5 Tips for Managing the Grading Grind

There’s simply no question that one of the primary challenges of teaching is coping with the constant barrage of grading and responding to student writing. I love teaching and I even love reading student writing; but like every teacher I know, I HATE having a stack of papers waiting for me.

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned: It’s been 2 weeks since I collected those term papers, and I haven’t even started grading them yet!

Those papers weigh on me like Jacob Marley’s chains, clanking loudly when I’m trying to relax. They call out to me like angry birds ready to topple me over when I’m feeling rejuvenated. They sting like a pebble in a shoe, disturb my peace like flies in a drink. And the guilt I feel when they pile up!

But responding to student work is a crucial aspect of the job. What’s a busy teacher to do? Here are 5 ideas that may help.

1: Remember What Grading/Responding is For

Every thing teachers do should be about student learning and nothing else. Some teachers, however, say they feel their students deserve a response from the teacher to everything they turn in. I have two reaction: 1) If the teacher’s response doesn’t result in the highest possible outcome of student learning, it’s not worth the time; 2) If a teacher is physically able to respond to everything students turn in, then that teacher is NOT assigning enough work to the students.

Grading/responding is only for helping students learn. It is NOT proof that a teacher is doing his or her job. A short response can sometimes help students learn more than a longer response to his or her work. And, responses don’t always have to come from the teacher. Students can learn from responses given by peers, their parents, and others.

2: Try Different Grading/Responding Methods

You don’t read everything the same way, do you? From cover-to-cover, front to back, slowly and carefully, with full attention? Of course not. Browsing through a People magazine is very different from reading the directions on a bottle of unfamiliar medication, and the process you use for reading them is totally different. And should be. Take the same approach to student work.

Here are some suggestions of different methods to try:

  1. Holistic Response: Try giving an overall assessment (for example a √, √+, or √-). For short assignments, students can glean a lot just from these overall assessments.
  2. Give a Whole-Class Oral Response: Take 5 minutes to give your entire class an oral response all at once. Tell them what the really good work did; tell them what some of the less successful work didn’t do so well. You can combine this approach with the holistic approach to give the holistic grade more depth. Of course, you should teach your students to take notes on your whole-class responses.
  3. Write a letter to the Whole Class: Especially for longer, important assignments, it can be fun and engaging to write a personal letter to the entire class about their work. Not only does this provide a lot of depth for students and save hours for teachers, it also establishes valuable community between teachers and students. In this very rich blog post, Todd Finley gives great advice on writing effective whole-class letters. I’ve written whole-class letters in the past, and I even enjoy re-reading them sometimes. I remember the relationships I built with groups of students in the past, and I wonder about how they’re doing now.
  4. Focus Response: My Cooperating Teacher at East Hampton HS in 1988 taught me this strategy, and I still use it! Tell your students you are looking closely at one particular thing in their work. Focus your grade or response on only that one thing. That allows you to read and respond more closely, and it encourages your students to emphasize that one thing. Of course, you must ensure that that one thing is actually important for student learning.
  5. Swap & Respond: This is something I use all the time. I ask students either to write something in class or to bring something already written. Then I ask them to swap their writing with someone else and take time to read and write a response to it. I’m careful to ensure students know that by “respond” I mean ask questions, write opinions or pose problems, or agree with content. Swap & Respond is not about pointing out errors. Then the students give their writing back to each other, and I usually give them some time to read and chat about what they told each other. Sometimes from there I collect the writing and sometimes I don’t. The value here is that students got a response. Of course, we teachers should make sure we have created productive community in our classes before we can stop reading the responses between students.

3: Use Assessment Rubrics for Longer Assignments

There’s been a LOT written on rubrics. One of their biggest critics, Alphie Kohn, wrote a very compelling case against rubrics. But I really like them when they are used well. Create clear criteria and show students where their writing falls in terms of each criterion. That information demystifies grading and helps students understand where they did well and where their work fell short. Heidi Andrade is one of my favorite gurus on rubrics. She wrote this excellent primer on rubrics if you’d like a quick review.

I like rubrics that include space for comments on each criterion, so I can quickly write something about each. But, if it’s a brief assignment or if I am short on time,

Simple rubric template found here.

sometimes I will simply put a check mark next to each rubric category. Students can come talk with me (or each other) about any specific area that isn’t clear to them.

I especially like student-teacher generated rubrics. These occur best after a major project has been assigned, but before the students begin writing. Take time in class to generate rubric criteria together. When students discuss together what is in the rubric that they created, they are far more invested in it and the understand it better.

If you’d like to read more about how rubrics can inform valuable assessment, especially of performance (including writing), check out Nancy Steineke’s Assessment Live!

4: Use Your Voice

There is really good software out there for responding to student papers using audio comments. You can record very short individual comments or you can easily create 5-minute videos in which you respond to student writing. Jing is a terrific program for this. Here is one teacher’s story about using Jing to respond to student writing.

Warning: I use Jing videos every semester, but honestly they don’t save much time. But they break the monotony of writing comments, and they are kind of fun. I also get great stories from students about them. One student’s mother and father ran to her room demanding to know who that man talking to her was. It was me! (I guess she has a really good sound system on her computer.)

Of course, you can also have one-on-one writing conferences with students about their writing. This takes time, but sometimes it’s a treat for a teacher to be able to talk about writing with a student, rather than sit alone and write comments about it.

5: Enlist Others: Peers, Parents, Partners

Peer response sometimes gets a bad name, but in my experience that happens only when it’s implemented poorly. When done well, peer response is very powerful, as are responses from others besides the teacher.

Successful writers don’t write to teachers, they write to readers. So getting responses from readers is an authentic way to get feedback. But to facilitate this, teachers must design response practices carefully, using peer-response guides, for example. The Writing Center at the University of Minnesota has a terrific website devoted to helping faculty create effective peer response workshops.

I find the most significant points of resistance to peer response come from some teachers’ feeling that responding is really their job and only their job. That attitude not only leads to teacher burn-out, but also greatly limits what students can learn about writing effectively. Please resist that attitude at all costs.

Don’t Feel the Burn(out)!

Whatever you do, don’t punish yourself with struggling to get responses and grades to your students. This part of the teaching job is a grind, and it can be depressing, lonely, and anxiety-provoking. Even the best teachers fall behind and sometimes even fail to give any appropriate response. The school day and school year are hardly arranged in a way that encourages a lot of feedback to students. This is hard for all of us.

Did I really just spend all those hours grading this weekend only to get another set of papers today?!

Do your best, use all the strategies you can, and remember that even Super-teachers are still just human.

If you’d like to learn more about effective ways to respond to student writing, please consider purchasing Making the Journey, just published by Heinemann. You can learn more about that book here and here.

I’ll be speaking on “Managing the Grading Grind” at the 2016 NCTE Convention in Atlanta Georgia. I hope to see you there! -Ken


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