Postpone Grading: Read This Blog Instead

It’s that time again—the papers are queuing up. Also, not coincidentally, the time when your closets are miraculously organized, lasagnas appear in the fridge, the barbecue grill is scrubbed—whatever form our grading procrastination takes, it manifests—all to avoid the stacks of paper hovering in cyberspace or piled on desk corners.

How can we make grading more appealing? Here’s a top 6 list (I couldn’t get it done in 5!)—and please note that chief among them is not setting up rewards—I’m pretty sure it’s how I gained 15 pounds in my first year at CI—my chief reward being dark chocolate. Also absent from the list are more conceptual issues like what (and whether) to grade. If a deep dive into assessment piques your interest, do sign up for the Jeanne Grier’s Spring 18 Faculty Inquiry Project, “Am I giving too many A’s, too many C’s? Grading Considerations in College Courses.”

For now, we’re in the moment, with papers calling. Here are my Top 6 strategies:

  1. Alter your environment. Try gathering with others–or, if you have colleagues who teach different sections of the same course, consider team scoring like the CI Composition faculty. Many faculty head to a coffee shop or another spot with good ambiance, letting the white noise of nearby conversations do its work. My preferred grading soundtrack is Yo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone—Track 1 starts, muscle memory kicks in, and soon enough I’m in the groove.
  2. Be intentional about due dates. In the blog, “How to Escape Grading Jail,” Kevin Gannon writes about how invaluable it was to plot the due dates from different classes onto one common calendar. He identified clusters of overlapping due dates that prohibited prompt grading and response, observing that, “Sometimes the simple steps pay off exponentially in the long run.” There’s still time to review the remainder of this semester and adjust those due dates.
  3. Make a grading plan. It’s possible that avoiding grading is really about postponing decision making: How am I going to grade this? What am I looking for? How long am I willing to spend on each paper? What process am I going to use—download and comment in track changes; Canvas speed grader with a rubric; Canvas oral feedback (See Tip #1); handwritten comments? How much, and what kind, of response do I want to make? (See Tip #2). If these issues are part of what’s holding you back, schedule time to plan answers to these questions before you grade that first paper. You are streamlining your process and building your motivation to get-to-it. And disregard what I said earlier—having the plan set up might warrant some celebratory chocolate.
  4. Engage your mind. Even the most student-centered faculty member can be excused a yawn after reading 20 papers on the same subject. Try challenging yourself as you go: keep a notepad nearby while grading, and use it as an opportunity to look for patterns. Where are the student gaps in their content knowledge? What challenges do you see across papers in their organization and use of evidence or references? What misconceptions arise about your discipline? And what strengths are evident that you can build on? Use those observations as the basis for your next class activity, and you’ve saved some prep time while addressing significant issues in student thinking. At the same time, you’ve challenged yourself to synthesize across papers, which should keep you more engaged and “in the grading moment.”
  5. Streamline your marking and commentary. Research on preferences and uses of feedback show that students dislike overly general comments—both praise and critique. They are largely inhibited by unsolicited grammatical corrections, which are what they are most likely to receive. And they often misunderstand cryptic margin notes. (If you have 8 minutes, check out this video of students sharing their view of faculty comments). That said, students do want feedback (and a grade is not feedback!) and are looking for a specific response that is authentic and closely related to their text. Trimming down comments can save time and also reach students. For example, including one specific strength and one question per paper may push students’ thinking more than line-by-line edits. See Tip #1 for more on this.
  6. Consider your mode of response. Studies of the effect of audio feedback on student understanding are promising (see this literature review on the subject). In comparison to written comments, research suggests that students perceive it to be friendlier in tone—which may have some bearing on motivation and trust, key elements to the feedback-learning relationship. Also, the form seems to reduce the focus on sentence-level errors, with more time spent on more global issues such as the shaping of their ideas—largely a benefit, from students’ perspective, although one might wish for a lasting record of the suggestions. Giving audio commentary used to be a chore, but Canvas now has a handy feature in Speed Grader that enables easy Media Comments if you want to try leaving audio or video feedback. It might take more time at first as you adjust to the mode, but the quality of the result may be worth it—and you can ask your students to report back.

Although Sinclair Lewis probably didn’t actually say it, I still like the line that “the way to become a writer is to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of a chair.” Probably the same goes for grading. Once we dig in, pieces fall into place and the task becomes more manageable. But it’s also a good time to pause and consider from whence the procrastination comes—and a chance to try a different approach that might have a dual benefit: engaging both your students and you in the results.

3 thoughts on “Postpone Grading: Read This Blog Instead

  1. Hah! Reading this after Senate got out early and I wandered through Solano to procrastinate by saying hi to colleagues. Now it’s time to grade. Thanks, Mary!

  2. Great tips! I like the idea of looking for group trends and observations in the writing to use for a class activity. Thanks Mary

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *