Grading Papers: How to Increase Your Efficiency

May 15, 2018 Diane Rubino

Long stretches in front of the computer await teachers everywhere as we plunge into grading season. Getting a handle on time and effort spent on this task is essential for any instructor. Alternatively, the angst of boundless exertion feeds into negative patter about teaching. The stress also builds because grading is a moment of reckoning, raising what could be an uncomfortable question: Have I been a good teacher? It’s easy to point blame elsewhere. Education, however, is a team sport. In weak assignments we may confront our own limitations.

fabrico_trujillo_pexels-photo-60626.jpegTheoretically, we’d read a student paper and pop dazzling feedback and instructions for improving the assignment into the course management system (CMS), and move on. In that idealized world, students adhere to requirements and rubrics. Grading is so straightforward that papers seem to mark themselves.

This fantasy assumes there is one type of problem to be corrected. But the many permutations of a single assignment create a time-eating struggle requiring vigilance, which goes beyond providing instruction.

Instead, I find myself asking myself questions like:

Is the material I’m reading a struggle or is it just where I am energy-wise?

Have the instructions been abandoned or is this a uniquely insightful approach to the work?

What is this person trying to say?

Yet I’ve borrowed and stumbled upon some ideas to lighten the load while delivering a high-quality service to the class, shared here:

Before It’s Due

Check in. I provide milestones for more complex assignments to check progress. One session I’ll ask for a two-minute oral “presentation” of the topic with three sources. Later I’ll have students CC me on a peer review. Then I’ll have short discussions about their progress and how they’ve implemented their peers’ feedback. The final version of the paper will be stronger and easier to review than if I got it cold.

Unless it’s a writing class, I generally do not read a paper twice. Instead, I encourage peer evaluation or a trip to the Writing Center. I find a conversation more helpful in steering a student toward success and far less taxing.

Checklist. I used to distribute a checklist that students were supposed to use to ensure they were meeting requirements. This failed—no one used the tool. Now I have them review each other’s work with a checklist, which screens out basic errors, allowing me to focus while grading.

First Steps

Go green. In the past I required a hard and e-copy uploaded on the CMS. I wrote notes in the paper margins and sometimes added additional feedback online. Now I just request an e-version, preventing me from combing over each sentence. I’m more likely to provide holistic, rather than exhaustive remarks--unless there’s a reason to provide detailed commentary, as in a writing class.

Is it original? I start by reviewing the originality report (I’m most familiar with TurnItIn), which on a rare occasion may eliminate a paper immediately. Plagiarism used to rattle me more, adding to the burden of grading. Now I see it as a judgment error, not a fatal flaw. Because academic dishonesty has consequences, I give such work a zero and move forward. What’s ameliorated is my internal drama.

It’s About Time

Time limits. When I started, I spent whatever time I thought was needed to critique the work to my satisfaction. This translated into a lengthy commitment. I now set a timer so each student receives an equal amount of attention.

Just say no. I set word limits and won’t read papers longer than they should be, sending them back to the author for editing.

Crash without burning. Every CMS seems to freeze and all my work vanishes when I’m in the thick of grading. Now I write comments in a word-processing system and paste them into the CMS afterword.

Stay Focused

Avoid the weeds. Every interesting, odd, or vague idea drove me to the Internet. These searches extended evaluation time considerably as I broke from reading to attend to random ideas. Now I jot down a few notes about strengths and weaknesses as I go along. I also keep track of ideas I’d like to to explore at a later time.

What did I want? I have the instructions nearby at all times. I’ve been known to lose my way in a thicket of difficult-to-follow, less-than-scintillating papers. It’s possible that after a few rounds of de-coding I find myself asking, “What did I want?” and need to use my own directions as a bracer to return to the question at hand.

Recycling. I used to carefully craft individualized responses to each student. This didn’t seem to help. Though the occasional student craves detailed feedback, most do not, leading to a massive waste. I paste language from the rubric into the CMS to explain the grade, which saves time and reduces grade challenges. Some systems have a mechanism allowing you to easily add regularly used comments. If not, I have a word document open for the “greatest hits” comments, which is less convenient but serves the same function.

Multi-tasking. It’s easy to get so engrossed in helping others that one forgets the basics: Not every calorie of energy belongs to students. I alternate personal projects with assignments in timed blocks. I’m consequently able to accumulate multiple accomplishments. I also feel fresher when I return to either task.

The longer I teach, the fewer complaints I get from students about grading. The initial anxiety about being challenged made the work unnerving, struggling to create bulletproof critiques. Being held accountable is both beneficial and stressful.

I haven’t cracked the code yet—no one I know has. As my capacity and comfort with teaching grows, I’ll undoubtedly continue to improve. Meanwhile I continue to refine my process, staying open to strategies that’ll transform student thinking and give me back some Spring time.

What are your best grading tips? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Image Credit: trujillo


About the Author

Adjunct Instructor, New York University & Fulbright Specialist //

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