in cases where the specific assignment is a small part of the grade, I use a different method for addressing excused absences on the journal or abstract. Typically, I will collect these seven times during the semester but use your five best grades.
I use the following procedure in calculating your final grade:
Step 1: All letter grades are translated into equivalent numbers on the following scale: A = 11; A- = 10; B+ = 9; B = 8; B- = 7; C+ = 6; C = 5; C- = 4; D+ = 3; D = 2; D- = 1; F = 0.
Step 2: I have provided you with a weighting for each grade. The grade number value in step 1 is multiplied by the weighting factor.
Step 3: These weighted values for the grades are added together. This gives me an overall numeric value for your work.
Step 4: I translate the numeric value back into the scale in step 1. I round to the nearest number, rounding up at .5.
Step 5: I then do a survey of your overall grades and do corrections. If I find, for example, that you were a B student throughout the semester but received an F on one assignment, I will tend to discount the aberrant grade and lift you a bit on the grading scale. If the general progression of your grades are toward improvement, I will tend to lift you a bit on the grading scale. And, of course, it works the opposite way as well.
Example: Suppose a student has two midterm exams worth 20 percent each with grades of B on both; a semester paper worth 20 percent with an A-; a journal assignment worth 10 percent with a grade of C; and a Final exam worth 30 percent with a grade of C+. The formula would be:
(.2*8) + (.2*8) + (.2*10) + (.1*5) + (.3*6) = 1.6 + 1.6 + 2.0 + 0.5 + 1.8 = 7.5
which would round up to an 8 which is a B.