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Protect Your Time, In and Out of the Classroom: Grading

Good grading is an art. It requires not only a letter grade or percentage, but also lot of constructive feedback. You carefully choose just the right words (‘This is lame‘ is not acceptable pre-tenure), diplomatically address the failings of the work (‘A paper requires a thesis. And a bunch of paragraphs after it.’), even throw in a few compliments if at all possible (‘Love the cover art, Billy!’).

Here’s the thing: nobody ever listens to your feedback. Students insist on the validity of their own ‘outlook’, don’t change a damned thing about their approach, then wonder why their grades stay the same. This is why grading sucks; it’s like beating your head against a wall. Can you blame the teachers who outsource it? Especially since the students outsource their writing?

My solution? Make grading my last priority. I did it at the end of the day, after the more important stuff was done.

I also made a somewhat radical decision, at least for the humanities: I wasn’t going to grade writing qua writing unless I really had to. I decided to test on content, separate from form, as much as possible. This decision was motivated in part by the rather privileged school I taught at. The non-prep-school kids were at a major disadvantage because they hadn’t had basic essay-writing drilled into their skulls for ten years. The prep school kids, on the other hand, tended towards grammatically correct bombast, while still being unable to make reasoned and deductive argument — it was like they’d learned how to write from Karl Rove.

(And please understand, I think somebody really needs to teach the students how to write, but it needs to happen in dedicated writing courses.  Given the level we’re starting from, I’m not sure I believe it’s possible to teaching writing and critical thinking at the same time, at least on a large scale.)

Anyway. Some other time-saving strategies:

1. Thin-Slice

According to some psychologists, thin slicing (i.e. eyeballing) is just as effective as analyses that take much longer.

Translation: if that essay looks like a ‘B’, it probably is. And if the Supreme Court can recognize obscenity by what it looks like, gosh darn it, I can recognize a grade on the same basis. Also, FYI, I can’t say too much here, but I rated websites for Google and their scale is much closer to a traditional letter grade system than a point-based percentage system. Q.E.D.

But no, distrust of teachers motivates a demand for ‘scientifically’ numeric scales. Fine. I just eyeballed it then backward engineered to an appropriately numerophiliac-looking percentage.

So don’t sweat the grading too much. If a student actually shows up for a discussion of the grade, you should be able to explain it. But by agonizing over every little thing while you’re grading, you’re exponentially dropping your pay per hour.

2. Embrace Forms

Where possible, I deliberately designed tests to be easily gradable.  Fill-in-the-blank is fine for basic factual knowledge, as is matching — and these, I think, are one step above multiple choice. But if you have an enormous class and you’re overworked? Go ahead and do the multiple guess. You can actually design decent-ish ones (I did some work for a test prep company, so I know) but this will take time. As with many things, designing easily gradable tests takes more time at the beginning but is much less tortuous in the end.

In some cases you can’t avoid written material, of course, but short answers are better than essays. For bigger picture type stuff, I’d ask students to write outlines instead of actual essays, including the specific examples they’d use. Much better than wading through essay after essay of bad handwriting and poor prose.

If you must grade essays as part of your class — and I admit, this is probably the best way to really see whether critical thinking is happening — do it using a form. I used a twenty-point checklist that included the features of good writing and the most common errors. (I can’t take credit for this idea, it was a co-worker’s.) That way you don’t write ‘please support with evidence’ or ‘cite correctly’ eight billion times.

3. Give Minimal Feedback

Given that the students aren’t going to pay attention to what you tell them, don’t waste time making your feedback sing. Get it done as quickly as possible. One reason I liked group assignments (as discussed in my last post) was because I could write a succinct paragraph for each group, then photocopy and distribute it. The less time I spent writing, the better.

If I ever have to adjunct I probably won’t give any feedback unless asked; they certainly won’t be paying me enough for the hours, and again, why waste time on something nobody listens to?

Turns out I was just ahead of the curve on this one. In the business world, there’s growing frustration with the performance review. Some have argued that these reviews are totally ineffective for everyone involved in addition to being bad for your health and hurting morale. Given that the traditional grading system is a never-ending series of performance reviews, maybe we need to rethink the whole shebang.

4. Ditch The Research Papers, Already!

If you’re not an academic, an extended research paper is an utterly irrelevant form of communication. I was thrilled to find this list of alternatives to research papers, courtesy of Lawrence University, and another one here, and a PDF from Berkeley here, and put this one into practice ASAP. And I wasn’t the only one: you should have seen the relieved expressions on teachers’ faces every time I mentioned this tactic and passed along the links.

Personally, I liked the ‘everything but the paper’ project, and the ‘creative’ option, wherein students produced a new work in the genre of something we’d studied. Often, I’d have the final projects combine a five-page writeup (MAX!) with a presentation or performance element. One of my Latin groups wrote and performed a hip-hop adaptation of a Plautus scene, sweetly adding a footnote in their transcript to explain what ‘bling’ meant, in case I didn’t know. Awwwww.

(See, the real irony is that the lazier my teaching got, the more the students rose the occasion, and the better I liked them. Odd how that happens.)

You’ll note that many of the alternative assignments focus on media consumption and web-savvy research, which we must admit is far more relevant to the students’ future than a lengthy treatise on (e.g.) Ovid’s wildlife. Hell, if I were still teaching, I’d probably let students blog for a grade — I met an Ivy League creative writing prof who did this — and design website-based final projects.

5. Multitask

Here’s something the students taught me: ‘paying attention’ is a flexible concept. So why not grade while watching TV? I figure it’s no worse than having a glass of wine while grading. Also, if the students aren’t going to give undivided attention to your lectures or their own assignments, I say it’s only fair to return the favor.

I also used evening TV time for drudge work like syllabi/schedule revamping, basic research, finding images and putting together PowerPoints…you get the picture. If I had to work in my ‘off-hours’, on top of all the rest of the stuff I was doing, I had to do something to make it fun.


  • Interesting read for me since I’ve been going back and forth on feedback in grading this year. For a while I jsut collected papers (3 pages btw) on the night of the final exam. then I graded them and posted grades. Students could email me if they wanted specific feedback. These past few months I’ve begun requiring papers a week early and trying to provide feedback to each student. I thought that might be the right thing to do. Now you’ve got me questioning again, so…

    Also, I totally do grading and prep with background action, often some show or sports event. If I need to create then it’s loud music. Grading and Powerpointing are mind numbingly easy.

  • Thanks for this posting. I’m enjoying reading them. It’s frustrating that one puts an effort into giving students comments when they rarely read them and if they do, it’s only to get another mark to get closer to the pass mark in order to pass the course! Ahhhh

  • My dirty little grading secret: I grade at the mall. I know it’s terrible, but it works for me. I’ll go to the coffee shop/Starbucks/whatever, grade for an hour, go look at boots or sweaters for a bit, and then go to some other coffee spot and repeat.

    And I’m with you 100% on minimal comments. I try to follow a one comment per page policy and don’t correct the same grammar problem more than once in a paper. I also have piles of old papers sitting around, full of my comments, that students never picked up. Until I get around to burning them, they’re here to remind me of how little substantive comments matter.

  • With you on the loud music; the Ramones have proved inspirational at many points in my career!

    Well, I definitely think that the best practice for teaching writing involves multiple drafts of one paper over the course of a semester, with feedback at every turn. I did this when I was teaching my dedicated writing course — though I took back some of the horrifically time-consuming feedback hours by canceling classes that week and scheduling one-on-one meetings instead.

    But if it’s not a dedicated writing class, there’s no way I’m putting in that much time. And also, the recurring bottom line: you don’t get A+ pedagogy if you’re paying me a C- wage. Period.

  • Glad you’re enjoying it. I think it’s generally discouraged to tell the truth about grading for fear that parents (or students) won’t think they’re getting their money’s worth — but that exactly why this system needs to be re-designed.

  • Oh, that’s a priceless vision! But not terrible by any means. I think everyone has ways to take breaks. I shop online or run errands, for example. So why not do it at the mall? One-stop shopping, as it were.

    And great strategy for reminding yourself why you shouldn’t sweat the comments!

  • Worst Prof:

    Thank you for visiting my blog.

    Minimal comments is where it’s at. I learned that a long time ago. I do make my students keep their papers, however, so at the end of the semester when I ask them to self-evaluate their progress (if there has been any), they actually can line up their papers and see how far they actually have progressed in a 15 week semester: how they came in using “text speak” and now they no longer do or to support the idea that they have become more expansive: “I used to write one paragraph, and now I can write entire essays.”

    I do agree that it is impossible to teach critical thinking/logic while teaching basics, but I am doing the best that I can. I still think it’s time to take some time off. Preferably in Hawaii. ;-)

  • My favorite essay feedback ever: “I hate your paper.”

    He read it, he argued with every point I made, and gave me an A because it made strong points that made him want to argue instead of just laugh. It’s pretty funny, honestly.

    Peer-grading was a strategy I came across a bit; we would turn in our papers under pseudonyms and our teacher re-distributed them to have us grade each other. That was interesting (and seemingly effective)

  • That’s an admirable does of feedback, but rarely did I see a paper that warranted the attention. I used peer grading in my classes too. I was suspicious at first but came to see that yes, indeed, the students listened more to each other than to me, and that’s what convinced me it was worthwhile.

  • My pleasure, I hope to stop by often. Self-evaluation is definitely a good tool, and that sounds like a great approach in getting them to see their progress. Good for you for trying your best but yes, it sounds like you deserve a break!

  • I agree with your third suggestion, though I find it hard to do. I have, however, put an adaptation of Dirty Harry’s catchphrase from Magnum Force above my desk to remind myself of this approach:
    “A man’s got to limit his notations.”

  • Just got referred to your blog and love it! I’m so glad you posted those sites with alternatives to research papers. Those are the types of assignments I like to come up with, but you saved me a lot of time by pointing me to a site where I can pick and choose depending on the point of the assignment (When I actually get to the point where I am teaching real students. Right now I’m just preparing for a campus interview.).

  • Thanks! I think a lot of teachers come to these conclusions on their own, but it bothers me that this type of information is never discussed in pedagogy classes or seminars — I mean, let’s just admit that you’re going to need ways to protect your time and share information about that rather than bogus ‘best practices’ that put the students’ needs over your own. Best of luck with the interview!

  • Now if we can just get the “research paper” monkey off the backs of “composition” teachers . . . and also be done with the idiotic idea that people with advanced degrees in English literature should teach analytical writing without using actual literature as target texts . . . AaAaaaaargh!!!!

  • I disagree a little in that I eventually caved and chose to let students analyze the world around them…more accessible material to them, making them better citizens, all that jazz. But I did wish they’d care enough to analyze the source material at hand…

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