advice · grading · teaching

How to Grade a Lot

This is my Month of Grading. I have 40 students in my first year Digital Lives class, and as this class counts as writing intensive, well, it’s also grading intensive. In practice, this means they have a 400 paper due week 4, which I give them extensive feedback on, leading into a revised version of this same paper due week 6. The back half of the term is about the research paper, and there’s a stepped assignment for that due every Tuesday from week 8 until week 12, when the final paper comes in.

So my grading issues are twofold. First, for the short papers, I have to give extensive formative feedback to guide their revisions, and then grade those new papers in light of the first round of feedback. Second, for the assignments building up to the essay (Topic and Thesis statement, then Annotated Bibliography, then Introductory Paragraph, then Draft Workshop, then Research Paper Final Version) I have to give formative feedback to guide the next steps, but I have to grade it really really fast: things get handed in on Tuesday, and I return them on Thursday, so that they can have the feedback in hand as they craft the next Tuesday’s assignment.

I’ve had a lot of years of trial and error to get this mostly functional for me. And I even get 8 hours of sleep, most nights. If you have to grade a lot, I have some tips. This week, I’ll cover the general useful tips, and next week, I’ll cover some specific tips on how I give individual feedback to 40 people without repeating myself too much or getting sarcastic or gouging my own eyes out.

Most general useful tips:

  1. put your phone in a different room
  2. if possible turn the internet off on your computer, if you need it to write feedback
  3. break the big pile into a series of smaller piles, and grade in units of Small Pile
  4. take breaks
  5. know thyself; plan assignments (and thus your grading) accordingly
Put your phone in a different room. I am very, very, very easily distracted. And grading is hard, and it’s a slog, and the mountain of stuff seems unclimbable, and so I really, really deserve to have a little break to check my Facebook, right? Except I noticed that when I keep my phone beside me, sometimes I take a little break in between reading a paper and giving feedback, and I lose my train of thought. Or I spend 10 minutes grading a bibliography, then spend 10 minutes on Buzzfeed. Or I start texting my sister. Or I decide now is a good time to start Googling landscaping companies. And when I put the phone down to get back to grading, I’ve lost my flow and my eyes are tired and I don’t really even feel like I’ve had a break. So now the phone is on the breakfast bar downstairs, and I am in my grading chair in my home office. Because I have no self-control: luckily, I’m lazier about getting out of my chair that I am curious about that penguin who thinks a human is his family.
Turn off the internet on your computer. If the phone beside you is like having a cupcake at your elbow and trying not to eat it, using your computer to grade while having the internet turned on (and your notifications running) is like putting the cupcake in your mouth and trying not to chew it. Impossible. Some online/grading is unavoidable. My course has online quizzes that only live on the intertubes. I grade those by first turning off my notifications, closing my main browser totally, shutting all my other programs and opening one lonely window that’s got nothing but quizzes in it. If my students submit longer pieces via a dropbox or otherwise electronically, I batch download them to my own computer, and then shut off the wifi. If I’m grading on paper, I put the computer in the room where the phone is, and pretend it’s 1990.
Break the big pile into a series of smaller piles. Today I’m going to grade 40 annotated bibliographies. Shit. That’s a lot. Picking them off the pile one at a time feels very unsatisfying and Sisyphean. No one paper reduces the pile by very much, or increases the Success! pile by very much. Grading one paper more or less doesn’t seem to matter, so it’s easy to just keep taking breaks, or having naps because none of it matters I’ll never finish anyways. So now I make piles. That pile of 40 will get sorted into five piles of 8. Now I only have five things to grade! I know that these assignments will take about 8-10 minutes to grade, so I’m looking at grading for about an hour, and being 20% done! Then I can take a break! Then grade for another hour or so, and I’ll be 40% done! I can’t quite explain how this effect works, but it does. Your piles might be bigger or smaller, depending on how much you can handle in one sitting. For exams, I grade 40 at a time, but one question only. For final essays, I plan the day so that the first pile has the most and the last pile has the least, because that’s really tiring work and as the day proceeds I need more breaks: 5 papers then a break, then 5 papers then a break, then 4 papers then a break, then 3 papers then a break, then 2 papers then a break, then one final paper. That’s 20 papers graded in one day, which, when I phrase it like that, seems impossible and awful, but in my piles system is entirely doable.
Take breaks. This is crucial. After I grade 8 bibliographies, I’m going to gather all the towels in the house, put them in a laundry basket, run them down to the basement, start the laundry, make a coffee, and run back upstairs. That is, I will move my body quickly for about 10 minutes, then get a treat. And then I will grade again. After that pile, I will put my shoes on and take the dog for a 15 minute walk. And then I will grade again. After that pile I will make a nice lunch and stare out the window for a while. It is essential that the break be the opposite of grading. Grading is sitting very still in my chair and thinking and writing words. So, Facebook is not a break, because I’m still in the chair writing words and thinking. My dog is the opposite of grading. Doing laundry is the opposite of grading. Making a potato pancake and watching the birds and squirrels in my backyard is the opposite of grading. You need to come back to the grading refreshed, to feel like you’ve really done something very different. And your break needs to feel like a real reward. Man, I really want to go outside with the dog today, but there’s 16 things to grade before I can do that.
Know thyself. I hate grading online, so I get my students to hand stuff in on paper. This has saved me endless procrastination and frustration. I always know everyone’s final paper grade somewhere on the first page of reading, so I’ve started making shorter paper assignments. Grading is really taxing for me, so I need to clump it into days at home where I can walk the dog or do my laundry and just really do nothing but grade and break for a whole day with no other obligations. So this is how I’ve organized my semester. Over the years, I’ve come to accept that the way I work is the way I work: I’ve tried to optimize my Best Way with what the students need, and I think I’ve been pretty successful. And my life is a lot easier now that I’m doing things the ways that best suit me.
All of these tips apply to all grading situations: quizzes, exams, papers, stepped assignments. These are the things I keep in mind or practice every time I grade, no matter what. Next week, I’ll write more about some specific situations: giving useful and individual feedback, how to make sure students use it, how to manage tone.
What are your tips? Margrit had some tips for us last year, some of which are different from mine! Discuss!

4 thoughts on “How to Grade a Lot

  1. Hi Aimee! This is all really helpful. You're SO right that Facebook is NOT a break and I need to imprint that in my memory–just because something is fun and seems junk-foody distracting does NOT mean it's helping my brain recharge for the next task. Quite the opposite, in fact.

    I posted some grading strategies awhile ago too: Skimming through this again, my past self could have taught my present self a bit of a lesson….


  2. Oh, these are great tips!

    I set a timer for myself–it can be easy to get sucked into pouring over a single essay, and then have to rush through the others. Setting a timer to go off at about the halfway point of what I would like to spend grading each paper reminds me to keep moving along.


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