Balancing Quality and Time in Grading Student Work

Now that we’ve passed the one-quarter mark of the semester, chances are you’ve been accumulating a stacks of student work to grade, and have been doing so for the last couple of weeks. At this point in the term, it’s easy to have a backlog of student work to be graded, which if left unchecked can be a source of stress and frustration–for both us and our students. We know that “giving prompt feedback” is one of the “Seven Principes of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education,” according to the famous Chickering and Gamson article of the same name. But that knowledge doesn’t help us get through that stack of assignments any quicker.

In my own experience, I struggle with finding a balance between quality feedback and a reasonable turnaround time for my grading. We can’t talk about if or how student learning is occurring without doing any assessment, and if there’s no feedback to the learner, the assessment is basically useless.  Put simply: if we can’t get feedback to students in a reasonable time frame, we are not doing our job as educators. I want to be able to provide my students enough in the way of comments, suggestions, and evaluations in order for them to learn from the assignment and put that learning into action for their subsequent work. Sometimes, though, it seems like there’s often so much I want to tell them that the grading process bogs down into a tedious slog and there’s more of my ink than their words by the time it’s done. That’s not optimal; in fact, too much feedback can be overwhelming, leaving students discouraged and unsure of where to even begin processing it.So how do we strike the balance between providing quality feedback and doing so expeditiously enough so that our students can actually use it?

Here are a few strategies that may be effective:

Use Rubrics: Creating a good rubric: is a significant investment of time up front, but that investment can pay off in the long run. If there’s a common issue that students tend to encounter on the assignment, being able to circle criteria on a rubric that you hand back to them is a lot more efficient than writing out the same comments on, say, two-thirds of the assignments you grade. A rubric also helps us remain consistent with our grading, as it’s a clear explication of our criteria in front of us as we assess every student paper. Handing back a completed rubric also helps students understand more clearly where they succeeded and where they need further work. Finally, you might find it useful to distribute a rubric with the actual assignment so that your students clearly see the criteria for which they’re aiming.

Use Targeted Grading: If you use a number of low-stakes assignments to build certain skills, consider using a tightly-focused assessment for each one. For example, if you require students to write short papers weekly in order to prepare them for a longer essay at the end of the semester, you could use each of these short assignments to focus on one particular area; one week you could grade for clarity of argument, the next for organization, the next for documentation, et cetera. Of if you have problem sets or a similar assignment, consider assessing them for one particular part of the process. For frequent low-stakes assignments, this might be a method with which you could save some time while still accomplishing your assessment goals.

Deliver Audio Feedback: If you talk faster than you write, perhaps recording your feedback to students as an .mp3 or other audio file might be a way to use grading time more efficiently. There are a number of free voice recording apps available for both Android and Apple smartphones, and their sharing features make it easy to send audio files as an email attachment or put them in a shared OneDrive or Google Drive folder for your students to access. It may seem weird to “talk through” your feedback at first, but there’s actually a growing body of research that suggests this technique has real benefits for students.

These are just a few different techniques that can cut down on the amount of time it takes to grade particular assignments. In addition to these, there are a number of other helpful resources out there:

Do you grade student participation? If so, this article by John Bean and Dean Peterson has a number of useful ideas about avoiding some of the pitfalls of participation grades and ensuring they’re useful for student learning.

Of course, we all want our students to be motivated by more than just grades, or at least be able to use their interest in grades to help move them towards better learning outcomes. This Faculty Focus article on alternative grading schemes has some interesting examples of how instructors have done both of those.

Stanford University’s Teaching Commons has an interesting webpage on various assessment strategies; while not expressly aimed at tome-saving techniques, there are some interesting ideas here about student self-assessment.

This article-“Teaching More By Grading Less (or Differently)”– from Life Sciences Education has an interesting discussion of the philosophy of grading, and some useful thoughts on varying the ways in which we grade student work.

Have a question? Looking for resources or information? Want to take advantage of the services CETL offers? Contact us by clicking here, emailing or calling Kevin at 263-6102.

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Finally, here’s hoping that you don’t have to wait as long as this dog to achieve your goals:


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