Some tricks I have invented, heard of, or stolen over the years to help me reduce my grading time.
1. Frontload: do as much formative assessment as possible. The paradox is that it can be more efficient and effective to use the first third of class time to assess students’ work and give brief, specific feedback on what is being done well and what needs to be improved. It feels like “wasted time” but in my experience it is the opposite — a valuable investment. You not only give more feedback more often this way, but you have more data and insights into students’ work and understanding before high-stakes tests or assessments. Don’t give any real grades on this — just practice grades and brief feedback so students understand what they need to do better without being penalized.
2. Embrace the facetime. With a class of 22, I can’t write as much feedback during my “frontloading” formative assessments as I’d like to. Instead, I speak one-to-one with each kid and leave a brief note, a line or two at most, sometimes just a few words, like “raise vocab level.” I find that the face-to-face conference is more effective because most high-school students don’t read or take into account long comments (not the ones that most need to, anyway.) With the face-to-face, better feedback is exchanged, as they can ask follow-up questions they normally wouldn’t when reading their paper comments in class and we can clarify misunderstandings. More facetime like this leads to fewer hours writing long comments.
3. Grade one or two criteria at a time – not all of them. It doesn’t make sense to assess all skills every time. If you are working hard on organization in teaching how to write, try an assessment or two that grade only on “organization” so students don’t need to also worry about spelling and grammar, and depth of analysis. There is no need to fear that expecting less than perfect work will lead to shoddy work overall; think about learning a sport like tennis and imagine if you were expected to serve, smash, volley, and play at the baseline perfectly every time all the time without ever honing those individual skills. Sometimes we need to just work on serves, just assess the serves. This is part of becoming proficient in a skill. Grading this way is much faster and perhaps more efficient for the student in the long run.
4. Outsource your work. Thoughtless peer editing is a waste of everyone’s time, but well designed peer editing can be illuminating. For example, a simple, factual check list can be very effective, one that asks a peer reader to tick “yes” or “no” after questions like:
– Are there many spelling errors?
– Does every paragraph have a topic sentence?
– Does every topic sentence connect back to the thesis?
– Are there at least six quotes used in the essay?
– Are all the quotes correctly cited using MLA parenthetical citation?
These sorts of judgement-free peer editing forms can highlight quickly for students how many errors they need to fix in their work based on the criteria. It does not ask students to rate or grade their peer’s work, which is often unproductive (I find most students are too nice and write things like, “good job!” for any kind of work at all, or they themselves are weak students and can’t recognize the good from the bad themselves). A clear, factual checklist against simple criteria is the way to go here.
Another idea is to ask students to get two other adult readers to sign off on their work and give two suggestions or areas for improvement. This ensures that many more errors will be caught, gives students more authentic audiences than just you, and provides another source of feedback than just you.
5. One brick at a time. Another paradox: I have learned with something as complex as writing is best done in stages and that spending much, much longer on the early stages pays off in the long run. I have spent an entire semester honing students’ writing skills for one, single paragraph. Even in eleventh grade. The problem is if we move on to longer essays and they still aren’t clear on the basics, the grading (and the grades) are usually abysmal. I see more universal progress and confidence in students when I set smaller short-term goals (like the paragraph response). Later, when we put a few strong paragraphs together into a longer essay, it’s much easier to assess because we have already mastered the parts so the conversation just expands to include more of those parts, but I am not teaching for the first time how to write a clear topic sentence, as we have already gotten that part down cold.
And shorter work is also much faster to grade. Grading a stack of bad paragraphs is far faster than a stack of bad essays, and it allows me more time to try that paragraph again with them the next week, allowing for more formative assessment and better, faster improvement (see #1 again).