Grading is one of the most challenging, thankless, and important parts of teaching. When the end of the semester or quarter draws near, finals loom large for students and final grades loom large for instructors.
Grading is at once an intellectually demanding task that requires focus and concentration and monotonous work that necessitates patience and a high degree of organization.
If the prospect of wading through a pile of papers and exams feels more than a little daunting, we’ve got some helpful suggestions for staying on top of your grading without getting overwhelmed.
Take it on little by little
This is easier said than done, but approaching grading with a holistic plan at the start of the semester (rather than in desperation at the end) can work wonders for alleviating your stress around finals time. That said, if it’s already the end of the term, it’s not too late to set this up now.
Create a spreadsheet tracking each students’ grades. It is a lot easier to keep on top of adding in a few grades each week as you go through assignments than trying to tally them all at the end of the semester, especially if you are teaching various courses.
Some schools use learning management software like Canvas to help you track assignments, but it can help to have a local spreadsheet on your computer that you back up often. This ensures you don’t lose your work in the case of internet outages or campus software malfunctions.
This step is especially important for adjunct instructors teaching at various universities that each may use different grade tracking systems.
Keep it manageable
Approach grading practically—and strategically. A small but vital step is to use a timer to set a strict amount of time to spend on grading each project or exam. Try experimenting with the first few to find a time frame that works, and then be sure to stick to it!
If possible, try not to grade more than 4–6 large assignments a day or your eyes will glaze over. A little each day is more manageable than all at once.
Be sure to also give yourself a brief (maybe even timed) break between each assignment and a longer break between groups of papers, especially if you have only a few days to get through everything.
Focus and support
Grading is an intensely demanding task requiring a lot of focus, time, and mental (and even emotional) energy. As much as possible, set aside dedicated time for it; do not try to grade while responding to email, calling people back, or waiting in between meetings. It is almost impossible to multi-task while grading. Disconnecting from other responsibilities, even for a short time, can be a crucial step in making a dent on your grading pile.
That said, grading with friends and colleagues can be a huge boon to getting it done! A supportive environment can help you stay focused and relax in the interim. Even changing your environment, tackling the task somewhere that is not your normal work space, can help you stay focused by breaking up the monotony.
Be intentional and strategic
When giving feedback on papers in particular, be strategic. If you have a rubric, make sure your comments clearly and consistently reflect its standards. In the case of assignments that need a lot of work, consider meeting with the student in person if time allows. Talking through more complex issues can sometimes be more effective and efficient than to try to accurately give written feedback on an assignment that needs a total overhaul.
And while individual feedback is important, on papers especially, don’t be afraid to use a template for opening and closing statements. Opening lines like “you are a strong writer…this is a solid essay…you do a good job of supporting your points with evidence…you demonstrate a strong understanding of the readings we’ve covered in class so far this semester” and closing statements like “overall, nice work!” can be copied and pasted between assignments for efficiency.
Be attentive to tone
Even when evaluating work that is not strong, try to keep the tone positive. Clearly emphasize what went wrong, but focus on what the student can fix and improve. Start your feedback with something—anything—positive, no matter how minor. If there is nothing exceptionally good about the work, focus on what has improved from previous work or what shows potential.
With this approach in mind, also make sure that your feedback is focused on the assignment itself and does not read as a judgment of your student’s character. Be careful not to make assumptions about why an essay wasn’t edited or why a student misread the assignment. You can and should point out what went wrong but shouldn’t presume to know the reason why a student performed poorly.
As frustrating as it can be to evaluate inadequate work, try to approach the task with some compassion. Students, like you, have a lot going on in their lives, and things like stress, trauma and inexperience, especially for students that don’t come from a privileged background, can all influence their performance.