For me, grading essays is one of the most challenging aspects of teaching high school English (see my top 10 here). I don’t have a problem with deciphering handwriting or subjectively evaluating a written piece. I have a problem with the incredibly long hours I dedicate to the (sometimes thankless) sport of essay grading. I teach 1 advanced placement and 4 college prep English classes, which average 30 students per class. I know that many teachers have it far worse than I do, but I have to work very hard to keep my head above the essay-filled water! While we’re talking essays, you should totally check out the newly revised Essay Architect Writing System. Here are some of the tips I have gathered along the way to make the essay grading a little more manageable:
1. Stagger deadlines: I teach 2 American lit, 2 British lit, and an AP language course. To make my life a little easier, I try to create long-term plans that insure that my classes will not have essay deadlines on the same week. Sometimes deadlines collide and I regret it later, but as we all know the best laid plans of mice and men sometimes go awry. I’m not sure if I could do this as effectively if I taught the same subject all day. It drives me a little crazy when my classes get off from each other, but maybe with some thoughtful planning, it could work out.
2. Find a happy place: I have to have a place where I will be most comfortable and productive. It is a place where I won’t be too comfy and fall asleep, too distracted and lose my train of thought, or too ill-prepared and struggle for the right pens and paperclips. It seems like every year my happy place changes. One year it was my home office. Another year I loved the big wooden table in our scarcely used library. This year has found me (probably too often) at Starbucks cozied up with a venti skinny mocha, extra espresso shot. Where is your essay grading happy place? I think it is time for me to find a new spot.
3. Develop a rubric: There are many great ideas for rubrics floating out there, but you have to select something that clearly outlines your priorities and policies. I require students attach the rubric to every paper so I can just circle some areas that need work and save time on note writing.
4. Require proofreading: I do not have time to grade papers that don’t capitalize the beginning of a sentence or accidentally write form instead of from. I find that requiring students to get papers proofread in advance helps to catch those small things. I usually have students attach a draft with proof that 1-3 people proofread and made suggestions and we have a little chat about finding competent proofreaders. One of my goals for next year is to look into how to save some trees on this step with google doc editing.
5. Set a timer: To help keep me on a pace, I set a timer for 4-7 minutes depending on the paper and my preferences. When the timer goes off I know I need to make final remarks and move on. I just started this one this year and so far it has been helping a lot.
6. Sort papers: This one causes quite the controversy in my own head, but I use it occasionally when I really need to get psyched up to read papers. When I am having a rough time getting started, I will sort them with a couple of the students who usually excel in writing on the top, the less successful in the middle and the middle of the road at the end. When we are talking timed-write I sort by handwriting, making sure that the tough ones don’t all end up at the end when my eyes are already falling out. The controversy here is found in the worry that I will unconsciously pre-judge a paper giving it an unfair advantage or disadvantage based on the initial sorting. I try to only use this technique when I need that extra push to get started. I’d love to hear your opinion on whether or not this is legit or totally messed up.
7. Create a key: Create a key so that students know that RO means run-on, IC means incomplete sentence, CM means needs more commentary, etc. Post that key in your classroom and give students a handout copy to keep in their binders. This will save a ton of time in comment writing.
8. Grade the whole stack: We all do it. We get into a paper stack and we start the bargaining. “If I grade 5 more, I get to check Facebook, then if I grade 2 more, I can watch 10 minutes of my show, etc”. Sometimes this is absolutely necessary, but I think that staying in the essay grading mode without breaks for a whole class helps grading go by faster and is arguably more fair to all students as I am in the same mind set for all papers.
9. Require self-assessment: I ask students to grade their own papers according to my rubric and attach the rubric to their paper. This gives me some insight into their metacognition and helps students think more effectively about how the paper will be graded, causing more corrections before turning it in.
10.Create feedback notes: This adds a little bit of work in the short-term, but helps me tremendously in the long-term. When I am grading papers, I make a note of common successes and errors. Then, when I give back papers, I go through things I loved and areas of improvement on a powerpoint quoting students anonymously. Students look through their papers as we talk to see if they had the same successes or areas of growth. For many, this forces reflection on my comments and helps to make the correction or continue the success in future papers, thus making papers-to-be easier for me to grade.
What are your tips and tricks for efficient essay grading? I’d love to add to my list and save myself some sanity as we go into the next semester!