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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Tactics for Tackling the Grading Dilemma

Exhausted from a day of teaching, managing projects, and lunchtime detention, you head home, knowing a stack of ungraded student work awaits your arrival. You ask yourself, "What would happen if I didn't grade those papers?"

What would happen? Most likely, there wouldn't be a direct consequence other than the guilt teachers often feel for not keeping up with grading. With everything else on your plate, guilt is the absolute last thing you need! I'd like to offer some grading suggestions that might make life easier:

The Power of Peer Assessment and Self-Assessment

Students grading and assessing each other goes far beyond lightening the load for the teacher: It allows students to learn from each other and practice being fair and impartial and gives the kids a chance to really get to know the assignment and expectations -- inside and out.

I have found that students are often much tougher on each other -- and themselves -- when it comes to grading. Which brings me to self-assessment. Why not let students help you develop a rubric, or a criteria chart, for the assignment and then allow each student to grade herself? When you go to check a stack of papers that have been self-scored, don't be surprised if most students have faithfully followed the expectations and graded themselves more than fairly.

Before I go any further, I'd like to throw in a quick disclaimer: As a former secondary school teacher, with five class periods and nearly 150 students, I can speak only from my own experience. I have a hunch that elementary school teachers might have some different approaches for dealing with the grading load. (Teachers in grades K-6: Please contribute your comments below!)

The One-in-Four Rule

My second year in the classroom, an education professor told me that the key to longevity is to grade only one in four assignments. That strategy means that three are perhaps assigned only for credit or no credit, while the fourth gets your undivided attention -- a grade and comments. This rule saved me.

The rule allows you to keep up the rigor and keep your sanity at the same time. You know there is something not quite working when the teacher is carrying a larger workload than the students. And if you are an English teacher, as was I, that stack of essays can get quite daunting pretty quickly. (By the way, Carol Jago's book Papers, Papers, Papers: An English Teacher's Survival Guide is a must-have grading-survival guide for all language arts instructors.)

The Stamping Method

Go to a crafts store and buy a selection of ink stamps, or go online and design your own. I had stamps made that were self-inking and read "Exemplary," "Accomplished," "Promising," and "Developing." I used these four stamps for the papers I chose to assess, not grade. I could spot-check a paper and stamp it with the appropriate stamp in less than two minutes.

In my grade book, I would assign points -- or not. What does that mean? Some of the work I would just stamp with a generic stamp, such as a smiling daisy, and return. Ask yourself this question: Would it benefit my students more for me to fiddle around with inputting that measly assignment in the gradebook, or should I spend that valuable time developing a dynamic lesson instead? Exactly.

Student Journals

Ever lost or misplaced student work? (I think we all have, unfortunately.) This suggestion curtails that possibly, and, more importantly, places a high level of accountability on the students and teaches them organization. Also, crafting all of one's assignments in one notebook or journal is powerful stuff. It serves as a comprehensive artifact of one's learning.

Require students to follow a specific format for their journal -- one section for daily journal writing and class work, and another section for homework, for example. Students can keep a running table of contents in the front, and write "Didn't do" on the line where they are missing an assignment.

Collect notebooks every other week, and decide which assignments should be the one of the four to assign a grade and give teacher comments. For the rest, do quick assessments. (Hopefully, you will have a few of the assignments already graded by self-assessment or peer assessment.) For secondary school teachers, be sure to stagger the days and weeks you collect notebooks from different class periods.

Finally, consider assigning the overall work in the journal one grade, and writing it with the date on the inside front cover. This works as a carrot for students every two weeks. They know it's a weighty grade, and they know it is in their hands. For As and Bs, I would put a sticker -- a glittery dolphin or a smiling sun, for example -- next to their grade, and students would often proudly show it off to their tablemates (and these were high school kids!)

Let's face it, many of us spend valuable minutes and hours, even days, grading assignments that probably don't need such attention. (Teachers are as slammed in their day as the busiest waiter or emergency-room physician is. It's true -- we are.)

Consider shifting some of that precious time from grading to developing your already awesome lessons into even more dynamic and relevant learning experiences for students.

How have you tackled the grading dilemma? What creative and effective ways have you involved students in assessing their own learning? Please share your ideas.

Comments (36)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Cynthia Hess's picture

I'm was starting to see the logic of that when all of the sudden it hit me. Not only does the learner not learn anything from being issued a grade, but the issuance rarely provides meaningful supportive evidence that the student is even competent in a given standard or skill. It is only in light of having taught for 22 years and maintained long term relationships with lots of ex students that I can say confidently that the top students in our current grading schema often fare miserably compared to the average students who go on and get their PhD's or are doing really innovative cool things with their lives...I am so lucky to have a Principal and Sup who supports me in experimenting in the classroom. I spent this winter break teaching Algebra to kids who failed the first semester by doing something we are calling "competency based learning". I"m sure it has been thought of before, and I don't know what others have called it but together with some other stuff we had great results. Of course the CST will tell us how effective it has been but at least the students are actually engaged and really liking algebra. Plus we are able to tell who needs true remediation and who has other issues to get through...

Tara Minnerly's picture

[quote][quote]I've implemented the John Collins Writing Workshop model, which includes the use of focus correction areas. Usually, there is 1 focus area for each of the following categories: content, organization/writing style, and mechanics. Students use writing folders to monitor their progress and continue working on a specific skill until they master it.[/quote]

Tara,

Do you use this strategy for a single writing assignment? In other words, do students specifically work on organization for a couple of days, and then with the same assignment work on mechanics? Or do you use one strategy per assignment? I have never heard of this exact strategy, although I do use the main components of it with most of my fifth graders writing assignments.

Thanks,

Chris[/quote]

Chris,
For each writing assignment, there are typically 3 focus correction areas. For example, students just wrote a book review. For content, they needed to support their opinion with 3 examples of textual evidence. For organization, they needed to use transition words and for mechanics, they needed to make sure that sentences were complete (not run-ons or sentence fragments). I hope this helps and if you have any other questions, just let me know!

Take care,
Tara

Dale Decco Ph.D.'s picture
Dale Decco Ph.D.
Educational Psychologist (Adults)

[quote]I'm was starting to see the logic of that when all of the sudden it hit me. Not only does the learner not learn anything from being issued a grade, but the issuance rarely provides meaningful supportive evidence that the student is even competent in a given standard or skill. It is only in light of having taught for 22 years and maintained long term relationships with lots of ex students that I can say confidently that the top students in our current grading schema often fare miserably compared to the average students who go on and get their PhD's or are doing really innovative cool things with their lives...I am so lucky to have a Principal and Sup who supports me in experimenting in the classroom. I spent this winter break teaching Algebra to kids who failed the first semester by doing something we are calling "competency based learning". I"m sure it has been thought of before, and I don't know what others have called it but together with some other stuff we had great results. Of course the CST will tell us how effective it has been but at least the students are actually engaged and really liking algebra. Plus we are able to tell who needs true remediation and who has other issues to get through...[/quote]

I have used something like this with college age students as well. I have taught social sciences and writing in traditional as well as in online environments and have seen great progress in students. I have them redo parts of an assignment or a test so that they can see what they do not understand. I also praise them for a job well done. I use grades to show a student where they stand in their understanding of a particular concept and explain that they can be changed if they wish to do so. Most students are willing to improve grades in this manner.

Gale Sheaffer's picture

I am a bit appalled by blogs above who write that they "do not grade all papers....for a variety of reasons...." I always have and always will....it is my job.
With younger students, I use composition books for Language Arts - Dictation and structured writing and a second book for creative writing...the Dication is strictly graded and must be corrected, while the Creative writing is graded for assignment completion.....
Grading is personal.....it is not meant to be done by a machine.....it needs comments and rubrix....and personal notes from me.....

Rebecca F's picture

I like Rebecca Alber's rule- One-in-Four. It is not mandated that all written work needs to be graded. Also, peer editing is a great way for students to be critical about their own writing skills. Correcting papers is a very small percentage of the overall grading task. A student's grade average includes not just written quizzes and tests, but also class participation, homework completion, performance projects and all the other formative assessments. In reality, grading papers should not be a tedious task if you give less worksheets and more student engaged activities. You can still assess understanding and mastery.

Mrs. Greer's picture

Well as for me after my students have completed their test, I have them pass their papers to the front of the row where they are sitting. Then I have each person that is sitting in the first seat, pass their set of papers to the person to the right of them. I take the row furthest to the right of me set of papers to the first row. Next I have each student keep a paper and pass the rest back. Then we go over the questions and answers. Nevertheless, it helps the students find their mistakes and I don't have to worry about taking the time to check them myself. A old wise teacher once told me during my first year of teaching "the students should go home tired not the teacher".

Natalie Steel's picture

Where did you get your stamps made? I am interested to get some of my own. These are all priceless ideas for grading that truly would make any educator's week a bit easier.

thanks
Natalie

Jenny Wooten's picture

Katherine, Great job in using technology with your students. I am in an on-line class right now and that may be useful to your students in the near future. Have you ever used TurnItIn with your English class? My instructor uses that to help with plagarism. I think typing your comments would be much faster than writing them.

Jenny Wooten's picture

Katherine,
Great job using technology with your students to allow for easier grading on your part. I am in an online class right now and your students may be also in the near future. Have you ever used TurnItIn to detect plagarism? Just a thought to further help you in the grading process.

Tami's picture

As a third year teacher, I appreciate all of the comments posted here. My principal has challenged our fourth grade team to look at the consequences placed on students who don't turn in their work; is this teaching them responsibility or teacher-pleasing-behavior? Is the work truly needed to show student learning? This has caused me to honestly reflect on the necessity of every piece of work needing to be graded. Informal assessment as definitely found a spot in my classroom, thus the amount of papers I must grade has decreased.

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