Ease Your Grading Load NOW!

(No Matter When “Now” Might Be)

Does this sound familiar? A stack of exams sits in front of you and, although the great outdoors beckons, you know that you will be at your computer, inside, with gallons of coffee until this overwhelming task is done. Sigh.

Well, if that scenario does sound familiar, you aren’t alone!  Anyone who has taught a graded course has likely felt the frustration of a never-ending pile of papers or the misery of passing up on a fun weekend with friends just to keep up with exams and quizzes.  The good news is there are some things you can do now to ease your grading frustrations, no matter when “now” might be. Consider:

If “now” is before the semester begins:

Well done!  You can save yourself a ton of grading headaches later with some

advanced planning.  For example, try scaffolding large semester assignments to include due dates throughout the term when you build your syllabus. It may seem counter-intuitive that more due dates will decrease your grading load, but it really works [1]! Your students will have more chances to work on and master a particular skill (like disciplinary writing) if you give them more chances. More importantly you will not need to grade as much (like a whole 20-page lab report) when the work is finally due because you will have seen pieces of it all along.

If “now” is when you are thinking of making an assignment sheet:

Awesome!  It’s an easy way to add transparency to your class experience!  If you’ve never made an assignment sheet for your students, you can see examples here.  Pass the assignment out in class and post it to your LMS. After that be sure to discuss the assignment in class to clarify any assumptions (on their part or yours).  Yes, it takes a few precious class minutes but trust that it will save you endless time in emails and office visits later; PLUS, it will help your students focus their efforts on what you deem most important – again, saving you grading time in the long run. It can be worth talking about understanding assignment sheets in general as this can help students think of questions they can/should ask about your assignments. This can be done with a “What I know, What I think I know, What I want to know chart.”

You can see an example of this chart here.

If “now” is right before you discuss an assignment in class:

Fantastic!  Thinking in advance about your goals for the assignment and talking with students about those goals is a sure way to improve your grading experience later.  First, you’ll want to sit for a minute and think about why you are assigning that project, paper, lab report, quiz, presentation, or what-have-you. Write your goals down.  (Friendly advice: if your answer is “because I wrote papers in college, too,” you may want to think a little bit more. Let’s not do unto others just because it was done unto us!)

Once you have a clear sense of your goals for the assignment, and write those down, you will have an easier time grading student progress toward those goals.  In other words, setting goals or establishing outcomes for your assignment liberates you from having to grade everything! So, for example, if this problem set is designed to help students practice a certain concept, you can and should only be grading for student progress on that concept.  Think how much time you’ll save!

If “now” is after you’ve passed out an assignment sheet or discussed an assignment in class:

Wonderful!  You’ve already set your students up to be more successful and ease your grading load.  But how about going one step further?  You could create the grading rubric together with your students.  A sure-fire way to find out if your students are understanding your assignment is to ask them to tell you what is going to be most important for success.  Have them build a checklist, or divvy up the available points you’ve allocated, or re-write the assignment sheet with annotations for their sense of the relative value of each assignment goal.  Discuss the rubric in class until there is consensus (including your input) and then use that grading rubric when the assignments arrive.  You just saved yourself a ton of time!

Look at sample assignments together (either from your own early writing and/or from previous students). This is a great way to see what students are keying in on. You can also apply the rubric you created to sample assignments so students get a better understanding of both the rubric and assignment itself. Be prepared, though, students are often far tougher on the sample assignments than you ever would be.

If “now” is after students have started working on your assignment:

Once students have started working on the assignment, you may also want to try Five-Minute Fixes.  At the beginning of several classes after the assignment is announced, take five minutes to discuss one aspect of the work and allow students to self- or peer-correct. For example, if your students have a big presentation coming up in few weeks, take five minutes at the beginning of class today talk about the importance of a lively introduction and to have them peer-review each other’s introductory paragraphs.  Not only does this encourage students to prepare well in advance of the deadline, it gives them necessary practice in a low-stakes environment which can lead to improved performance later.

If “now” is after a quiz or other low-stakes in class assignment:

Great! You’ve got a real chance to be transparent about how grading works.  One common complaint among students is that our grading is capricious. If you allow students to self-grade quizzes or revisit and resubmit individual quiz answers after a group discussion, they are more likely to see how we agonize over “sorta right” answers or determine the number of points they receive.  There is also really good evidence that students who discuss quiz answers in groups are more likely to understand the material when they leave the classroom and isn’t that the ultimate goal?

For low-stakes assignments other than quizzes, consider alternatives to points or percentage grading.  For example, you may decide to grade on a straight Pass / Fail for a journal entry or daily class discussion.  Or, you might decide to elicit peer feedback on an early draft of a paper or lab report, rather than “grading” all of them yourself.  In either case, make sure you explain whythis is the right type of feedback for the assignment at this moment.   Students who have spent their whole lives getting grades for every little thing will need some assurance that their work still matters and contributes to their learning down the road.

If “now” is the horrible moment when that massive stack of assignments isn’t getting any smaller:

It’s OK!  There are several things you can do to save your sanity (and maybe your weekend!) even if you haven’t had a chance to do any of the above.

  1. Set a timer: Yes, we want to help our students improve at all the things, but that is not realistic. Frankly, it’s also a little bit absurd as we are only one instructor in their entire educational experience.  Instead, I invite you to think about three or four things you really want to give feedback on.  Write those things down next to your stack of assignments and commit, in the 3-5 minutes you give yourself on the timer, to only comment on those things.  There will be time for other comments later — I promise.
  2. Use voice feedback: Many of us talk faster than we write or type, and audio feedback can actually be more productive for student learning because it allows us to express tone. On written assignments, you can add a voice notation in Word or PDF that expresses your main thoughts on the student’s performance.  Or, you might consider offering feedback office hours wherein students get their grades only if they come to see you and discuss their work. Then you are essentially only grading one assignment at a time, in your already-scheduled office hours, and getting a chance to see your students one-on-one.
  3. Use Copy-Past-Adapt: This technique is a life saver! Create a google doc or word file with common issues and your likely response.  For example, you might write down “Your citations here and in the subsequent paragraph don’t match current APA style suggestions.  Please visit https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/10/ to learn more and correct your inconsistencies.” Then, when you come to an instance of that issue in a student’s paper, simply copy-paste-adapt as needed.
  4. Don’t give feedback (SOMETIMES): Feedback, when received and understood, has incredible potential to improve student learning.  But, we all know that there are times when students ignore all our carefully curated suggestions and advice.  The end of the semester is one of those times!  Consider NOT giving feedback on final papers or exams, but only if you offer students the option to come to your office (next semester) and chat with you about why they scored as they did.

And finally, if “now” is after the semester is over and you are looking at the things you already graded:

Brilliant!  You are assessing student learning and preparing to improve your outcomes for the next group of students in this course.  Take a few moments to look over your goals for the assignment or course.  How did students perform overall?  On what aspects of the work were students most successful, and where did they struggle? What should be adjusted to improve student learning next time?  Write your thoughts on the syllabus and / or assignment sheet so that when you next teach the course you are ready to go!