A few thoughts on grading (on the eve of a big push)

I have planned badly grading-wise this term, something you would think I would have figured out after teaching for 22 years.  Basically, I’m teaching three writing classes, and all of them– the first year students, the juniors/seniors, and the grad students– all have some significant writing project due this week.  I know.  Brilliant.

Anyway, there were a couple of pretty humorous and wise posts about grading out there on the blogosphere that I thought I’d reflect on before I dive into the breach tomorrow.  First, there is this post from the “not that kind of doctor” blog, “the five stages of grading,” which went “viral” (sorta) and seems to have taken the blogger by surprise.  Then there’s “Procrastigrading; or, How to Grade Efficiently” from Nine Kinds of Pie, another blog I had not previously read.  The five stages of grading = the five stages of grief (kinda funny), and “procrastigrading” is a technique where one collects work from students and waits for six days to grade it, doing it all in one marathon session.  This is advice I inadvertently follow far too often.

In any event, mostly to remind myself for the grading frenzy that starts tomorrow, a few thoughts/self-reminders about grading:

  • When it comes to the teaching of writing, it seems to me that commenting/assessing/grading writing is a part of the teaching process, unfortunately.  I say “unfortunately,” because while I often like reading student writing and I think it would be totally wrong to pass this grading off onto someone else and/or to not really do it all, I admit that grading can often times be the least interesting part of the teaching process.  Having said that….
  • …. I have heard all kinds of stories of cutting corners in very dubious ways.  One of my very senior colleagues told me a story about how he was very pressed for time one term and limited his commenting on student papers to circling what he thought was the strongest sentence in an essay and underlining what he thought was the weakest.  I have often thought about how much easier my life would be if I simply wrote “good!” on the top of all the assigned essays and simply given everyone an A.  I’ve heard stories of faculty (not here, but I suspect it’s happened) hiring grad students or part-timers to grade stuff on the side.  I haven’t done any of these things and I wouldn’t, but that is not to say I’ve never been tempted.
  • Effectively and efficiently commenting/grading on student essays is something that takes a lot of practice, and on the chance that there is a newer teacher or a grad student of mine reading this who has just spent 10 hours dealing with their first big stack of first year composition essays, it does get easier.  Honestly.
  • The truest thing that Phillip “Nine Kinds of Pie” Nel writes is that “Grading devours all the time you give it.  You need to limit its diet.”  Very very true.  Toward that end, I tend to use two techniques (well, three, if I count to the too frequent “procrastigrading” approach of waiting until too long to start grading a batch of papers in the first place.)  The first technique, which is based entirely on the “Procrastination hack” from 43 folders, is using a timer.  I give myself 10 minutes at a time to read/comment on a student project, a time limit that is usually not enough but is often close enough to comment on an essay.  So, doing this 10+2*5 approach means I can comment and grade about five essays an hour.  That’s still not exactly “super fast,” but it makes things a little more manageable.
  • The second major technique is to remind myself what I’m grading/commenting for in the first place, and this is the one that has really developed with my experience and confidence as a teacher.  When I first started teaching– and really, for the first 2/3rds or more of my time as a teacher– I would write a lot of comments on student essays, including pointing out errors and/or offering editing advice and (often lengthy) end comments that were as much about justifying my grade in my own mind as anything else.  In other words, I wrote a lot on a student’s essay to reassure myself about the grade I had assigned and not to offer advice about improvement. Well, at some point in my process, I decided that this self-justification didn’t help students and wasted my time.  So nowadays, I write very little as far as editorial/line-by-line sort of commentary (more with first year students, though), and I make it as clear as I possibly can to students that I am always happy to meet with them in person to talk about both my grading and about ideas for revision.  Arguably, not all students who could/should take me up on this and then they are left with my less than complete comments.  But these less satisfied students are not the ones who are seeking copious commenting in the first place, and I have seen the problem of commenting too much on student work often enough to convince me that the students who want more comments will ask, and the students who don’t ask probably don’t want that many comments in the first place.

Cynical?  Perhaps, a little.  But the process can make you a little cynical after a while.

Which reminds me:  a little reading and soon to bed to prepare for a three or so day long grading bender!

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9 Responses to A few thoughts on grading (on the eve of a big push)

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  2. Pete says:

    Steve –
    You’re right, so, so right: grading is teaching, and the longer I teach the more I find that it’s perhaps the most effective teaching strategy, assuming you’ve provided an authentic assignment, lots of time for classroom discussion on that assignment, a written guide to the assignment (constraints, expectations, grading criteria, perhaps some examples), talked about your own expectations, and generally made sure students have a good reason to work at producing writing. In the end, the grading is the realization of all that work, the final opportunity to encourage, underscore, correct, question, and generally help someone else improve their writing.

    And it’s ridiculously hard work.

  3. Liane says:

    When I was your grad student and just learning about how to manage the seemingly insurmountable grading of assignments, I remember feeling that first-time pressure of the responsibility that comes with commenting on student writing. What a critical teaching moment, with potentially lasting effect; I felt like an imposter. As I was struggling to reconcile this responsibility as a new TA, you returned an assignment I wrote for your class with a giant red wine stain on it. You were all apologies, and gave some story about the wine spilling on the papers which were stacked on the coffee table blah blah blah. Right. But that was so helpful. I remember thinking Duh! Red wine and grading…of course. In that moment of clarity I lost my grading anxiety as a new TA and realized that no matter how long we’ve been teaching it’s one of those things we all just have to find our way through. That red wine stain represented you grading on your personal time and the fact that you’re only human (you are, sorry), and it said to me that struggling to get grading done was just part of the process and would be forever. I think of you almost every time I sit down with a stack of papers…and a glass of red wine.

  4. Steve Krause says:

    Heh. Thanks for that, Liane. And for the record, when I grade things, the wine only comes out later in the day. Like 2 pm or so. ;-)

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  6. j says:

    professor krause

    help toward improvement is always the way to go…concentrating on specific points (a sentence, a section or a pattern of argument or plot/character devlopment) for praise or adjustment, backed up by specifics, and links to examples of good or flawed work (writing or theory) , that suggest do-able stuff that might help a particular student advance his or her craft keeps the exchange rather active than conclusive…finally, evaluation must provide enough nourishment to support the next step(s).

    many thanks for your helpful toughts.

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