Getting Out of Grading Jail

Next week on my campus, we will hit midterms. And with midterm week comes an even larger pile of grading that annexes even more of my desk. A colleague of mine used to joke about going to “grading jail”–“Hard time with no parole.” Yet it really starts to feel that way when we’re slogging through another pile of essays that all start to sound the same, or multiple sections’ worth of midterm exams, or whatever else we were dumb enough interested in our students’ success enough to assign. What do we do when it feels like all we do is grade? How do we strike the all-important balance between providing timely feedback to our students and doing things like eating, sleeping, and reintroducing ourselves to our families? Midterm week is when I get the most angsty about these questions, but it’s not the only time I struggle with them. Every semester, I try to create course schedules that don’t have students from various sections all turning in assignments at the same time. And every semester, I fail at that task. Add in the numerous low-stakes assignments I use to help my students build their analytic and writing skills, and there’s at least a trickle of work coming in at all times, interrupted only by periods of larger flooding. One alternative would be to cut down the number of assignments and/or change their structure to alleviate the grading burden. It’s for this reason that I can at least understand the logic that leads some instructors to only have a midterm and final exam for their courses, or to do only multiple-choice exams that can be machine-graded. In my career, I’ve taught sections that range from 12 to 490 students, and you can probably guess which ones had grading loads that eclipsed everything else in my life for weeks at a time.

Though I’ve been tempted to go the multiple-choice-exam-only route, I find that I can’t get away from having my students write—and write often—when it comes to my pedagogical approach to teaching history. My course’s assessments should reflect its goals, and I don’t think multiple-choice exams develop critical thinking or proficient academic writing to the extent that I wish to see among my students. There’s a place for a well-constructed set of multiple-choice questions, I think, but that place isn’t as the sole assessment option for a course. And we know that the best way for students to become better academic writers is to give them plenty of opportunities to practice doing so. In a perfect world, we’d all have class sizes small enough to make this type of writing-intensive curriculum with our timely and substantial feedback a consistent reality. But our academic world is far from perfect, and we thus face the unpleasant choice of either compromising our course’s learning goals or turning over a significant portion of our waking hours to grading, grading, and more grading.

I would submit, though, that there are ways we can make the choice less stark. With the right tools and mindset, we can make our grading work more efficient and at least somewhat less of a time-suck, and we can do it without making all of our assignments multiple-choice quizzes. In my eighteen-plus years in the college classroom, I’ve been on a quest to find the elusive balance between meaningful and substantial course assignments and a grading workflow that leaves me time to tend to the other parts of my professional and personal life. While this balance in its perfect form may still elude me, I have developed a number of strategies and technological trips to mitigate much of the problem. In fact, I assign as much writing, essay exams, and analytical work for my classes as I ever have, but spend less than fifty percent of the time grading that work than I did earlier in my career. Moreover, I am still able to provide the timely, meaningful feedback on student work that I think is vital to effective teaching. I should note that I teach at a small liberal-arts college, so my class sizes are less than what many of you might encounter. But I still think that even with the caveat that your mileage may vary, what I’m about to share can still help you find your own balance between meaningful assessments and less-time-consuming grading. Here are my principal strategies and techniques for getting out of grading jail:

First and foremost, effective assignment design is an excellent way to prevent inefficiencies in our grading workflow. Are the objectives of the assignment clear to students? Are the criteria for its successful completion explicitly articulated to students? The less guesswork that goes into completing the assignment, the fewer times I find myself writing comments along the lines of “be sure you read the directions” or “you needed to include citations” or whatever else my expectations might have been. If students know from reading my assignment sheet that they must write at least 4-5 pages to fully answer the assigned questions, or that they must include at least four correctly-cited outside sources, I don’t need to write several sentences on each assignment that fails to meet that criteria; I just refer them to the instructions. An assignment sheet that doesn’t clearly articulate my specific expectations means that I’m often doing that articulating on individual papers during grading time.

To this end, I have learned that rubrics can be my best friend. I used to chafe at the idea of rubrics—how can a rubric capture all of the nuance that goes into good research and writing—but I quickly overcame that aversion. Rubrics make grading, especially exams or longer essays, enormously more efficient. I realized that in a typical section’s worth of essays, for example, that I was often writing the same four or five comments on most of the essays. What if those were already part of the rubric and I just had to circle them instead? That was what led me to an embrace of the rubric as both a formative and summative assessment tool. The key, though, is that rubrics have to be comprehensive and well-done to accomplish their objective of providing meaningful individual feedback to students while still saving time. A good rubric takes a fair amount of time to develop, I’ve found, but this up-front investment pays off in spades when it comes to the actual grading process. In recent years, I’ve begun to distribute the grading rubric to students along with my assignment itself. I’ve found that such a clear statement of the criteria with which I’ll evaluate their work is quite useful for (and much appreciated by) my students. It has also cut way down on the number of “why did I get ___” questions that usually accompanied my returning of student assignments, which I see as a significant added benefit.

Rubrics alone, though, don’t always contain all the possible feedback I’d like to give to students about their work. For papers or other research projects in particular, I still place a high value on individualized comments. Earlier in my career, though, a lot of those individualized comments were actually editing work and annotations I put on their papers, as if I was a copyeditor rather than an instructor. I know it’s tempting to point out and correct every grammatical and stylistic error in student writing, but it’s also a fool’s errand. It sucks up more grading time than anything else we do, and it doesn’t have the effect we think (or wish) it does. A student who gets a paper back from us that drips with editorial annotations and corrections will more likely be overwhelmed and shut down than reflective and inspired to improve their grammar. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t care about grammar and mechanics—of course we should. But do we need to circle and correct every error of this variety in a 20-page research paper? Do we spend so much time annotating these mistakes that we don’t address what we say are the really important matters of student work: argument, organization, evidence and the like? Are we missing the forest by chopping down all the trees? This is where a rubric can do our work: an “unsatisfactory” or “not proficient” rating in this column of a rubric tells the student the same thing all of our annotations would—that grammar and mechanics need a lot of work. Then, a simple comment of how we (or our Writing Center) can help them with that can convey everything we need to convey to that student about that matter.

For other, more substantial, feedback—the kind I don’t want to skimp on or hurry through—audio feedback is the most valuable tool in my grading toolbox. I’ve found audio feedback to be effective for any type of assignment, but especially so for the longer, more substantial work my students do—research projects, for example. The premise is simple: we talk faster than we write. What I do for audio feedback is record, rather than write, my comments. I begin by reading over the student’s work and making some brief shorthand notes about what I want to say to them. Then, I use a voice-recorder app on my tablet (Voisi, though there are dozens of free apps out there that all do what’s needed) to talk through the paper as if I was with the student in my office. I start out with the overall strengths, then go through more specific remarks, and wrap up with a restatement of the strengths and a summation of the issues which still need their attention. I try to keep things under eight minutes, as anything longer is too large a file size and probably more than needs to be said. Then, I save the feedback as an mp3 in my app, and use that file to share it with the student. Often, I attach the file to an email, but with the larger file size of longer sets of comments, some university emails won’t allow that size of attachment. In that case, I can put the file in a Dropbox folder and just share the link to it with students. If my students are submitting their work through our LMS (Blackboard on my campus), I can also upload the audio file as an attachment in the gradebook tool, and the student can access it there when they check their grade. Once I got my specific routine down, audio feedback has literally been a life-changing tool. Coupled with the other strategies I listed above, using my voice rather than writing down comments has cut my grading time by over half. Moreover, I’m still able to keep my feedback meaningful and substantial (and in all honesty, give more feedback than I did when I wrote it by hand), too.

A good grading workflow is most likely the product of several strategies, and is usually the product of trial and error (mostly error, in my case). But the time it takes to make changes in our workflow, to adopt new techniques, and to consider our assignment design and evaluation processes, is time well-spent if it helps us make an early break from grading jail.

What are your tips and tricks for efficiently providing effective feedback? How do you get out of grading jail for good behavior and time served?

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