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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book, 'Tween Crayons and Curfews: Tips for Middle School Teachers. In this chapter, titled, "Tips for Dealing with the Grading and Feedback Masses," I provide an insight into my own grade book and give advice on how to cut down on the stack of papers and assignments while still giving effective feedback to students.

I don't know how your desk looks after your classes hand things in, but mine looks like a mountain range of stacks. In fact, I need to launch an expedition just to reach the top of the piles in order to grade them by deadline. Think about it: 36-42 kids per class, 6 periods a day, maybe 3 assignments per week. How does a new or veteran teacher handle the hours of grading that can amount to a second full-time job?

And as our class sizes increase, something's gotta give. The key is to provide feedback in different formats. It keeps students alert to your message, and it keeps you from going out of your mind. Here are just some tips, some old, some new, to help you towards your own grading sanity:

1. Use Rubrics for Preemptive feedback: After watching my three-year-old son one day attempt a thorough teeth-brushing session, I jokingly said, "I definitely give that a B at best." He paused. "What's best?" he asked.

I won't bore you with my description of tooth brushing excellence. However, I will say that it got me thinking that many students don't know how to ask this question. Which brings me to rubrics. Rubrics aren't just about summative feedback, "Here's how you did," they are also a sort of preemptive feedback, "Here's what you need to do."

2. Only focus feedback on one skill - Think about it from a student's point of view: it makes a greater impact and is less defeating to see specific notes on a single topic then to see the explosion of pen critiquing every past lesson missed.

3. Only focus feedback on one part of the assignment - Only comment on the first paragraph or only the first 5 questions of an assignment. Better yet, allow a student to choose the section or numbers they feel best represent their comprehension.

4. Rotate students to give deeper feedback to - Sure each student turns in the assignment, but do you really need to focus as intently on all 200 of them equitably every time? Rotate groups of students that get more percentage of your attention.

5. Train students to give feedback to each other - Teach the students to give the first wave of feedback to each other. This saves you from having to repeatedly write the same basic comments that could have been easily caught by a peer.

6. "Comment rather than correct" - Carol Jago reminds us that it's the students job to correct their errors. In fact, it would be even more powerful for them to identify the errors in the first place using hints provided by you:

In your essay, I see (general mistake) appear X-amount of times. In your history project, I see two date errors. In your math assignment, I see three equations that do not add up.

7. Create a key of feedback symbols - Identify the most common errors that you predict you will see. Develop a key of symbols that you can use in the margins instead of writing in sentences or bullets. This will require students to translate as well, which embeds the lesson even further.

8. Outsource the grading - Sometimes, assignments will take a huge leap in quality when students think someone other than their own teacher is seeing them. Ask administrators to get involved, switch stacks with other teachers, assign your other periods to evaluate the work. Outsource occasionally, and you just might find the students stepping up their work.

9. Keep them in suspense - Keep the final grade of an assignment as a carrot dangling until the feedback is read, attempted, and proven. Make them solve some of the problems in the assignment based on your feedback, and trade their solutions for access to their score.

10. Feedback Note-taking - If the one who does the work is doing the learning, should not the student be the one writing down the feedback? You conference; they write.

11. Stagger due dates for your classes. There is no rule that says all 200 shoeboxes or flipbooks have to show up at your door on the same date.

12. And while you're at it, give them a way to give feedback to you. If they believe that you are reading their feedback, they will be more likely to read yours. Develop a survey, via hard copy or one on surveymonkey.com, for them to fill out at the end of a unit, quarter, semester, whatever. Ask them what worked and what didn't. Model your own comfort at criticism and they will work harder at their own.

The unabridged chapter includes more in-depth advice as well as templates and surveys to help you navigate through the mountains of grading that can weigh down a teacher both in the classroom and at home. The book is available at the Web site Eye on Eye Education Publishing and will be available at Amazon on March 15.


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Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia

Some great advice here - I use a number of these already in my classroom (rubrics, deep feedback, commenting) but some of the others I will definitely add to the old teacher toolbox. In particular, I like the idea of outsourcing the grading - a powerful motivational tool, and less work for me!

Something that I've always found valuable in the feedback cycle is setting clear targets after giving feedback. So, after working in a conference with a student, and identifying that sentence structure is an issue, we might agree that our target over the next 2 weeks will be to include more complex and compound sentences. Then, when we have our next conference, the student can relate their current work to their targets. Works quite well.

Oh, and can you clarify something for me, Heather? Are you really teaching classes of 36-42? How is that going? Where do they all sit?


Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture

You bring up a great point about goal setting. It is a powerful too to have the student agree with a target and shoot for that by a certain point. I mention that in my book, and it's an undeniable tool, particularly with tweens and teens who need to be brought into the ownership of their own learning process.

I am lucky. I have classes of 36, but I have colleagues who sport higher numbers. I figure the only thing keeping my numbers low is the lack of furniture left in the warehouse!

Thanks so much for your comment and your advice. Dead on!

-Heather WG

Robert Ryshke's picture
Robert Ryshke
Executive Director of Center for Teaching

Loved the 12 tips on how to get a handle on the "grading" dilemma. This is one of a teacher's many responsibilities that requires mentoring. As teachers, we tend to not address the homework, grading, giving effective feedback question in a reflective way. We are typically on autopilot, giving out way to many assignments and trying to grade it all. I think your post helps frame the conversation and gives good strategies.

Bob Ryshke

Wayne Sheldrick PhD's picture
Wayne Sheldrick PhD
Educational Speaker, Writer and Coach

Very helpful excerpt Heather. One of the areas that we tend to get ourselves and our students into trouble is not being specific about what we are looking for. What is our goal for this assignment? Providing a rubric helps the student focus, and limiting our comments to one aspect of the assignment increases the likelihood that the student will learn from it. Look forward to seeing the book.

Scott Kittelson's picture

I really enjoyed the tips that you gave for giving students feedback. I am on my fifth year of teaching engineering and cabinetry in Fargo, ND and have found some of the tips that you have given to be something that not only I can use, but something that I can show or refer other teachers to view. I have noticed that during the fourth quarter of my classes the students' quality begins to fall as they are starting to think about summer. I always looked at it as the "damage control" time of the year, but after looking at your tip number eight I feel that outsourcing grading with another teacher/administrator would be something to give the students one last jump to finish the year strong. One question I have for you is: Once the assessment is created and aligned with class standards/learning targets how often to you change the assessment?

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture

Great question, Scott. Well, as a Language Arts teacher I find that I don't really need to change the assessment too much as each kid writes differently. Also it's the writing that I find difficult to score deeply as opposed to multiple choice which is, as we all know, far easier to grade. I have developed prompts with other teachers and rotated them from year to year. But, to be frank, I am also a huge believer in student choice, so if the students can chose from a variety of assessments to show off their best work, then once those are developed, you should be good to go.

Hope this helps. Your class sounds really interesting. I'd be interested to know how you assess such a unique non-core subject. Thanks for your comment!

-Heather WG

LisaL's picture

What a great list of ideas! As a middle school English teacher, I often feel like there is so much writing that needs to be graded. And, when I grade each essay, each homework assignment, each test question, I do so taking grammar, content, everything into consideration. So, it takes me hours to grade even simple assignments. As such, I really like your suggestion to grade based on one skill at a time. Focusing on one skill (like content) in an essay certainly will have a greater impact on student learning. My students will realize that they may be great at writing in one essay, and in another essay where I grade for grammar, may realize they have some improvements to make with commas or sentence fragments. By focusing on one skill at a time, students will be aware of where their strengths are, as well as their weaknesses.

Although I have found rubrics to be extremely helpful with longer assignments, I think I might start using for shorter assignments as well. No matter what the length of the assignment, students seem to really like knowing exactly what is expected of them. I can easily implement this to improve student learning in my classes.

I must admit, I do stagger due dates, and this is one of the best ways for me to keep on top of the grading. If I have a research project due in one class one week, I will often make sure no tests are being given that same week. That way, I have a chance to focus on getting through the projects. I want to spend adequate time grading each project, especially when my students work so hard on them. By taking the time to go through each piece of their projects/papers, I am showing that I take an interest in them, and that certainly can improve their motivation in class.

Everyone seems to like the outsourcing idea. One thing I would be sure to do if allowing other classes to analyze another's work--remove names and assign numbers. By being anonymous, you will get more fair feedback with deeper insight for all students involved.

I am definitely going to check out your book. Thanks, Heather!

Stephen Kistler's picture

I am a 7th grade history teacher and devote the largest amount of time in grading short answer and essay questions. For these questions I have developed a system of grading abbreviations that I will then review with the students when we go over the test together. For example a common mistake for students is that they leave their answers too vague and do not support their answer with sufficient information. For this I will either write "E.F." (for explain further) "E.Y.A." (expand your answer.) Then, when I go over the test with the students, I can highlight some common mistakes they made and can look at their pages to see what corrections they can make. This method is much easier than writing comments on each and every paper and the students still get the feedback that they need.

Luria Learning's picture
Luria Learning
3rd Grade Teacher and Founder of Luria Learning

One thing I have started doing is using symbols to give feedback in writing. In the beginning of the year, I work with students on when to capitalize in their writing. After teaching when to capitalize, I teach them how to correct a paper with my feedback symbols.

It does take me some time to correct the papers. I start by only correcting the first 10 errors in capitalization. What I notice, though, is that when I use feedback symbols and let students do the thinking, they improve quickly.

Here is a video showing how I teach students to correct and understand their feedback symbols. (This is covered in the second half of the 4 minute video.)


Ellie's picture
6th grade English teacher

This was a great list of ideas! Thank you! I often hand out rubrics first, before students even begin writing, so they know exactly how to do their best. I have found this works really well and doesn't leave students wondering what they need to do. I like your idea about focusing on one specific topic or area and giving feedback. So many times I am trying to focus on everything that I forget that it is overwhelming for students to try to fix everything. They need one step at a time, just like we all do!

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