Strategies for grading more efficiently.
Posted Feb 13, 2020
In a recent article I wrote about key practices that can help you write and publish more while you have a heavy teaching load, I identified that one of those practices is grading more efficiently, and readers responded with emails, specifically requesting support for how to best go about that. In this article, I aim to respond to that SOS.
The advice that I share is hard-won, and it took me many years to get to this point. I remember trips back home to visit my parents where I would play catch-up, laboriously marking papers. My mother, a former educator, remarked that the papers I was assigning were too long, that I didn’t need students writing that much if so much of the writing was garbage, and that spending that much time on each paper was not accomplishing anything for anyone.
My dad just shook his head, insisting that it would make more sense to throw the papers on the staircase and see where they landed, giving each step its own letter grade. Their impatience with me was palpable. Yet somehow I also knew that what I was doing was neither sustainable nor necessary. I sensed there had to be a better way.
Here is what I have learned since then and how I have changed my ways.
I came of age teaching when students picked up their graded work in boxes outside of professors’ offices. That also meant many students never came to retrieve their final papers after I had spent hours on tedious commenting. Some had graduated, and some simply did not care—they were fine just seeing the final posted grade. It was as if I were writing long, involved letters to myself.
I refuse to engage in that wasted work now. Whatever requires my feedback happens earlier in the semester, so that students have an opportunity to use the comments to improve their work. And on every syllabus, I indicate the following, which sets clear boundaries and places accountability squarely on the student:
“You will get much more out of this course, and any course you will ever take, if you concern yourself more with the processes of how to think, how to learn and how to write than on the letter grades. In 10 years, you will probably forget the grade you got in my class, but I hope that what will stay with you are the learning tools and skills that you will acquire. In keeping with the spirit of these comments and due to the sheer number of students across all my classes this semester and my interest in helping to cultivate student writing, please know in advance that comments on work will be kept to a minimum so that you can receive your work back in a timely fashion. However, please note how much I welcome you to my office or to linger over a cup of coffee where I would be happy to talk with you about your ideas and improving your learning process.”
To be clear, I wind up providing more extensive feedback on papers in upper-level classes, but I still try to consciously limit the time spent on each. For many years, students and former students have regularly expressed gratitude that my classes pushed them to become better writers. The point is that grading efficiently doesn’t just help save us time; it can also produce good outcomes for our students.
If you are turning back work more than a week after it is due, it is probably backfiring for both the students and you. The sooner students get things back and know what they did wrong and how they can improve, the better. When they are getting their work back too late, your extensive feedback isn’t really helping them, because their minds are no longer on that project—not to mention the fact that you are not experiencing any let-up with grading.
Face it: the workload that would be reasonable for our students is not necessarily reasonable for us. So when we assign things, we need to consider in the aggregate what it will mean for us.
Thus, I minimize the number of assignments and make each one worth a more significant percentage of the final grade. I don’t see the point in assigning a lot of busy work or many assignments each worth 1 percent to 10 percent and then feeling breathless all semester with grading. We’ve probably all seen it: the colleagues who communicate about how bombarded they are with grading, all while trying to sound heroic about it. But if we don’t have the pacing of our own project management under control, what does that model for students? They benefit from our engagement with their ideas while seeing us involved in our own creative work in a way that does not look thoroughly exhausting. By having fewer graded experiences and grading efficiently when they occur, I find myself less depleted and more able to energetically offer substantive guidance to students.
On the occasions that I assign a final project at the end of the term and plan to return it during the last class session or the designated final exam period, I often ask that students write at the top of their papers if they want comments. That is a revealing exercise worth trying as an experiment, since many will likely say, “No comments.”
And if a paper requires too much overhaul and commenting, I tell the student they need to see me and consult with the writing center. I now flat out refuse to put that much more time into commenting on the paper than the student appeared to spend writing it.
I also make sure that students know the nature of the assignments and the due dates upfront, and I do not accept late papers unless it is a dire emergency. I post all the assignments on Blackboard the week that school starts and mark in my calendar when everything is due for my classes. I always have papers due in the beginning of the week so I don’t have to think about them over the weekend, but students—especially those who work and have families—can use that time to catch up as needed.
For example, I have papers due on Monday, and then if I’m not teaching on Tuesday, I block out that Tuesday to grade—even if it’s months in advance. I have then made an appointment with myself. That makes it possible to return those same papers on Wednesday. By grading almost immediately after receiving papers, it weighs on me much less.
Then there is always the issue of how much or how little to stagger assignments. When I teach four classes in a semester, I tend to avoid having all of my classes share the same deadlines. But when I teach two online courses in the summer, I always use the same deadlines for both.
Our schedules must dictate the terms. So if you have a conference, a major writing deadline of your own, a family commitment or travel, let all that be your guide for when you schedule due dates. Especially if you’re teaching more than 100 students a term on a 4/4 load with no support, you have to do whatever it takes to make it work for you.
There are many ways to grade. I only give numeric grades. I have far too many students to be able to assign a B to a paper, for example; at the end of the term, I would be racking my brain trying to decipher if I meant something in the low, mid- or high 80s. Now I decide on what I think is the appropriate letter grade and select the number I feel most closely corresponds to it, and I enter that in the online system.
I do what I can to resist Generation Rubric. Back in 1998 when I was teaching dense theory classes, I graded using a chart. I didn’t call it a rubric then, although it was. In those days, I was teaching at more selective colleges with a far greater number of intrinsically curious students who were less grade grubby. I employed those charts (read: rubrics) to streamline the grading process and to minimize writing the same thing on papers over and over again.
Once the fetishization of rubrics overtook things, or as I would call it, the rubricization of higher education, I decided to do away with them when grading papers. The assessment police wouldn’t want to hear this, but it’s true: according to the rubric, a paper could have all the boxes checked and not be so strong, or it might appear weaker but actually be creative and compelling. In the past 10 years or so, I’ve found rubrics to be more time-consuming as they have become less of a tool for teachers and more of an arm of the consumer mechanics of higher education where students try to argue their itemization as though it’s a receipt from Walmart.
I used to grade into the wee hours of the morning when I was very tired, and then I’d wind up needing to reread things, worried that I had perhaps made drunk-like remarks. Back then, I thought that I did not want to waste precious alert time grading. Now I see it differently: I grade when I am most awake and sharp, and it takes far less time.
I also try to alphabetize papers before grading them. That way, as soon as I finish, inputting the grades into the online system goes very quickly.
This may seem trivial, but it’s worth considering what sort of pen to use if you are grading hard copies. I have a favorite pen that I find is very fast and never makes my hand feel fatigued. (My preference is the Pilot V Razor Point, extra-fine pen.)
I build in rewards for myself. If I have blocked out a good portion of a day for grading, I might arrange to take myself to a new coffee shop to get my work done. Or I grade in the morning and take a yoga class as a break in the day. I find that a smaller chunk of time feels less overwhelming anyway, and I try to time myself, not allowing any one paper to take too much time. You may find that you grade quickly and efficiently if you’re committed to finishing a stack over lunch before an afternoon class. Finally, when I return papers, I comment on students’ collective struggles, thereby minimizing how much I need to repeat the same thing on each paper.
I’ve observed over the years that as I’ve streamlined the grading process, both the quality and quantity of my own writing and editing have gotten stronger.
In the end, becoming efficient with grading bolsters the confidence of our students as well as our own as teachers. It models for students a sense of mastery of project management and timelines, while it frees us up to pursue our writing and other projects and passions.
Note: a version of this article was published in Inside Higher Ed, February 11, 2020.