Easing the pain of grading

October is the cruelest month: it’s when students’ mid-semester work comes in to be graded. At least during final-exam season, there’s no class prep or advisement and few committee meetings to eat into grading time. There’s also the prospect of a long break ahead. Not so in October (or March). All there is to do is make one’s way through it all.

As with many difficult and time-consuming tasks, there are ways to work through grading more efficiently. It’s possible to make it to Halloween with most of your sanity intact and with a minimum of red-ink stains on your clothes.

In chapter eight of their book, Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment in College, Barbara Walvoord and Virginia Anderson counsel faculty to ease their burden by making students more responsible for ensuring that their work is up to standards. For example, you might have students complete a checklist of tasks (such as, “I proofread the essay at least twice” and “I spent at least five hours on this essay”) when they turn papers in. Doing so spells out your expectations once more and may head off the need for you to respond to low-level problems in formal essays. They also recommend simplifying the grading scale, employing only as many grade “bins” as the complexity of the assignment warrants. This way, there’s no agonizing over whether a brief paper deserves an 88 or an 89. (Effective Grading is currently being held in the CELT office. Come up and read it!)

Speed isn’t everything, of course: sticking a number or letter grade on a lab report gets it off your desk, but it doesn’t always do a lot to help students learn the material or, most important of all, show them how they can improve on subsequent assignments.

On the Crooked Timber blog, Philosophy professor John Holbo addresses the grader’s dual concerns of justifying the grade and offering feedback that will help students improve their work. Holbo writes of trying something new with his students this term: he’ll grade essays holistically, but he’ll offer comments only on aspects of student work that the student flags for Holbo’s response.

The advantages of doing this are in saving his time, encouraging students to reflect on their work and learning, and targeting comments to specific student needs. But there seems to be a large disadvantage: students do not always know what aspects of their work need improvement, unless their professors tell them. (As a philosopher, Holbo surely is aware of the Meno paradox; perhaps he believes that students have a forgotten vision of the Form of the Good Essay locked deep within their souls.)

There’s a wealth of ideas for more effective and efficient grading in this ProfHacker post, which links to yet more ProfHacker posts. One particularly helpful tip for improving grading speed is to use a timer. E.ggtimer is a really simple Web application, but a stopwatch works just as well, obviously.

Maybe you can get motivated through “structured procrastination,” a technique theorized by philosopher John Perry in a 1996 Chronicle article that gained attention recently for having earned its author an Ig Nobel Prize. The point is to convince yourself that you must complete some large task before a vague deadline and then grade exams or papers in order to avoid working on it. Just make “draft a competency growth plan for our major program” your top priority, and your grading will be done before you know it!

Structured procrastination can work the other way, too: some of you may be at your most productive when you have a pile of grading to begin. I think I am. I have papers to grade right now, and here I am writing this post. Yesterday, I wrote up a new list of goals for a course I’m teaching next semester. Useful work, but not what I “should” be doing. OK, fine. I’ll start now.

How do you deal with massive amounts of grading? What balance do you try to strike between speed and using grading as an opportunity to teach? Taking time to write a thoughtful comment means you can put off your grading for a few more minutes.

Photo by flickr user ragesoss / Creative Commons licensed.

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One response to “Easing the pain of grading

  1. Ugh…I should be grading now. Grading causes me enormous stress. The most success I ever had with managing the load and staying true to my pedagogical ideals came this way: when I was teaching at a small college, I’d have students sign up for office-hour meetings with me as soon as they turned in their papers. the meetings started the day after the paper was due. I’d do 3-5 meetings with students per day, so that the grading load was manageable *and* I could give students my comments *before* I gave them a grade. At the end of the meeting, I’d give the students a provisional grade (this is what this version would receive) and the opportunity to revise.

    Those were the days. In a different context now (no office hours), I’m trying to adapt, and I’m back to my old bad habit of grading a huge pile of papers in one day, usually Sunday.