Essay Grading

12 Smart Ideas To Grade Essays Faster

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.

See also How To Save Time Teaching With Technology

12 Ways To Significantly Shorten Essay Grading Time

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.

See also 7 Time-Saving Strategies For Teachers That Put Students First

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.

12 Ways To Significantly Shorten Essay Grading Time

An Easy Way to Grade Writing Quickly

Nothing spells guilt like a 4-week old stack of neglected, ungraded, sad-looking student essays sleeping on your kitchen table.

Now I know that YOU would never let your grading pile up for one month, but let’s just say I have a “friend” who used to routinely dump mounds of ungraded papers in her recycling bin while praying that her students wouldn’t notice.

They did.

English teachers are often pitied for having to spend long, torturous hours hunched over student writing pieces, but what if there was a quicker, dare I say, easier way to grade writing? I believe there is.

When I taught English, I knew I had to come up with an efficient way of grading writing, or I was going to have an incredibly full recycling bin and some extremely perturbed students. I set out to create a system that would provide my students with excellent feedback while cutting my grading time in half.

(If you’re interested in some other time-saving tips I’ve learned along the way, check out my podcast episode entitled, “25 Ways to Save Time & Take Less Work Home.”)

I once heard someone say, “…a problem well defined is half solved…”, so I began by identifying the grading practices that were wasting the most time; two stood out to me.

Grading Time-Wasters

  1. Writing a bunch of comments. Now don’t get me wrong. Students need feedback. They need to know how they can improve, and they need to know why they got that grade on their paper. But painstakingly writing dozens of individual comments takes so long, and it can be inefficient when you’re writing the same comments over and over on paper after paper. 

    It is also not uncommon for a kind-hearted teacher (like yourself) to thoughtfully craft a beautifully-written personal note on their student’s paper only to watch said-student look at their grade for 2 seconds, ignore the rest, and promptly toss their kind-hearted teacher’s time laden, carefully annotated assignment in the trashcan as they walk away without a second thought! Never again.  

  2. Doing the math on a rubric. I know many teachers love rubrics, but I have to say, I am not a huge fan for writing assignments. It doesn’t take long to develop a sense of what an A, B, C, D, and F paper look like, so trying to fill in the rubric turns into mathematical gymnastics of “how can I make these numbers add up to the grade I already know they should have?” (Or at least it does for me.) What a pain —and a huge waste of time! There had to be a better way.

With these two time wasters in mind, I set out to create a grading system that had the fairness and accuracy of a rubric paired with the specific feedback that writing individualized comments provides—all without the fuss of actually hand-writing comments on every paper or adding up numbers on a rubric for each student.

So I came up with (drum roll please……) a checklist system that has the best of both worlds, and it makes both teachers and students happy as a clam. What more could you ask for? Here’s how it works:

A Simple Way to Grade Writing Quickly

  • Create a checklist of everything you are grading. Your checklist will look similar to a rubric because you will include a list of everything that you want your students to do in the paper. For example, you can have a section for anything you are checking such as content, writing style, mechanics, formatting, etc. 

    The only difference between a checklist and a rubric is that you will not include any point values. The checklist also acts as a grading form because there is a space at the bottom where you can record the final grade. 

  • Give the students the checklist as part of the rewriting stage. This is optional, but I strongly recommend giving the students a copy of the checklist ahead of time. Not only will this help them write their paper, but it will also ensure that students are crystal clear on what you expect them to do and what you will be looking for when you grade their paper. 

  • Create a simple key. On the checklist/grading form, create a simple key that makes sense to you and your students. For example, the top of my grading checklist says, “Areas circled below are areas that need improvements. Check marks or smiley faces indicate areas that were well done.”

  • Use the key to indicate what areas were done well and which need improvement. When it comes time to grade the paper, all you have to do is go through the checklist and put checks (or smileys) by anything that was done well, circle areas that were done poorly, and leave the acceptable but not fabulous areas blank. This process ensures your students have a wealth of feedback without your having to hand-write a lifetime-supply of comments.

  • Give a holistic grade or use the number of “need improvement” items to assign a grade. It didn’t take me long before I could read a paper and know intuitively what grade to give. If you’re like me, then just go with your gut. All of the “need improvement” areas you circled will be enough to justify the grade.

    However, if you aren’t sure what grade to give, develop a simple calculation in your head. For example, each “needs improvement” in the content category could be 5 points off; and each formatting error could be 1 point off and so on. Quickly do the math and put the grade on the paper.

    Boom! You’re done. Even though there is a little bit of math, the second method still ends up saving time because you don’t have to write down all of the numbers or double-check that they add up perfectly. No mathematical gymnastics here!

I love this system because it gives plenty of encouragement (remember all the smileys) while providing constructive feedback. And the truly miraculous news is — I can’t remember a student ever arguing with me about their grade. Even the most accomplished grade grubber can see what they need to fix in order to improve their score.

With this system, there is no reason to procrastinate on grading essays for fear of how long it will take, and your students will be overjoyed to have their writing promptly graded and returned.

Once you spread the word about this system, your teacher friends will never have to make up an excuse about how the classes’ ungraded essays accidently disappeared into the swimming pool, the cat litter box or last month’s recycling bin. I’d call that a win-win situation.

Want an editable grading sheet checklist? I include it – as well as an example of my entire system for teaching writing (as well as the rewriting checklists that match the grading sheet) in this free writing unit.

Click here to download the editable grading sheet as well as the complete writing unit.

(This is a total steal. It’s a full, complete unit that I’m giving away for free because I think you’ll love it & will want to get the whole bundle!)

Would you like more time-saving tips that will help you cut 3, 5, even 10 hours off your workweek? Consider joining Angela Watson’s 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Find out more about the program here. 

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May 19, 2017 in Academics (Teaching) , Teaching , Work/Life Balance

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