How to grade better

Hello, week 4 of term! Have you adjusted yet? Well then, just in time for the deluge of marking, no? You might  remember I was teaching five courses last term, and while this term I’m only teaching 3, they’re all new to me, so between the prep and the marking, I strive to be as efficient as possible. So, I thought I’d make a list of things that help me streamline this arguably least enjoyed activity in the teaching panoply. So today I’m outlining *my* recipe for setting up assignments and grading them effectively without either the grader or the students feeling like pulling their hair off. This list comes as a crowd-sourced result of my blog posts and conversations on- and off-line through the years (go and read Heather’s comments here for example). The truth of why I personally am not fond of grading is that I don’t actually believe putting a number or a letter on an assignment is good pedagogy, or that it serves any learning outcome properly. However, since we have to do it this way–and as contract faculty, I have little traction in changing my post-secondary institution’s demand for the numbers and letters– there are ways to make the process more transparent for the students, less anxiety-inducing for students, and thus more effective in achieving our pedagogical aims. Here goes:


Setting up appropriate assignments:

1. Look up models, but adapt them to your class syllabus:
One of the things I find most pressure-laden is coming up with essay questions that are smart, generous in the possibilities, but not outlandish. What do I mean by those modifiers? “Smart” means providing compelling avenues for investigation, that students will actually appreciate and possibly even enjoy. With “generous,” I aim that students be able to take them up in various ways. For example, if we’re talking about a literature course, that the questions be potentially tackled theoretically, historically, thematically, etc. Finally, “not outlandish” means putting some limits on the generosity, and also that we would have touched on this or a similar issue in class discussions, that it not be completely and utterly new to students.

2. Think of your pedagogical aims, and don’t be afraid to share them with the students:


Many post-secondary institutions or departments now mandate or provide suggestions for which learning outcomes/objectives (LOs) each assignment should address. Make sure these LOs are aligned with your pedagogy, or that you have given thought to your own. What is this this particular assignment wants to achieve primarily? Is this essay meant to familiarize students with proper paragraph structure, or is incorporating research your primary goal? Spell out a few of these aims, write them down in the assignment outline, and explain them to your students. That way, you will be able to adjust your focus (trying to do too much all at once?), and make it clear to students.

Grading better:

3. Have a detailed rubric:
This point follows the previous point; if you have a very clear idea of the 2-3 LOs this assignment means to accomplish, then you can break them down into their components, and assign points to every (sub-)category to reflect your pedagogical aims, and reward effort accordingly and proportionately. This breakdown might seem onerous in the beginning, but it serves to both cut down on grading time considerably, make it more objective, and more transparent to students who tend to think grading in English is totally wishy-washy.
Most departments will have developed a rubric for various assignments, especially for the Intro courses, so take it, adapt, and make it work for you.

4. Set a time limit on grading each paper:
This one falls in the “easier said than done” category for me, but I did find that using a rubric helps a lot, and so does:

5. Grade electronically:
The only reason I survived teaching 5 writing-intensive (think 7 assignments each times 150 students) courses is because I used the institution’s electronic LMS (learning management system) for all assignment submissions and grading. In the past, when teaching literature courses, I used to ask students submit them by email, and it still worked so much better than paper. With paper, I’m just too used to edit, so I would just proofread the papers, compulsively marking every comma, misspelling, or disagreement. Using the electronic format, here’s what happened:

6. Restrain your comments:
When it comes to intro courses, new post-secondary students (first-semester especially) are not that well versed in parsing our well-honed academese. Therefore, the rich prose comments, which we pore over for 10 minutes to ensure we’re using the perfect word to express the problem, while also not discouraging the student, might be impenetrable to them. Having a clear rubric (tabulated or bullet-pointed) might communicate your message better.

7. Be selective:
Yes, there are very good reasons why an assignment has received only 60%, but putting them *all* down at the end of the paper might not be the best way to go. Try to focus your final recommendations on two or three that the student might actually look up more in-depth and improve on.

That’s all I got in my bag of tricks for today, but please do add your own in the comments. Here’s an incentive: imagine your Facebook timeline with all the grade-bitching that usually populates it mid-term.