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Constructive & Effective Grading Tips

I started my career as a composition professor. Twenty students per class, each student writing five essays (with required drafts) and an exit exam resulted in 200-300 essays for me to grade ... per class, for four classes a semester. My job was overwhelming. My job was impossible. My job taught me how to grade. No matter what you teach, grading is likely to be the thing you like the least. But students need regular opportunities to check their progress. Besides, graded work gives them something they typically can't get in the classroom: individualized consideration and feedback. So whether you are a math professor who wades through handwritten solutions to weed out the arithmetical error from the failure to understand or the comp professor weighing the relative demerits of comma splices against poor organization, here are some hard-won insights that might help you in your task.

  • Learn how to eat an elephant. You can't teach your students everything they need to know, and you can't grade them on everything they did wrong. Before you tackle this week's grading, decide what you are looking for and focus on looking for patterns, not every error. For example, a student may make ten similar mistakes on a submission. Good grading would point out a few key examples and then direct the student to find the rest.
  • Develop a shorthand for corrections and provide the key. Your content field has its own set of expectable mistakes, and you know what they are. By distilling regular comments into a quick code, you can fly through grading whether you do it by hand or using online tools. The easier it is to comment, the more comments you are likely to make.
  • Grade in pencil. Whether the "red pen effect," an argument that grading in red leads to negative student responses, is supportable or not, you may find pencils to be better than a pen of any color. A pencil can be erased, allowing you to modify comments after grading several submissions. Grouchy remarks, accidental misspellings, and mistakes are easier to fix if you made them in pencil and not pen. Even so, make sure to put the final grade or score in pen so it can't be erased and then disputed at a later date.
  • Or don't grade in pencil. If you grade lab books or other submissions that come to you in pencil, you should avoid pencil for grading. Not only will pencil be hard for your students to see, since the student's submission could be erased and changed, you want to make sure that your original comments cannot also be altered. Again, this helps to avoid disputes at a later date.
  • Get the full picture before you make individual comments. If you are grading a stack of subjective submissions (essays, short answers, creative writing), read four or five randomly-chosen submissions before you begin grading. Taking this time will allow you to check for systematic errors across the whole class.
  • Provide collective feedback. If you do find systematic errors, address them to the class in person. Whether you "told them that already" or not, if an error is showing up in enough student work, they need to hear it again. The good news is that you don't have to write collective comments on individual submissions, and that saves time.
  • Consider online submission. Whether your assignments are subjective or objective, online grading tools have improved dramatically in the last couple of years. Although math and the hard sciences have symbols that can still present a challenge, most student assignments can be graded more easily onscreen than on paper. Online submission also easily allows you to check for plagiarism and to apply a rubric. Wichita State professors and others using Blackboard can learn more about available tools with these short training videos:
  • Learn how to eat the other elephant. A stack of grading is a daunting thing, so pace yourself. Set aside time each day during the week, and stick to that schedule. It's better to grade ten essays a day for five days than fifty essays on Sunday night. By pacing yourself you can stay fresh and centered. If you grade too much at one time, you risk exhaustion and burnout, and that's not good for anyone.