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How I Teach College-Level Writing: Don’t Grade Too Much
I love teaching but I do not love grading papers. If, like me, you find “grading” or “marking” your students’ essays to be not only time-consuming and tiring, but also less pedagogically effective than you would like it to be, this post will offer ten options for re-designing your syllabus so that grading becomes a less central part of your teaching life.
The Trouble With Grading Papers
Teaching college-level writing classes, in theory, doesn’t require that many hours of actual work. You could teach four courses a semester, and spend a mere twelve hours a week in the classroom. Twelve hours? It’s barely part-time work, in theory.
Of course, in reality, even without factoring in the time spent grading papers, those twelve hours quickly swell: planning lessons, talking to students, doing administrative work. And if you are an adjunct instructor, you have to expend miserable, tiring effort every semester hunting for the following semester’s classes, and, once you have been promised those classes, waiting to find out if they will actually be given.
But let’s imagine that you’re alright with all of the above. Maybe you’re a graduate student or a lecturer, and you have guaranteed classes every semester, and limited administrative work, and you enjoy standing in front of a room of students. There is still the grading of papers to consider. Teaching can feel like hard, slogging, massively underpaid work because of grading — because of the constant need to mark and respond to student papers. Grading is what makes teaching painful. It’s what turns twelve contact hours into a forty or fifty-hour working week (or more).
If, in a single semester, you have one class of twenty students, reading through their essays and giving them feedback will, some weeks of the year, take up a lot of your time. But if you have four classes in one semester, or five, grading their essays becomes an enormous, looming, life-crushing obligation. As each semester ends, I see teacher friends on Facebook commenting about the “hundreds” of pages, the “piles” and “stacks” of work that they need to review and give feedback on.
And what’s worse: it’s easy to unwittingly generate even more piles of student writing which, without quite meaning to, you have obliged yourself to read and respond to. Let’s say I decide to give a two-question quiz every lesson, to make sure the students are reading the assigned homework. I think I’m making life easy for myself: there are only two possible grades for the quiz: a tick for mostly right answers or a zero for failure. Sounds simple, right? Well, if I have three classes with twenty students each, and each class meets twice a week, those quizzes mean that I have to read, mark up, and input into my grade spreadsheets and hand back to students one hundred and twenty entries a week. If each student’s quiz takes me a minute to read, assess, mark up, and input, that’s already two extra hours of work. Hmm.
I’m not saying that grades or papers don’t matter, nor that we should begin each semester by giving every student an A. The reverse, in fact. But I do suspect that, if you are a good, well-meaning teacher, you are likely to be grading too much. And I also suspect that you could emphasise other methods of assessment and feedback, methods that would, without harming your students in any way, reduce the number of hours you spend each week unhappily scribbling on their pages.
This post is the seventh entry in the series How I Teach College-Level Writing. You can start at the beginning, if you like:
- The Intro
- The Theories
- The Diagnosis
- Why I Teach Cool
- The Essay, The Problem
- Every Sentence is a Question
The Difference Between Grades and Grading
Here is a paradox about grading.
On the one hand, the power to assign grades is the principle tool that you have, as a teacher, for guiding the class in the directions you want. Of course, you also have your force of personality and the students’ inherent interest in the subject matter, but these are not reliable tools. Some students will do all the work, and speak thoughtfully in every class, simply because they love learning, or because they want to please you. I treasure those students.
But, generally speaking, there are never enough of them to guarantee that the room as a whole stays on track. If enough students start to mentally drop out — the students who aren’t quite getting the point, or who are, for outside reasons, too tired and stressed to complete the reading assignments — then the air in the room changes, and even the best students notice, and lose heart (and I say this as someone who teaches at an elite state university, where the undergraduates are generally excellent. In other student bodies, the challenge will be much harder).
Grades are your tool for creating incentives for your students, incentives that work regardless of how much they like you. You hold the power, because you have something (a final grade) that they need. And the more time you spend teaching, the more you learn to weave that power through every interaction, every request that you make for their time. A graded reading quiz gives them the incentive: “you need to read the homework.” A rigorous mid-term exam says “you should revise and commit to memory what we’ve discussed so far.”
And you need this tool because they have so many things on their plate. They are exhausted from too-little sleep, and afraid they are going to fail their biology midterm. So they naturally look for corners to cut, and if your class seems to be a grade-free zone, some of them (many of them) will treat your demands as optional.
I don’t blame them for this: I have done the exact same thing in my own graduate classes. A professor has assigned me three-hundred pages of The Man Without Qualities to read for next week, but in that class, I know we have also two full story workshops to do. Come on! I know we won’t actually have time to discuss the novel in any depth, so I while I am open to maybe reading Musil’s novel, I push the assignment down my priority list.
The unfortunate principle is this: As soon as a professor makes a demand without infusing it with her authority, without her dread power of assigning grades, the assignment becomes optional.
Additionally, many, many undergraduates intend to spend a fair portion of their time in university on a largely non-academic project of self-improvement: they want to learn how to be confident, to be at ease with people, to improve their sense of self-worth and social skills. This may be part of the reason why the quality of their dorm rooms, the risks and opportunities for drinking alcohol, and the newness of the campus gym appear to be so important to undergrads, because these are the venues for their shared self-improvement project.
In other words, if you don’t require your students to spend time on your course, they have a lot of other things to spend time on. So grades really matter.
However, the strange other side of the paradox is that although students are obsessed with their grades, a great many of them don’t seem to care very much about the feedback they receive. I’m sure every teacher has returned test papers to see students’s eyes lunge past the lines of scribbled advice for the actual grade. They turn to their neighbour and chat about the grade they got without inspecting, even momentarily, the comments you wearily wrote on their quiz at 9pm.
If you use a program like Enhanced Insite, where the submission of papers and their review is online, you can see exactly how many students have looked at their feedback: in my experience, about half the class never checks my written suggestions. They don’t read what I’ve written on their papers even when I tell them that I know they haven’t read it!
This is the paradox: students are obsessed with the grades you assign, but they show little interest in your “grading,” your advice for how to improve those grades. It doesn’t make sense!
Now, perhaps this is just a sign of their “lack of preparation for college.” It’s certainly true that you could make the reading of your advice part of their final grade, but, before you do so, might this lack of interest, on the students’ behalf, suggest something is amiss with the whole assumption that students need your feedback to improve?
Maybe your students are right. Maybe your comments really aren’t that important.
How can that be? Well, first of all, I have come to the painful understanding that my written comments are much less clear than I think they are. When I say “expand this idea,” many students have no idea what I’m talking about. Margin comments like “vague” or “rushed” maybe give them some clue, but maybe not.
There’s an apocryphal story that, at the end of a semester, a student approached his teacher, looking awkward and hesitant, and asked, “Why are you always writing ‘frog’ on all my papers? What does ‘frog’ mean?”
Of course, the teacher had been writing “frag,” for “sentence fragment.”
And there are real risks attached to writing hurried, careless feedback. Early in my college teaching career, I made a student cry in class when, the night before, late into grading the twentieth of twenty-three papers, I had forgotten to include my usual intro (“Great! I enjoying reading this paper. Very interesting ideas!”) and simply began with my criticisms and complaints. The moment she glanced at my comments, her eyes filled up.
So, if you are going to write feedback, it might need to be lengthy, well-argued, and substantial, to make sure students understand your point. Do you have time to do that?
Additionally, if you will allow this essay to get a little abstract for a moment, I’m not even sure that minutely distinguishing between students’ efforts, deciding who gets a B+ and who gets a A-, is really the point of being a teacher. In fact, I strongly believe it is not.
There is substantial research that suggests, in terms of future success, the central question of university is one of endurance and perseverance. The biggest issue, by far, is whether students complete their degree. There is a huge change in life-long earnings between students who drop out and students who graduate. But that’s it. If a student gets a B or a B+ on your course, it’s unlikely to make much difference to their future.
Undergraduate college is, in the grand scheme, far more a question of pass or fail than many teachers might think, a question that bears a vast, colossal price tag, and while getting a B+ versus a B on a few classes maybe might cost a student a scholarship or something similar, in ten years’ time, all your specific grade-giving (at least for students in little danger of failing the class) will not be predictive of anything.
So perhaps your students are correct in how they treat your course, as something they simply have to get through: their vague instinct that college is a matter of dogged endurance is, in fact, borne out by the evidence.
Secondly, research also shows that learning, true learning, takes a really long time. The time a student needs to internalise everything you’ve taught is longer, probably, than the semester you have to teach them. When I think back to the best writing class I ever had, my spring 2009 fiction workshop, at Rutgers, with the unearthly brilliant Lisa Zeidner, my friends and I were still discussing her advice two or three years later, still trying to fully unlock what she had been trying to tell us — and we were mature, obsessed, disciplined students, who were eager to get better at writing as quickly as possible.
It’s not as though, when I write on a paper “expand this idea before you move on to your thesis,” my student will have a sudden epiphany, collapse to the floor in fiery insight, and become Gore Vidal. In fact, they are likely already at their limit: they may have no more attention, free time, or energy to give you than the essay they just handed in.
Teaching Changes Lives
These musings aren’t intended to make you a pessimist about teaching, not at all. When I go from teaching 100-hundred level classes to teaching 200, 300, or 400 level classes (from first year courses to second, third, and fourth year courses, in other words), I see an incredible improvement in the students in front of me. After a few years of attending university, they have become far more substantial, articulate, self-directed, distinct human beings. It’s an amazing to see.
Of course, some of this is selection bias: by the time everyone is sitting in a 300-level writing class, the weakest undergraduates have dropped out of college, and the best were allowed to skip my 100-level course.
But I don’t think it’s all selection-bias. They are learning. They are growing.
I just question whether the source of their growth is the weary notes you typed to them on a Tuesday night a year before, which they might not even have read, and which made you hate yourself and your life choices.
I truly believe I can make a difference in my students’ writing and their future success. My impression is that the following things really make a difference in helping students learn in a writing class:
- Preparing, ahead of time, a well-designed curriculum.
- Well-thought out and well-executed lessons (more on this in a future post).
- Giving them a series of mental models to use when they write.
- Talking to them in one to one conferences.
Research also indicates that mid-term and final exams are also very beneficial for long-term retention of course materials, much more than we wishy-washy liberals generally think.
So. Maybe you’re feeling persuaded. Maybe you are starting to think you should spend less time grading papers.
How? How do you do that without hurting your students’ chance to learn?
Ten Ways To Teach Better and Grade Less
Here are ten ideas. Some, as you’ll see, involve re-designing your syllabi so that the students produce fewer pieces of work that require your careful attention and response. Others suggest ways to grade more efficiently the work that they do produce.
Before I give the list, I worry that you maybe are still feeling guilty for reading this far into the post. Aren’t we supposed to be doing everything we can for our students?
Well, one way to think about this, for skeptical readers, is the question of efficiency of effort. Which of your teaching efforts easily scale up as the number of students under your supervision increases? If you have to teach four classes in a semester, and before the semester begins, you spend ten hours preparing a brilliant sequence of group exercises and mini-lectures where you show them exactly how to write a five-page paper, those ten hours of work will benefit every student who studies with you. That chunk of time and effort that you expended multiplies itself over all the classes you oversee.
But if, instead, you spend fifteen minutes hand-writing a craft essay on the back of an individual student’s paper, at best, only that one student sees it. For all your other students, it’s as if you spent those fifteen minutes watching TV.
Grading, after a certain point of effort has been expended on it, may be a poor use of your expertise.
Here are some ways you can make teaching better for yourself and more beneficial to your students:
- Grade like a Panopticon: If you assign reading quizzes, threaten them often but use them rarely and unpredictably, or mark only about one in three of them, on an ad-hoc basis. Simply file away the remaining papers. If the students don’t know which quizzes will be graded, the incentive is still effective.
- Use the tutors: If your college has a writing centre, or access to tutorial help, make heavy use of it. Anyone who gets below a B+ in the early papers of the semester should probably be going to the writing center on a weekly basis. Use gentle persuasion (“Look, I want you to do well in this class…”), or threats, or make it one of your official rules on the syllabus, but however you do it, you should move the central locus of the student’s improvement away from your written feedback and on to the student herself and the writing centre. This is what the writing centre is for: one-on-one advice for students who need it. Your students, after all, are paying the writing tutors’ salaries with their tuition fees, so they might as well use them. And while this may seem like a dodge of your responsibilities, it is not. If your undergrads were wealthy heirs of the 0.1% at Harvard, they would probably understand the value of a tutor; if, like my students, they are not so blessed, it’s likely they have no idea that these facilities exist for their use, nor how beneficial such help can be. It’s good for them that you, their teacher, help them build a habit of seeking out targeted help.
- Include a mid-term and a final exam — and make these tests challenging, and worth a good percentage of the final grade. There’s evidence, as I said above, that simply forcing the students to prepare for and take exams has long-term beneficial rewards. Plus, many students, such as the first years at my college, seem to actually enjoy the pain and struggle of tests. It’s how they prefer to suffer, apparently.
- Explain nothing for the first time: Try as much as possible to follow the Golden Rule of feedback: any writing problem that you point out on a student’s paper should be (at least) the SECOND time a student has heard you talk about that particular problem. This, obviously, is very hard to do, like all golden rules. But the premise, I think, is good. You don’t want to be explaining any new ideas in your feedback. Everything you tell the student in the margins of their essay, you should have already covered in lectures, class activities, or homework: the comment is reminding them of their mistake, not explaining it. You are reminding them of a common problem that you already described in class, and telling them that their paper have fallen victim to it. But you don’t want to be explaining actual concepts in your own handwriting: this is likely to be exhausting for you and bewildering for them. Obviously, this is even harder to do when you are a new teacher, or arriving in a new department, because you don’t know in advance what mistakes most of your students will make. However, the golden rule is much easier to follow if you also adopt:
- Set firm rules on what they can write: Control, in as much detail as possible, the kind of papers they are allowed turn in. I mean this in terms of both topic and structure. The more open you are about topics, the more likely you are to get very peculiar essays that you start to suspect were written for a previous class and which bear little resemblance to the course’s interests and discussions. I know that we should be encouraging students to express their own voice, and discover their own interests, but if the course topic is “classical music in Tennessee,” and a student hands in a paper about the dangers of vaping, they aren’t discovering their own voice in any meaningful sense. Similarly, if you give little advice on how essays should be structured, it becomes absolutely exhausting to read forty “essays” that sprawl all over, each constructed according to the individual student’s idiosyncrasies and partial understanding of their past writing instruction. Simply working out what each student is trying to say will wear out the most eager teaching brain. In a past entry in this series, I described the way I teach (and require my students to follow) a firm paragraph-by-paragraph template: teaching via this structure makes grading much, much better, because for each round of essays, I can quickly scan through, looking to see how each writer has chosen to implement the structure, checking where it has broken down. And I can mark these lapses on the paper quickly and easily, and, with any luck, the student will grasp the point I’m trying to make, because we worked through that point repeatedly in prior class sessions.
- Encourage them to seek you out. Write frequently on middle-range student papers “talk to me.” Rather than draft six thick paragraphs on every paper, I instead try to offer students the chance to raise their grade if they book time for a one-to-one conversation: “If you want a B+ on this paper, come and talk to me.” This approach allows them to self-select how engaged they want to be with their grade: some students will leap at the chance to revise — which is great — but some will be happy with their current mark and have no interest in finding out how to improve it. That’s fine, too: perhaps they are caring for a sick family member and are simply attempting to survive the semester. (Some papers are so awesome or so inadequate that this wouldn’t be appropriate: it’s best for the papers in the B range, where a re-think would make a big difference).
- Give presentation points: Assign part of the course’s overall grade to in-class work, such as group presentations. To make this not a joke, I prepare a really detailed assignment sheet, telling the students exactly what the presentation needs in order for everyone to get the full points. If you try this out, you should probably also model an A-grade presentation yourself, to give them an example of what you mean. And it’s worth coming down hard on the first group that presents poorly, pointing out in a following class session where you were disappointed, because, otherwise, many students act as though all presentations are good presentations. I personally might take the first group outside before class begins, and, with a smile, ask their permission to use them as test cases. “I will be kind of tough on you, in class, to show the others what I expect, but I’ll raise your grades accordingly, because you are going first. Is that okay?”
- Read mostly finished work: Reduce the emphasis in your syllabus on drafts and revisions. Over the years, I have found that designing assignments in a sequence of drafts is less effective than I would like it to be. And such an approach produces a huge amount of paperwork for you to comment on and discuss with students. Perhaps you can assign student-focused, peer-review assignments and workshops (online assignment management software like Blackboard and Enhanced Insite makes such assignments easier to manage), but, overall, I would humbly propose that there are better ways to prepare students for their final essays than having them write drafts. And, similarly, while I allow every student who wants to revise the opportunity to do so, and I am very lax about when they hand their revised paper in, I do not make revisions a central part of my courses’ design, either. I have found that I’m a better teacher when I spend my time helping them to develop a clearer mental model of what a college essay is, and guiding them through the various components of that model, showing them how to practise the key skills.
- Read their papers once only, and read them fast. Research suggests that teachers are actually more accurate when they read quickly — the more time teachers spend with a student’s work, the more they second-guess themselves. Every semester, I find myself in agony over the decision to give a paper a B+ or an A-, a decision that in the grand scheme of things makes no difference at all. In the real world, almost all writing gets a fast read (at best). HR recruiters will scan these students’ resumes in a flash; online readers will barely glance at the first paragraph of their Beyonce think pieces. Just because our education in the Humanities has taught us to weigh up every comma that Jane Austen placed on a page, this does not mean that we are obliged to apply the same model of reading to our students’ work. Read fast and grade confidently.
- Pick your feedback battles. Focus your written feedback on only one or two issues. Perhaps you highlight one structural / logical and one linguistic / grammatical issue per essay — no more. Now, if the class is using software like Enhanced Insite, you can probably point out more things, because it’s possible to drag and drop whole paragraphs of advice and correction into the margins, but still — limiting oneself is best. If a student has a serious grammatical limitation, such as frequent comma splices, or an ESL-type issue like incorrect article usage, this problem is probably significant enough that your written comments are unlikely to fix it. Point it out, and either talk to the student yourself in office hours or send them to the writing centre. In general, it’s a good idea to resist the urge to cover a student’s essay in red pen, on the grounds of both efficiency and effectiveness: you will spend less effort writing your response, and the student will be more likely to read and understand.
Perhaps you’ve read my list and feel that I’m an unfeeling brute.
It’s quite possible that you are a more skilled teacher than I am. Or you may feel that grading papers in great depth is simply how you teach, and you find it no trouble at all. If so, you should (obviously) continue as you are. If something is working well, keep doing it.
But for me, I love teaching, and I want to go on loving it. I don’t want to teach in a way that limits my enjoyment of my career. And every single semester, I see on Facebook my teacher friends angrily commenting about student mistakes and excuses, lamenting the amount of grading ahead of them, talking about how tired they are. Every semester, I see my fellow teachers posting in outrage and derision passages from particularly bad student papers — a practice that is, by the way, not merely a sign of deep frustration, but also a risky career move (student work is supposed to be private, and posting it verbatim could potentially be grounds for dismissal, if the college really wanted to pursue the issue).
In other words, it doesn’t look like most of the teachers I know have a healthy relationship with grading. That’s all this essay hopes to do: to suggest a few ways to improve your experience of responding to student work.
To be a better teacher, grade less.
I believe that once you de-centre grading, you will be able to spend more of your time and energy on other things. Perhaps grading less will allow you to put more of your attention into creating a warm, enjoyable, challenging course, as well as building, in the classroom, a space of learning which students find inspiring, secure, and thought-provoking.
For how to do that, I will offer some ideas in a future post.
What do you think about grading? What methods do you use to make grading a less demanding part of your teaching life?