advice · grading · protip · teaching

How to Grade Faster

Last week I covered how to get a lot of grading done in any given day, by managing the macro and meta elements: minimize distractions, take real breaks, fool yourself into working in chunks, etc.

But what about where the pen hits the paper, and the grade goes in the grade book? Many of us find this part hard as well. I have more tips. So this is a post about how to grade faster, which essentially means grading with more confidence, as it seems to me that we take sooooooo long sometimes because we’re not sure we’re doing it right. Alternately, we sometimes mistake grading harder for grading better. TL;DR: grade for some things but not everything, and trick yourself into thinking you know what you’re doing.

Basically, there are two parts to grading. First, marking the document, leaving comments, writing marginalia, crafting meaningful feedback. Second, assigning a grade. Let’s do both of these things faster.

Marking the document faster

My tip, basically, is this:

  • Know what you’re grading for.
Oh sure, easy to say, but what does it mean? Some people find rubrics really helpful: if you create a grid that lists the things that are being assessed, and use checkmarks in the grid to give feedback, you can be really focused. Rubrics are great for that. Rubrics also help students parse your feedback (and their grade) and that is also great. Rubrics can help everyone be more efficient: you look for the things in the assignment that match the rubric, and you assess. Me, personally, I hate using formal rubrics like that, because I find the format overwhelming and for me it makes me feel like it’s more work rather than less. But I can still get the same effect using other means.
I was lucky to attend a university Teaching Excellence Academy a bunch of years ago, where I was introduced to the idea of intended learning outcomes: for a given course, I identify several things I want the students to know, or be able to do, by the end of the semester. And then, miracle, I design the assessments around those outcomes. So for me, a key component of grading faster is to undertake more thoughtful assessment design.
For example, when I was starting out, I used to always assign big research papers in all my courses, because that’s what you do in English, right? So for a media history and methods course, I would get these 12 page final papers that I would helplessly pour over, looking for content mastery, and sophisticated and appropriate use of media theory or methodology, and good writing, and good research skills. It took ages. It was also, usually, just disappointing on all fronts, except for those 2 students who should just skip past the rest of the BA and MA and PhD and just get tenure right now. And half the time the students never even picked up their papers.
Now, sometimes I use exams to test content knowledge. I use group work to test interpretive creativity and flexibility.  I have small assignments where students apply a theory or method to a given text. I have assignments where they do research on a topic and make a bibliography. No one assessment is meant to be truly comprehensive; each assignment has one main point I’m trying to test and one main skill I’m trying to teach, so when I grade I’m just looking for a very small number of things. Annotated Bibliography? Are the citations in MLA format, did you find sources of different types, are the sources appropriate to your paper? I can grade that in five minutes–the first two points are purely mechanical, and so the last bit is where I spend four of the five minutes. 
My assignment sheets lay out, in bullet point, what I want, and I go over that very carefully with students ahead of time (which is a learning opportunity!), and then I have the assignment sheet in front of me when I grade, which functions like a rubric, sort of, but allows me to just give two or three sentences of holistic feedback.
Basically, to mark faster, you need to mark deliberately, and this comes from careful assessment design. Basically, I try to design assessments that give the maximum learning opportunity to students for the minimum amount of marking and grading. On my final exam, for instance, there’s a terms-and-definitions section. In advance of the exam, we take class time to brainstorm a giant possible list of terms from the whole semester, and work on crafting definitions. We’ll get something like 40 or 50. I tell them 15 will be on the exam, and they have to define 10. The learning is already happening in class in this exercise (and it’s no prep at all for me). And do you know how long it takes to grade 10 term definitions on an exam? It takes less than two minutes: you got it right, or you didn’t. On a topic and thesis statement assignment, I’m asking two questions: is the topic appropriate/to scale? and is your thesis arguable/to scale? 2 minutes to assess, 3 or 4 minutes to give feedback to aid in revisions.
So faster marking is a function of better assessment design, and really staying focused on one or two things that you’re really looking for.
And stop copyediting your students’ papers. It’s overwhelming for everyone, and it doesn’t help.

How to Assign a Grade Faster.

You can, again, use a rubric. They’re still awesome for all the reasons above. But I still find it really hard to use them. So I don’t. I have other tricks.
Teach a course several times, with the same assessments. Many of us have no choice at all in which courses we teach, but it is often the case that many courses we are assigned are repeats. Sheer familiarity with the assignments and experience of a range of possible student responses to those assignments will make it easier to assign a number to the very first paper you grab. You get used to it.
Ask colleagues or chairs what the average in the course tends to be. Sometimes you can pretty easily assess the merits of one paper relative to another (this one is better / worse than that one, and both of them are better / worse than this third one) but aren’t sure what number to assign. If you find out from your chair or ask colleagues who teach the same course what the average tends to be in that course, you have a kind of benchmark. You can also ask about the range of grades students tend to get. Maybe first year courses at your school tend to have an overall average final grade of 77. Or maybe it’s 87. Maybe student grades tend to run the breadth of 60-100. Or maybe they tend to clump between 76-90. Absolute grades are usually harder for newer teachers especially to determine, even if we know the relative rank of each paper against every other. Ask.
Do relative ranking in piles on the floor. As a first pass, if you’re having a really hard time assigning numbers, drop each paper on the floor after you have marked it up and written your feedback (that is, all that’s missing the number). First one goes in the middle. Next one is better (to the right), worse (to the left), or the same-ish (on top)–you’re making a right-left axis here. I tend to make piles in what I imagine are five percentage point increments, because otherwise the pile becomes a fan, and each paper gets harder and harder to place. I stagger papers on the pile, so a pile with six papers in it stretches further up, like a bar graph, than a pile with 2 papers in it (that is, this is the up-down axis). Once you’re done with all the papers, there will be a natural distribution visible. You can shuffle the piles to reassess outliers, but now you can say the big middle clump is going to be from 80-85, and then have a look at those six papers and slap a number on each, relative to the others in the pile. And then continue along the left-right axis until they’re all graded.
That’s it. Those are my tips. I’m brutally efficient at grading, and I almost never get any grade complaints: these mostly tend to be when I’ve entered the grade wrong in the spreadsheet, or lost someone’s assignment. It’s going to be okay: it’s important work, but no one is going to die if you give someone an 81 when they really should have got (perhaps) an 83. It is possible to grade a lot faster than you probably do, and if you do it right, student outcomes and student learning will be improved, not diminished.
As always, I’m happy to hear any of your tips in the comments!

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s