It was around this time of year during my first year of teaching when I got completely overwhelmed with my grading load. My main problem: I felt like I needed to grade EVERYTHING. Until speaking with other teachers about how much time I spent grading, I did not realize grading everything was unnecessary and impossible to sustain. Right then I decided to change my grading habits.
My first year I was teaching English to sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. Since every class had two spelling homework assignments and a spelling test every week, the easiest way to reduce grading was to cut out redundant, practice assignments. My first grading change was to only grade one spelling homework assignment per week. I was still grading a ton of assignments, but just that one little change substantially reduced the time I devoted to grading. Since that first year, I have learned many more tricks to reduce grading time. Here are some of those tricks.
- This one is probably the most obvious: limit what you grade. Whenever possible, I limit myself to two or three assignments per week. I feel like this is enough to give students, parents, and teachers a clear and accurate picture of the students’ understanding of each topic and overall effort. I can see their understanding with each assessment grade and see their general effort levels reflected in whether or not they finish their homework completely and on time.
- Prioritize the most important assignments or parts of assignments. Choose what will give you the best picture of student understanding and grade that. If you have a lengthy assignment, pick only a few sections to spend time on and give a completion grade for the rest.
- Occasionally give completion grades. When totally swamped with teaching duties, this can save your sanity. If students complete all of an assignment, I give them 100%. If they only do half, they get 50%. I limit this to homework assignments and try not to do it too often because it doesn’t reflect student understanding. However, when I have more pressing teaching duties that will have a greater impact on my students’ learning I think this is acceptable.
- Have a no name policy you can handle. I used to post no name papers on the bulletin board (most remained unclaimed) and did detective work to figure out which paper belonged to which student. That took a lot of time and was not something I felt should be the teacher’s responsibility. After a couple of years of this, I decided my seventh-grade students should be responsible enough to do something as simple as writing their name on their assignment. Consequently, I communicated this to my students and made it my class policy to throw out no names. Whatever no name policy you decide to implement, make sure it works for you and doesn’t add more time and effort than it deserves.
- Limit late assignments. I used to take late assignments all quarter long (at a 25% grade reduction). This resulted in a deluge of assignments from students who waited until right before grades were due. It generated a ton of work for me when I needed to be wrapping things up. I had to remember how I graded each assignment, which was time consuming in and of itself. Cue a new late assignment policy: assignments are accepted no later than two weeks overdue. This policy makes it so I can still easily remember how I graded something and also keeps my grading duties at a reasonable level, even when the gradebook is almost due.
- Don’t let the assignments pile up. This can happen quickly and become overwhelming. Try grading in little spurts throughout the week so you never end up with more than a week’s worth of accumulated assignments.
- Have student helpers. Most students enjoy helping the teacher with little tasks. I often have students organize my ungraded papers so they are all neatly stacked, facing up, and paper-clipped by assignment and class period. The time saved really adds up.
- Let students grade their own assignments or swap papers with a classmate. This gives students quick feedback on how they are doing with a topic and where they can improve. You can discuss answers as a class and clear up problem areas as soon as they present themselves. When grading this way, I usually don’t add the grades to the gradebook because the students already know exactly how they did and it’s too easy for students to cheat.
- Always use a rubric when applicable. This sounds so important and obvious. But, let me tell you, there have been times when I was so overwhelmed with teaching that I didn’t have a rubric when I assigned the project. This is a huge no-no. Without a rubric, the students don’t have clear expectations. You will end up with all sorts of projects and no fair, consistent way to grade them. It becomes a time-consuming mess to grade. Trust me—always use a rubric.
- Design exit tickets with ease of grading in mind. Since all of my exit tickets go in the gradebook, almost all of them are short—between four and five questions long—and are mainly multiple choice. If it is important to see the depth of student understanding, I might add one question that requires students to answer in sentences. By sticking to this general format, I am able to whip through grading exit tickets. (If you teach middle school science you might be interested in my Exit Ticket Package, which contains a bunch of exit tickets designed this way.)
- Make peer reviewing part of projects. During big projects, take a little class time for peer reviewing. When students evaluate their classmates’ work, they learn from each other and learn to think critically. The peer review can be something as simple as providing one thing they liked about a project and one way to improve it. You could take it further by printing extra rubrics and having students grade each other that way. If you include some form of peer reviewing once or twice before students turn in their projects, you will receive higher quality work which requires less grading time from you.
Implementing even just a few of these strategies will greatly reduce your grading time. Of course it’s impossible to completely eliminate grading so, if all else fails, make the time you have to spend grading as painless as possible. Use fun pens and stickers. Listen to music and light a nice smelling candle. Have a yummy snack and a special drink (or two). Wear comfy clothes and put your dog on your lap. Recruit a friend to help.
What do you do to save time spent grading? How do you make grading a more pleasant experience? Comment below to share your ideas.