Finding the time to grade stacks of student work has long been a task that requires so much mental energy for instructors to accomplish. As such, I am always looking for ways to become a more efficient grader. There’s little point in taking the time to offer feedback to students if you’re not going to actually provide helpful advice on how they can improve their work. Still, the amount of hours it can take to grade major class assignments can be overwhelming, especially when you’re also balancing all your other responsibilities. Over the years I’ve been teaching, I’ve managed to create a few different strategies that make grading easier (and quicker) without shortchanging how much individual feedback my students receive. So today, I’d like to share with you the five best strategies I’ve used to make grading faster and simpler.
Design Assignments with Staggered Deadlines
For my grad student teaching assistantship, I teach two courses a semester. My first year writing courses cap at 23 students, while my literature courses cap at 30 students. So, I’m usually grading work created by 53-60 students every semester. Now, one step I make sure to always take is creating different deadlines for my different courses. That way, I’m never collecting 53-60 assignments on the same day. [I go into more detail on this course design strategy here.] But, I take this step even further in my individual course designs.
Rather than designing all my major class assignments as ones that are turned in by all students at the same time, many of my assignments have staggered deadlines. For example, in my ENG 170 and ENG 125 courses on children’s and young adult literature, my students lead analytical group activities throughout the semester. I described this assignment in detail in my last post, but basically, every week two groups of 3 students lead a class discussion on our novel of the week. With this design, I only need to grade two projects (or six students) a week.
In my literature courses, I also have a major assignment that requires students to post literary analysis discussion posts to the forums on our LMS course websites. I require students to submit at least 3 posts, but they have around 10-15 different days to choose from when completing this assignment. While many students wait until the end of the semester to complete these posts, plenty of students complete earlier posts because they want to get the assignment over with, they particularly enjoy certain books, or they want to make sure they have chances to complete extra posts (because I only count their three highest post grades). Whatever their reasons, this assignment is another one that allows me to grade a smaller number of student work as the weeks progress, rather than a full load at once.
Now, a drawback of this approach is that I’m constantly grading throughout the semester. However, I prefer grading assignments like these in short bursts, rather than needing to spend hours upon hours grading all the student responses at one time. Maybe you prefer chunking your grading time in this way. I definitely prefer grading as I go, with a few other assignments that just have one set deadline.I consider reflecting on what they've learned throughout the semester an essential element of my students' academic development. Click To Tweet
Add a Wrap-Up Activity to the End of Your Semester
Adding an additional assignment might seem counter-intuitive to the purpose of this post. How is creating more to grade going to make grading easier? This strategy works well because it allows you to move up the deadline of your last major assignment for a productive reason. Rather than having your students turn in a long paper or complex project during the last week of class or finals week, have them turn that large assignment in a week or two earlier. That way, you have a lot more time to grade these big assignments before your grades are due to the registrar’s office. During the last week or so of class, you can wrap up the semester by having your students complete or even present a small, reflective project.
For example, in my ENG 101 class this semester, students will turn in their final major assignment the week before the final week of class. During the last week of the semester, each student will present the blog they’ve been creating all semester long. During finals week, they’ll post their final blog post that reflects on what they’ve learned throughout the course. With this design, I’ll have 2.5 weeks to grade the last long-form writing assignment they’ll be creating for our course. This scheduling structure not only helps me manage my grading time management, it also decreases my students’ workload at a time when they usually have multiple long or complex assignments due in their courses.
I consider reflecting on what they’ve learned throughout the semester an essential element of my students’ academic development. Adding this mini activity at the end of the semester helps all of us balance our workload during that hectic time. I’m all for course designs that create multiple positive repercussions.
Use Summative Feedback Most of the Time (but not always)
For all my fellow instructors who assign students writing activities that consist of multiple pages, deciding how to offer helpful feedback can be difficult. I’ve written before about the different assessment strategies I take in the classroom. To quickly summarize one point: I usually provide feedback on these assignments in the form of a paragraph or two that I type up and place in their individual LMS Drop Box folders. Taking this approach allows me to provide feedback on their assignment as a whole, rather than going line-by-line and writing in the margins. Personally, I find this summative approach to be much faster than going one line at a time.
However, for writing and literature courses at least, I do think offering line-by-line feedback on student writing is essential early on in the semester. As such, I make sure to offer this form of feedback at least once when my students first start turning in their literary analysis discussion posts. I also tell my students that they can request line-by-line feedback on any assignment. Offering different types of feedback helps give students multiple ways to see how their work is perceived by their instructor. But, picking the feedback format you find most efficient and using it for the majority of your class assignments can definitely help make grading easier.Still, as long as my feedback can help students complete a future assignment, I provide detailed feedback as quickly as I can. Click To Tweet
Minimize Feedback When It’s Not Directly Applicable
Unfortunately, I am well aware that many of my students don’t take the time to read and make use of my assignment feedback. I often see the same issues in a student’s third discussion post that I pointed out in their first and second. Still, as long as my feedback can help students complete a future assignment, I provide detailed feedback as quickly as I can. Once this feedback is no longer directly applicable in my courses, however, I minimize the amount of feedback I offer. For example, for students who complete the final discussion post option, I provide much less detailed feedback. They can’t use the feedback to improve any future posts, so I spend my energy on other aspects of the course that will still affect my students’ course experience and overall grade.
Related to this strategy, I also take more time grading assignments that don’t directly connect to future assignments. My students complete a short autobiographical assignment at the beginning of the semester. [Here’s a full description of that assignment and its benefits.] This assignment helps me get to know my students on an individual level, but it’s not tied to a second class assignment. So, I let my students know that I might be slower than usual grading this assignment. I also give less feedback on it since the purpose is to get to know my students as individuals, rather than as writers. If the goal of the assignment does require completing the task of providing detailed feedback, you can still give yourself more time to grade it if the feedback won’t assist students with another assignment with a close deadline.
Ask Students about Final Project Feedback
Finally, grading final projects can take a lot of time that you might not have at the end of the semester. Like I mention above, moving up the deadline on these types of assignments is one way to make grading easier at this point in the semester. Another way to improve your grading experience at this point is to have your students direct how much feedback you give them on this final assignment. In courses I’ve taught that include a final paper assignment, I’ve taken two approaches when using this strategy:
I’ve passed out index cards to students and asked them what type of feedback they wanted. On their card, they just had to write their name and then tell me how much feedback they wanted on their paper. Their options were: in-text feedback (I’d use the comments tool on Microsoft Word), short, summative feedback, or no feedback. I told my students to be honest. If they weren’t going to take the time to look at my feedback, then I wouldn’t be insulted if they requested “no feedback.” Almost no students took me up on that option, but only a few asked for in-text comments. By asking students what they wanted, I knew how much time I needed to spend grading these papers.
I used a more extreme version of this strategy during a semester that I felt overwhelmed with all my end-of-semester responsibilities. I told my students I would only provide a short piece of summative feedback on their papers. If they wanted more feedback once they received what I wrote, then they could request it via email and I’d take a second look at their paper and create a longer response. No student took me up on that option. I wasn’t surprised, considering the class was a gen ed course with no English majors in it.
Bonus Tip: Use Assignments that Don’t Require Feedback
I don’t give exams in any of my general education courses. But, the ENG 170 course I teach is the first in a sequence of courses for education majors. As such, I’m required to teach a whole list of learning outcomes tied to literary genres and terminology. In this class, students take a midterm and final. Rather than have students complete essay-based exams in a class already filled with writing assignments, I give exams that are a mix of multiple choice questions, true/false or matching statements, and a few short answer questions. No feedback necessary, and I can grade these exams in one day.
In my opinion, grading is definitely the most time consuming task instructors have to complete in writing-heavy college courses. Finding ways to make grading easier and quicker while still providing helpful feedback to students is an aspect of teaching that I think about a lot. While not all of the above strategies can be implemented after the semester has begun, I hope this post has given you some new ideas on how to improve your grading life.
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