Recently, one of the teachers on our Facebook page asked the age-old question “How do y’all deal with grading papers?” It’s hard to get through even two-page papers quickly when you have 80 of them. Or 100. Or 140.
It’s never going to be a walk on the beach, but it can get easier, especially with a little advice from experienced middle and high school teachers. The trick is to change your thinking about what it means to grade an essay. Instead of asking “What errors can I mark in this essay?” ask “What comments will help this student?” Here are seven of our favorite tips.
1. Focus, focus, focus.
Too often we copyedit papers instead of grading them. We catch every grammar mistake and rewrite sentences in the margins as if we were preparing a manuscript for publication. Instead, try focusing in on a few skills you are currently teaching—such as introducing quotations, providing evidence or using punctuation correctly, and ignore the rest. This will help you as well as help your students as they are much more likely to retain the information.
2. Use a rubric.
Use a rubric with multiple focus areas, advises teacher Rikayah Phillips. It makes grading go much faster. Once you’ve established what proficient looks like, you should be able to identify it quickly in student work. If your rubric is carefully written, you will not have to write comments on each paper. Just circle or highlight the areas of the rubric that apply to the assignment, staple the rubric to the assignment and you’re done.
3. Offer students a variety of assignments.
OK, technically giving students a choice between several writing assignments doesn’t save grading time, but it does reduce the monotony when you have a thick stack of papers to grade. Giving students’ more choice just might raise the quality of their writing as well.
SOURCE: Polka Dot Lesson Plans
4. Share the wealth!
Teacher Brennan Tanner suggests occasionally substituting peer review feedback for a formal grade: “Students create the rubric. They sit in small groups and present or read one another’s papers and comment. I really like this as it helps to develop critical thinking and constructive commentary. By having students establish their own criteria for success, they actually end up being more rigorous than I am the majority of the time.”
5. Have students submit papers electronically.
Yes, some of you are groaning at the mere thought. This solution doesn’t work for everyone. But some teachers definitely find using the comment function is much faster than writing comments by hand. Revisions can also be easier to track when you can see your comments and the student’s response all in the same document.
Plus, you may find it easier to grade papers on a rolling basis if they come rolling into your inbox. Click on the image below to learn how one teacher collects and grades using Google Forms.
SOURCE: Andrew Cullison
6. Three strikes and you’re out!
Your number may vary. Teacher Jacky Boyd writes: “I have a new rule to stop reading after a certain type of mistake is made a certain number of times. For example, three citation errors and I stop and hand it back for the student to fix.” Do this often enough and you may just find papers come in with fewer grammatical errors overall.
7. Take it one step at a time.
A final strategy is to take your larger writing piece and break it into smaller assignments, e.g., 1) write a claim, 2) provide supporting evidence, 3) write a conclusion. Grading these small chunks only takes a few seconds of your time, and by the time students compile their final essay, the piece will be much more polished and ready to shine.
Get more great tips in free samples of e-books from ASCD here.
Everybody in college hates papers. Students hate writing them so much that they buy, borrow, or steal them instead. Plagiarism is now so commonplace that if we flunked every kid who did it, we’d have a worse attrition rate than a MOOC. And on those rare occasions undergrads do deign to compose their own essays, said exegetic masterpieces usually take them all of half an hour at 4 a.m. to write, and consist accordingly of “arguments” that are at best tangentially related to the coursework, font-manipulated to meet the minimum required page-count. Oh, “attitudes about cultures have changed over time”? I’m so glad you let me know.
Nobody hates writing papers as much as collegeinstructorshategradingpapers (and no, having a robot do it is not the answer). Students of the world: You think it wastes 45 minutes of your sexting time to pluck out three quotes from The Sun Also Rises, summarize the same four plot points 50 times until you hit Page 5, and then crap out a two-sentence conclusion? It wastes 15 hours of my time to mark up my students’ flaccid theses and non sequitur textual “evidence,” not to mention abuse of the comma that should be punishable by some sort of law—all so that you can take a cursory glance at the grade and then chuck the paper forever.
What’s more, if your average college-goer does manage to read through her professor’s comments, she will likely view them as a grievous insult to her entire person, abject proof of how this cruel, unfeeling instructor hates her. That sliver of the student population that actually reads comments and wants to discuss them? They’re kids whose papers are good to begin with, and often obsessed with their GPAs. I guarantee you that every professor you know has given an A to a B paper just to keep a grade-grubber off her junk. (Not talking to you, current students! You’re all magnificent, and going to be president someday. Please do not email me.)
Oh, “attitudes about cultures have changed over time”? I’m so glad you let me know.
When I was growing up, my mother—who, like me, was a “contingent” professor—would sequester herself for days to grade, emerging Medusa-haired and demanding of sympathy. But the older I got, the more that sympathy dissipated: “If you hate grading papers so much,” I’d say, “there’s an easy solution for that.” My mother, not to be trifled with when righteously indignant (that favored state of the professoriate), would snap: “It’s an English class. I can’t not assign papers.”
Mom, friends, educators, students: We don’t have to assign papers, and we should stop. We need to admit that the required-course college essay is a failure. The baccalaureate is the new high-school diploma: abjectly necessary for any decent job in the cosmos. As such, students (and their parents) view college as professional training, an unpleasant necessity en route to that all-important “piece of paper.” Today’s vocationally minded students view World Lit 101 as forced labor, an utterwasteof their time that deserves neither engagement nor effort. So you know what else is a waste of time? Grading these students’ effing papers. It’s time to declare unconditional defeat.
Most students enter college barely able to string three sentences together—and they leave it that way, too. With protracted effort and a rhapsodically engaged instructor, some may learn to craft a clunky but competent essay somewhere along the way. But who cares? My fellowhumanistsinsist valiantly that (among other more elevated reasons) writing humanities papers leads to the crafting of sharp argumentative skills, and thus a lifetime of success in a number of fields in which we have no relevant experience. But my friends who actually work in such fields assure me that most of their colleagues are borderline-illiterate. After all, Mark Zuckerberg’s pre-Facebook Friendster profile bragged “i don’t read” (sic),and look at him.
Of course it would be better for humanity if college in the United States actually required a semblance of adult writing competency. But I have tried everything. I held a workshop dedicated to avoiding vague introductions (“The idea and concept of the duality of sin and righteousness has been at the forefront of our understanding of important concepts since the beginning of time.”) The result was papers that started with two incoherent sentences that had nothing to do with each other. I tried removing the introduction and conclusion altogether, and asking for a three-paragraph miniessay with a specific argument—what I got read like One Direction fan fiction.
I’ve graded drafts and assigned rewrites, and that helps the good students get better, but the bad students, the ones I’m trying to help, just fail to turn in any drafts at all. Meanwhile, I come up for air and realize that with all this extra grading, I’m making 75 cents an hour.
I’m not calling for the end of all papers—just the end of papers in required courses. Some students actually like writing, and let those blessed young souls be English majors, and expound on George Eliot and Virginia Woolf to their hearts’ content, and grow up to become writers, huzzah. But for the common good, leave everyone else out of it.
Instead of essays, required humanities courses (which I support, for all the reasons William Cronon, Martha Nussbaum, and Paulo Freire give) should return to old-school, hardcore exams, written and oral. You cannot bullshit a line-ID. Nor can you get away with only having read one page of the book when your professor is staring you down with a serious question. And best of all, oral exams barely need grading: If you don’t know what you’re talking about, it is immediately and readily manifest (not to mention, it’s profoundly schadenfroh when a student has to look me in the face and admit he’s done no work).
A Slate Plus Special Feature:
Students hate writing papers, and professors hate grading them. Should we stop assigning them? Listen to the debate on Slate Plus.
Plus, replacing papers with rigorous, old-school, St. John’s-style tribulations also addresses an issue humanities-haters love to belabor: Paper-grading is so subjective, and paper-writing so easy to fake, that this gives the humanities their unfortunate reputation as imprecise, feelings-centered disciplines where there are “no right answers.” So let’s start requiring some right answers.
Sure, this quashes the shallow pretense of expecting undergraduates to engage in thoughtful analysis, but they have already proven that they will go to any lengths to avoid doing this. Call me a defeatist, but honestly I’d be happy if a plurality of American college students could discern even the skeletal plot of anything they were assigned. With more exams and no papers, they’ll at least have a shot at retaining, just for a short while, the basic facts of some of the greatest stories ever recorded. In that short while, they may even develop the tiniest inkling of what Martha Nussbaum calls “sympathetic imagination”—the cultivation of our own humanity, and something that unfolds when we’re touched by stories of people who are very much unlike us. And that, frankly, is more than any essay will ever do for them.