We’ve all caught ourselves saying, “teaching would be so much more fun if I didn’t have to do all of this grading” when sitting down to an enormous stack of papers (or electronic files) to grade.  But grading all of those assignments doesn’t have to be chore, if you adopt these ideas to make grading nearly painless.

Let’s take a quick step back for a moment and remind ourselves why we give and grade assignments and tests in the first place.  One of the biggest reasons we assign homework is that students will learn more if they engage in relevant practice, retrieval, and synthesis tasks outside of regular class meetings.  In the same way, we know that giving tests do actually matter, and that learning will last longer when new ideas are imprinted into to students’ long-term memory as it can be when preparing for quizzes, tests, and exams.  And, most importantly, when we grade assignments and tests, we give students the required feedback they need to know whether or not they are “getting it.”  All this is tacitly “fine and good” until we encounter a huge number of items to grade—this is when we need grading hacks to speed up the process.  So, what is a busy, and overwhelmed professor to do?

Grading Hack #1:  Grade only one-page at a time

We are able to grade most quickly when we have a limited number of “possible answer keys” in our readily accessible working memory.  Most of us can accurately and effortlessly remember only about ONE PAGE of correct answers to multiple-choice questions or short answer essays or numerical problems at a time.  So, the first secret grading hack you need to use is to take your stack of homework or test papers and only grade page 1.  Grade all of the page 1s for the entire stack.  Then, take a break, go through the entire stack of papers and flip them all to page 2.  And, then, grade all of the page 2s.  Take a break, flip all of the tests to page 3, then grade all of the page 3s…then repeat until finished.  I promise you will be amazed how quickly the stack will get graded.

Grading Hack #2:  One question per page

Experienced teachers know how to format and layout their tests so that they are easier to grade.  One approach here is to only have one question per page so that there are fewer distractions to you—the grader—when trying to grade a question’s answer.  Similarly, a great strategy is to tell students to place every question’s answer on a separate page.  Yes, it makes for a bigger stack of dead trees, but it definitely makes grading faster and easier on your brain, which is critical if you have more than one hundred to grade.  You might even find it useful to put a small box on the bottom of each page for a grade and label it (do not write in this space: for official use only). And, grade the entire class’s response to one question at a time—see Grading Hack #1 above.

Grading Hack #3:  Build a Team

Hosting a grading party can be great fun.  Either coordinate with your peers to be sure that you all give a test on the same day, so that you can all get together the next day (or that evening) and grade together.  Some people say misery loves company, and I am not sure that is precisely what is going on here, but if you have a stack and your peers have stacks, then you can peer pressure yourselves into finishing it.  Alternatively, you can help each other—you give tests on even numbered weeks and they on odd numbered weeks, and you help each other grade (just don’t look at student names in order to protect privacy).  It is well worth the cost of a box of wine, a box of pizza, or a quick pot of spaghetti to get friends together over the joys of getting the necessary grading done.  This also works well if you have a team of graduate teaching assistants, who always appreciate free food!

Grading Hack #4:  Provide Only Symbolic Detailed Feedback

Many of us have experienced the frustration of writing extensive comments to students in the margins only to have our priceless feedback discarded, often without students even looking at it.  One strategy is to only give students a symbol on their question responses and then give students a legend and tell them where to find a key:  “2” means everything is basically alright, a “1” means that they need to review the key and figure out what they did wrong, and a “0” means you need to make an appointment to come by my office.  For those students who earn a “0”, I can help them figure out what they did wrong in a 3-5 minute conversation face-to-face much better than I can by writing them a miniature 10-minute essay that they might not even read.  This approach is certainly different than other feedback, but in the end, I suspect it better helps more students and clearly saves professor’s time.

Grading Hack #5:  Pre-Write Feedback

Given about a hundred papers, there are really only going to be about 3 or 4 typical responses you give students.  So, pre-write 3 or 4 general feedback paragraphs in a word document and then email students a copy of the most closely aligned paragraph.  You can easily modify a sentence or two to make specific references to students’ particular responses if need be.  In this way, students get extended feedback, and it takes far less time. The hack here is simply to Copy, Paste, Edit, and Done.

In this assignment, I was looking carefully to see if you provided sufficient evidence that you mastered the process laws we memorized and applied this week.  You did a great job on most of this, although I would have appreciated more details on step #2.  I was able to infer that you understand the idea overall, but next time your work will be greatly improved if you take time to out every step, including _______, that you missed.”

Grading Hack #6:  The OFF Button

This last grading hack isn’t a secret, but my colleagues seem to be completely unable to do it.  If you want to finish your grading quickly, the most critical thing is to remove distractions.  That means turning off your cell phone (not silent-setting, I mean completely powered down, like in a movie-theater) and turning off your email program for at least 90-minutes.  I promise you won’t miss anything important.  If you feel like there might be an emergency, tell someone else in the Department what you are doing, and give your family their alternative number for someone down the hall to come get you.  You can do this, and you will be amazed how well it works if you have the willpower to pull it off.

Students really do need to get grades so that they know you value the assignment you have them, and they do appreciate knowing if they are understanding the concepts.  Getting students their graded assignments and tests back quickly will go a long way in improving your end of term course assessments, and is well worth getting a working strategy.

Tim Slater, University of Wyoming, Tim@CAPERteam.com

Suggested Citation: Slater, T. F. (2017, March). Five secrets and grading hacks to keep up with grading. Society of College Science Teachers Blog, 2(8), http://www.scst.org/blog


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