David Gooblar

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

So Many Papers, So Little Time

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It’s not just you. All over the country, college instructors young and old are groaning under the weight of too much grading. For some, this circumstance has already lasted weeks. For others, a back-loaded syllabus is only just now collecting its debts. What once had seemed to be a manageable course load has now revealed itself to be nearly untenable, with piles of ungraded papers taunting you in the office, in the car, at home. Although it happens every semester, the extent of it always comes as something of a surprise, doesn’t it? How are you going to get through all this grading?

Since so many of us are in the same boat, I thought I’d devote this column to some ways to lighten the grading load, at least a little. Although there are no tricks that can magically make all of your papers disappear, there are some ways to make your grading more efficient. Let’s see if we can spend a little less time on grading, and a little more time on other things (like sleep).

Eliminate unnecessary tasks. You don’t want to waste your time grading an essay from a student who obviously didn’t follow instructions, or who has written 300 words on a cocktail napkin. The key here is to put in a little more work early on. Make sure students clearly understand the assignment, and what is expected of them. State explicitly what you’re looking for, and on what criteria they will be graded. Are your students able to recognize good work? Do they know what a good paper looks like? An exercise like the one I suggested last month, in which students review examples of assignments from past years and then discuss the reasoning behind each grade, can go a long way toward getting rid of unnecessarily terrible papers—the ones that always take forever to grade.

Set up pre-writing conferences. If you have time, those conferences can also help stamp out small problems before they become big ones. If time constraints mean you can’t meet with students individually, try breaking them into groups to discuss each others’ drafts and plans. You can create a simple checklist for each group to go through: Does everyone have a thesis statement? Has everyone found appropriate sources? While the groups are working, walk around the room and keep an eye out for any red flags.

Reduce the reoccurence of avoidable errors. One of the things that makes grading take so long is noting, and correcting, all of the same easily fixable mistakes. Particularly if you don’t teach English, it can be immensely frustrating to have to spend time correcting students’ grammar and punctuation in addition to evaluating the content. Barbara Walvoord, a professor emerita of English at the University of Notre Dame, and Virginia Anderson, a professor emerita of biology at Towson University, in their book on grading, have come up with an interesting strategy to combat that problem. They suggest establishing “gateway criteria”: clearly laid out standards and rules that students must meet on each assignment before the paper is even graded. The criteria can include following grammar and spelling rules, paper presentation, length. And if the criteria are not met, students get a provisional failing grade. They can revise and resubmit the paper for a proper grade—now with a late penalty.

A similar strategy was outlined in a 1983 article in College English by Richard Haswell, now a professor emeritus of English at Texas A&M University. He called his approach “minimal marking.” Instead of circling and correcting every single common error, he would simply place a checkmark in the margin next to the line that contained the mistake. If a line had two errors, he would make two checkmarks. After finishing his read-through, he tallied up the checkmarks and put a provisional grade in his gradebook (but not on the paper itself). The papers would then be returned to the students—without grades—to be revised. The students would not receive their grades until they corrected their errors. This strategy has the added benefit of compelling students to actually go through and fix their errors themselves—so you don’t have to. Both of these strategies require a little bit of explanation so that students know your policy ahead of time, but seem to me well worth the effort.

Don’t grade everything. My last suggestion is the simplest. Although I’ve written in the past about the benefits of giving students frequent feedback, don’t forget the well-documented benefits of a teacher who has actually gotten more than four hours of sleep. Sometimes too much grading really is too much, and it’s not in your best interest—or your students’—for you to do it all. Remember: Assessment is only one reason you assign papers. Students learn by doing, and if you construct your assignments well, they’ll learn plenty just by completing the assignment, even if they don’t receive a real grade.

Some teachers formally grade a random sampling of student work, and give out full credit the rest of the time for having done the work. Students don’t know which assignments will be graded. Although I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest grading only certain paragraphs of your students’ papers, as one University of Iowa professor taught his teaching assistants to do, I would recommend that you weigh your students’ need for useful feedback against your own need for sanity. Try to opt for the latter at least once in a while.

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