advice · grading · teaching

Grading: the actual slog of doing it

Yesterday, I graded and gave feedback on 30 first year essay proposals. I’ve still got five or six to do, that came in late over email. Then there’s the 25 first year revised response papers that I’ve not finished yet. The 15 graduate life writing papers that came in on Wednesday, and the 15 graduate paper proposals that will all be in my email by Saturday. Oh, and I’ve got five graduate seminars to grade, too.

I’m not behind. It’s just grading season. And it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

Wednesday, I will get 40 annotated bibliographies from my first years. And then the grad ones. I’ve got at least 40 new things coming in to grade every week until the end of term. They need really good feedback because it’s components of a stepped essay assignment. And so they also need to be turned around really fast.

I’m getting more efficient, and I hope effective, as I do this job longer, but I’ll be honest and say that the piles of grading fill me with dread. There’s just, it seems, too much of it to really do. 30 proposals in one day was a lot, and I had to do them in batches of five or six, with other tasks in between, because soon enough I run out of ways to say “a statement of commonly accepted fact is not a thesis; a thesis statement should articulate an informed opinion with which reasonable people might disagree” and “if you develop a real thesis your paper will be easier and more fun to research and write.”

(And more interesting for me to read, but never mind that.)

Sometimes I grade work submitted electronically, sometimes I work from paper, sometimes I put my notes by hand on a piece of writing, sometimes I write it up on the computer and print it. I always sign my initials right by the grade, to accept my responsibility for the assessment.

I’m not sure what works best, always, but I’m overwhelmed and procrastinating so I thought I’d try to start a conversation here: how do you get through the grading crunch?

One of my tricks: clumps. If it’s one- or two-page assignments, I’ll grade six first thing in the morning, then do something else, and then grade another six, then a break, then grade five, then something, then grade four. I find my tolerance goes down throughout the day, so the ‘clumps’ have to get smaller because I burn out more quickly. By the end of the day, my ‘clump’ of grading between other tasks might go down to one or two. So my trick is to start hard in the morning, then lower my expectations and my quotas as the day proceeds.

What do you do?

13 thoughts on “Grading: the actual slog of doing it

  1. I second the “clumps” idea. If possible, I also build in little rewards in an “if / then” formula, e.g. “if I grade 5 assignments, then I can X,” where X might = anything from “make tea,” “check in on Twitter,” “do some reading,” “stretch and walk around” or “swear and break something.” I think it's no favor to the students for me to try to plow through huge stacks all at once: I worry that the students towards the bottom of that stack will encounter a grumpier version of me! (The exception to that for me would be short-answer exams, where I think working on larger clumps means greater consistency.) Sometimes, if I know a class well enough, I save some of the papers I expect to be strongest for later in the process.


  2. I'm a clump person, too. I also set a time limit for myself: not to spend more than X minutes on a paper (decided by the length/purpose/etc of the paper). You could spend hours on a paper if you let yourself, so I'm pretty strict with limiting how much time I spend on each paper, then I give myself lots of breaks.

    The time of dread is coming for me too. I might have five writing classes, but they are capped pretty low for this very reason. I can take more time to grade and give feedback.


  3. Also a clumper! (can we make this a movement like krumping…?) I do some math, figure out when I want them back, and then do the allotted number-per-day in little clumps.


  4. While i read the entire paper, I only provide line-edits on the 1st page (and the biblio) of student assignments. Each student receives a 1/4 page of handwritten comments and i try to burn thru a 1/2 class set a day (but have only a few days a week which i have set aside for marking). i also try and prioritize in-class spoken comments (in CW classes) over written commentary to model social critique of creative writing…


  5. I do the clump approach too…and I often try to mark 1 or 2 that I think will be 'good' first and then save 1 or 2 (hopefully) good ones until the end. I am terrible about getting distracted while I grade, so doing small numbers at a time helps. I teach entirely online so my grading is all on the computer…sometimes I use a paper rubric or grading sheet and fill it out by hand (and then scan the grading sheet to return it electronically). I find being able to write on paper helps give me something else to focus on while I am grading and my students often appreciate the handwritten comments (if they are legible!). I have also started using Evernote as a way of providing students with feedback. I create an Evernote notebook for each student and share the private link with them individually. Then, I can just add comments/feedback/marks for each assignment to their notebook. This works particularly well for journal assignments or for other long term or big projects that they work on and which I give them feedback on periodically throughout the term.

    I am teaching 4 courses this term and it is crunch time for me too…lots of grading will start to come in every week for the next month. I'm not looking forward to it, but I know it must be done! On that note, I must get back to it this morning!



  6. “Clumps” of 5 or 6 at a time was the approach I took when I taught at the UofA. I also tried to group essays that tackled the same assignment option as a way of (hopefully) ensuring I was grappling with the assignment topic as well. I invested a lot of time in both copy edits and comments engaging the content as I treated the formal written assignments as an important learning tool. Writing detailed comments throughout the essay was, for me, an ongoing critical dialogue, especially when I would invite the students to submit follow-up informal responses to their marked assignments. Grading/marking is a lot of work, but I genuinely miss it.



  7. I'm a clumper as well, usually 6-8 at a time. I collect everything electronically, but I don't spend much time inserting typed comments. Instead, I record my responses. They tend to run between 4-8 minutes. I export them as mp3 files and send them to each student.

    This was slow-going at first, but once I developed a process that worked for me things moved along well. I still dread grading and procrastinate, but once I face the monster it's not so bad.

    And, my students love it.


  8. I'm actually a marathoner, myself. Because I TA small sections with 20-25 assignments coming in at a time, I try to get a first read-through and initial grading done as fast as possible so that all the assignments (and thus the range, connections, general problems, strong points, etc.) stay fresh in my mind. I then scan back through my comments to assign grades.

    My biggest problem this early in the game is confidence in the mark I am giving. I sometimes go back and change a grade 3 or 4 times, anxious that I'm being too hard and thus discouraging or too easy and thus not pushing them to work harder. I fantasize about a world in which I could provide detailed written feedback without assigning a number, and students would actually read that feedback and use it to work on their writing without the threat of failure dangling over their heads.


  9. I try to mark blind for various methodological reasons, so things like putting some likely good assignments near the end are ruled out.

    FWIW, I think Hannah's approach is a good step towards fair marks. I do something similar. A first read through during which I put some preliminary comments in margins, sorting the assignments into roughly equivalent piles as I go along (“that's an A, that's a B-” etc, more piles for more important assignments). After I've been through all of them once I read them again: this time to see if they're sorted fairly … is the worst B+ really any better than the best B? This stage involves a bit of adjusting, usually. I also add a final comment on the front of each paper (usually trying to be more encouraging than the more pointed stuff that went on the paper first time through). I do all this because I'm acutely aware of how often I think irrational things like “boy, they're getting dumber as I go to the bottom of the pile”, and because I think some pretty good papers can suffer if I read them right after I've read a brilliant one (or a rather poor paper benefit from being read right after a stinker).

    Those comments are a bit off the “how do you stand it?” question. Mostly because I have nothing worthwhile to offer on that question. I just continue to pour down cup after cup of coffee as I mark. So the business about taking increasingly frequent breaks pretty much enforces itself.


  10. I should say my clumps are compressed into the fewest number of days: so I'm not one of those people who will grade 4 essays a day for 10 days. I need to be in the headspace of that particular assignment pretty intensely.

    I do that thing too of not putting numbers on the first bunch, but of sorting them out on the floor to get an idea of the range and spread and comparative accomplishment.

    Once, when I was an undergrad in a third year course on the romantics, I remember one of my favourite professors, Bob Casto, handing me back a paper on Coleridge and aging and saying “I always save yours for last because they're the best” and I was totally thrilled by that, and I can, now, kind of understand the impulse to save the pleasant for the very end, but I only rarely indulge in this myself. I'm more likely to stick the likely-to-be-troublesome ones into the pile early, while I'm cheerful.


  11. I used to grade midterms and exams by section, so I would do the first section (i.e. short answer section) first, then take a break, then do the next. For the essay questions I would break the midterms and exams into groups based on the essay question the student answered. It helped me gauge the papers and to prepare adequate notes about what should be expected from that paper without having to switch gears each time I switched papers. With essays I would also form clumps based on the question they answered and sometimes I would indulge myself and mark the papers I had reviewed with students (the ones I was confident would be fun to read) first. I tend to write notes on the papers for students, but I always use pencil (when I mark late at night and haven't had my nicotine or caffeine fix I can be a bit snide so I have to edit myself). If I have time I usually review papers after marking by forming new piles according to the assigned grade and then I review each paper and make alterations where necessary.


  12. @ddvd I try to mark blind for methodological reasons, but when I have reviewed student's papers I recognize them anyway. So covering names does not work in those cases.


Comments are closed.