12 Ways To Significantly Shorten Essay Grading Time
by Todd Finley
Does grading a stack of papers feel like shoveling smoke for a weekend? Like the payoff does not equal your effort?
Over the years, I’ve learned strategies to reduce my essay grading time and mental hangover without sacrificing student accountability and the benefits of feedback.
Some of the following strategies will save you days of time every semester. But even if they only save you minutes, that extra time can be used to plan better lessons and remember what your family looks like.
All the recommended tips involve essays submitted on paper. I realize that this is the 21st century, but responding to paper is faster than negotiating digital essays in the cloud.
1. Try Russian Roulette Grading
Students need vast amounts of composing time to develop writing chops, but that needn’t add extra grading to your schedule. Direct students to compose an answer to the daily journal question for the first 10 minutes of every class. On Friday, provide students time to revise their entries.
Then use a spinner (here’s one example) at the end of class to publically select which journal of the day, out of those written during the previous week, will be scored. If the wheel selects Wednesday, have students bookmark Wednesday’s page in their journal so you can locate that entry quickly, read it, then provide commentary and a quality score.
Enter completion point for the other entries without reading them. Learners will accept this system as long as you set expectations about the process in advance.
2. Conduct Formative Assessment Early
Kymberly Fergusson collects and responds quickly to sloppy copy drafts “to prevent plagiarism, and catch problems or misunderstandings early…” If a large percentage of students fundamentally misunderstand your assignment, take time to reteach the rhetorical context using a tool like SOAPSTone (Speaker, Occasion, Audience, Purpose, Subject, Tone).
3. Attach a Tracking Sheet
When I grade kids’ drafts, I write one or two of the biggest recurring issues on a yellow cardstock tracking sheet that learners staple to every essay. Heavy cardstock has a better chance of surviving the semester and colored paper is hard to misplace.
Students know that if they make the same mistake for two or more drafts, the scores on their papers lower significantly and we schedule a writing conference to discuss the issue. If a number of students make the same mistake, I teach a mini-lesson on the topic to the entire class.
Writer’s Tracking Sheet Example
Writer: Jane Doe
Assignment #1 – Argumentative Essay (10/22/17)
- Lacking support for claim
- Unconventional comma
Assignment #2 – Multi-Genre Research Paper Rough Draft (11/2/17)
Assignment #3 – Multi-Genre Research Paper Final Draft (11/7/17)
- Dangling modifiers
- Unfocused (2)
The “Writer’s Tracking Sheet” documents progress on heavy yellow cardstock attached to each essay.
4. Annotate with Check Marks
Instead of copy-editing an essay, write check marks in the margins to point out where errors are located. A check mark is faster to write than “comma splice” and doesn’t contribute to learned helplessness. Ask students to diagnose the error and make changes before submitting a final draft.
If a learner doesn’t know how to make changes to her composition, I keep several copies of Barbara Fine Clouse’s A Troubleshooting Guide for Writers: Strategies & Process (3rd Edition/affiliate link) in the classroom. Clouse offers 240 specific writing strategies to address common higher and lower order writing concerns.
For example, she provides a list of 24 ‘warning words’ (after, although, as, as if, as long as, etc.) to identify fragments and several strategies for correcting the error.
5. Don’t Copy-Edit an Entire Paper
Too much commentary is worse than too little.
Most students don’t possess the bandwidth to internalize an intensively edited paper, and become overwhelmed. So I don’t waste time marking up every sentence like I’m editing an early draft of the Magna Carta. Mark up one paragraph as a model, and then have students edit the rest.
6. Direct Students to Scan their Own Essays with the SAS Writing Reviser
Instead of assuming the job of identifying essay problems, teachers can now offload some of that chore to technology.
The SAS Writing Reviser, a free Google Docs add-on, is crazy-useful! It provides feedback on a couple dozen sentence issues: misplaced modifiers, pronoun/antecedents, weak and hidden verbs, etc. Thus, writers can independently locate and edit concrete grammatical and syntactical issues before you set eyes on their work.
7. Take Baby Steps
Dana Truby recommends that teachers occasionally chunk essay assignments into smaller parts by asking writers to “1) write a claim, 2) provide supporting evidence, 3) write a conclusion.”
This strategy, says Truby, saves time and results in better essays.
Lightning Round! Short and Mighty Tips for Reducing Grading Time
8. Write One Letter for the Whole Class
List common strengths and weaknesses while scanning papers. Then write the entire class an essay evaluation letter and give learners a chance to revise accordingly.
9. Grade with a Timer
Think efficiency…Identify a maximum time to spend on each essay, say 3-minutes per page, so you don’t linger too long on any one paper. To increase your focus, breathe deeply and perform 5-10 squats after completing 3 papers.
10. Grade with a Checklist
Point-based holistic rubrics force instructors to make hundreds of numerical decisions about multiple essay traits and prolong the scoring process. Let’s see, is his ‘focus’ worth 8 points or 9? Hmmmm. . . Reduce decision fatigue; replace your number-based rubric with a checklist.
11. Hold Revising Conferences
For papers that are plagued with errors, arrange for a short conference instead of writing a long commentary. If multiple writers are struggling with a similar issue, gather them for a group conference.
12. Ask for a Writer’s Memo
Require students to draft and submit a writer’s memo or dual-entry rubric with their essays. When students identify their issues and strengths, you don’t have to describe the problem for them.
Finally, when introducing the writing assignment, slow down! Methodically co-construct the essay rubric with your class. Analyze strong and weak essays written by previous students. Identify how to overcome common obstacles.
Show a sizzle reel of outstanding titles and sentences from previous students’ work, accompanied by the soaring “Somos Novios,” then challenge students to pick up a pen and write like heroes pushing mountains into the sea! Providing an hour of guidance and inspiration when an essay is assigned can reduce common errors and response time later.
This strategy also forestalls the agony of reading half-hearted essays all weekend.