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Tactics for Tackling the Grading Dilemma

| Rebecca Alber

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.

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Comments (37)

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Consider Purpose

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I am in my 9th year of teaching high school English, and in many ways I agree with Kenneth. Rather than kill ourselves with assigning and grading everything, we need to consider to what degree each assignment is demonstrative of what students should be able to do. I may assign one, two, or three "practice" assignments before I grade one, though the students don't ever know which will be graded. I spot-check the practice assignments quickly as a formative assessment, but I don't worry about stamps, stickers, etc. The point is to get a general gist for whether the students as a whole are understanding the material. I use some of these responses as models or fodder for discussion, and from these students are asked to improve their work the next go-around. We use a variety of in-class activities that give me immediate feedback on whether students are understanding the material. Therefore, at the point when I figure we've done enough in-class and homework practice, I give an assignment that is meaningful and grade it throughly. I feel justified putting grades in the gradebook at this point. I suppose all the practice along the way is self-assessment but without rubrics/stickers/red pens/stars.

We also need to consider the role of technology and how it can help us lighten the work load. I have my senior writing students submit their papers to me online using Google Docs. I share them out with other students, who insert comments as a peer-revision process. Only then do I pick up on what the peers might have missed. I also find I can type comments much faster than handwrite them, and I also make use of audio equipment (digital voice recorder) to record my spoken comments to students, sending them the audio file via email. They love it.

Grading Work

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I take a different view on grading than some of my fellow educators. I choose to gather up my students work¸ take it home if required, and grade all assignments myself. I have informed my students that their grades are between me, the learner, and the appropriate parent or guardian. I remember classmates who were teased in my elementary, junior high, and high school years due to poor grades. I do not want one of my students to experience this if I can avoid it. I also choose to hand out assigned work in my classroom. Students often ask if they can help pass out work. I reply no thank you; the grades are posted on the papers. My students understand my position.

I choose to grade all assigned work. I take the time to design lessons. I collect resources, and provide an experience which is hopefully engaging and meaningful to learners. The students take the time and effort to complete the assignment. Therefore, I feel responsible for ensuring student work is graded and appropriate comments provided. I believe this shows the students that I care enough about their effort to grade it.

I understand the benefit of having students help grade. I also understand how easily it is to become overloaded with work. One way to help keep some of the workload down is to only assign work that really needs to be completed. I use results from computerized study guides when appropriate. I also prefer to use bubble sheet answers on formal assessments. Thank you for your time.

Parent (H.S. student) & Educational Technology Enthusiast

Automated grading systems are needed

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When I was student teaching, my master teacher had a parent correcting/grading the homework packets for our 3rd grade class. Then, the teacher quickly reviewed them to find problem areas. From this review, the teacher could determine which areas to reteach.

At other schools where I have taught, teachers have asked students to trade papers and use a red (or blue) pen or pencil to correct the papers. If students are holding a colored pencil or pen, you know they aren't changing answers. (But, make sure the student doesn't use a red/blue pen or pencil to do the assignment in the first place.)

Last year, I tried several methods with my 5th grade class. The method I liked best was for students to grade their own papers, using a colored pen. Then, students received immediate feedback on their progress and could ask me to rework a problem on the board for them. A few students didn't pay attention or failed to grade papers correctly, so I double-checked their work. (In hind sight, I should have had consequences for this.)

I propose that all true/false, multiple choice, and fill-in-the-blank assessments, including classwork, homework, quizzes, and tests, be automated using a hand-held student response system of some kind. Students and teachers would receive immediate feedback and this could drive instruction. (It would be better indication of the success or failure of a lesson then asking timid students if they "got it" or not. A lot of students are afraid to look bad.)

Then, the results of these assessments would be pulled into an online gradebook (like PowerSchool) for teachers, students, parents, and administrators to view. The accountability would be in place yet teachers would be saved from correcting, grading, and entering results into a gradebook. This would give teachers feedback yet allow them more time to plan curriculum and to read short response and essay assessments.

As a parent and as a teacher, online gradebooks are currently a mixed blessing. Since teachers are overwhelmed as it is, adding the responsibility of quickly grading and entering grades for homework, classwork, quizzes, and tests into an online system sets teachers up for conflicts with parents. Parents (myself included) freak out when students look like they are failing a class at the beginning of a quarter--since a low grade on only 1 or 2 assignments, with a gradebook system heavily-weighted to one or more components, can cause an F or D to show up as an overall grade. Then, parents will ask questions like "why does homework have a weight of 30% in one class and only 10% in another class (at the same high school)?" Later in the quarter, as more assignments are entered, the grades are more reflective of the student's success or failure in the class. But, parents and students are often anxious for teachers to get items posted. A point of conflict: parents ask why there is a zero for an assignment when the student says they turned it in. Teachers need some way to prove that a student did or did not turn in an assignment.

5th grade elementary teacher in Green Bay, WI.

Think Like a Fifth Grader

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It seems like there are always “little” items to be checked-in and/or corrected in my classroom on a daily basis. In the past, I painstakingly would bring home all of these small stacks of paper, only to spend a majority of what was supposed to be my “social life,” grading spelling worksheets, math journals, and short paragraphs a weekly theme. As you suggested, in an effort to conquer this small problem, I handed over some of the responsibility of grading to my students and additionally bought a nice set of stamps for five dollars at and end of the year sale; at a local teacher supply store.

The benefit of both these systems has not only freed up my life (a little bit), but also given my students a better idea of what it means to be honest and accurate. Although it might take the first third of the school year for them to figure out, by the end, they understand the control they are being given by correcting a peer’s assignment, or for that matter their own. Often times, they are able to offer suggestions to one another that I may not have been able to come up with, because while I often feel like I can “think like a fifth grader,” they are fifth graders.

Student journals are something that I have always struggled with, and have actually grown fearful of. I am not scared of the actual writing in a journal, but the thought of having a stack of 25 wide-ruled notebooks sitting like a Leaning Tower of Pisa on my desk or table makes me cringe. I enjoyed your thoughts of choosing only certain items to read over and respond to in a journal. Perhaps, I could do this, but also take only a handful of journals on a bi-weekly basis.

Thanks for your insight!

Chris

Teacher Agent of Change, Power of US Foundation

National Academy of Sciences

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It would have been great to have reporters or editors at the National Academy of Sciences when the psychometricians discussed our teaching and grading practices in light of NCLB. Back to the future they said.

Lots of their work is on line. Apparently what we have been using for the last eight years was not a valid way of assessment.

Grading woes and remedies

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To save time and energy, I personalized self-inking stamps to help me get through papers, too. For instance, "OOPS! Correct and Return" negates the need for lengthy feedback. "Parent Signature Required" is no longer a chore to add to papers. I have another that gives the parameters and options to correcting papers. Just a simple stamp instead of writing 5 sentences on every paper.

I've always felt that if I asked a student to put in the effort, than I needed to provide personal feedback. It wasn't until I started teaching a multi-grade group that I found out that stickers, checkmarks with plusses and minuses, and notebook grades were just as rewarding to students as traditional grading. Providing a rubric with projects, book reports, speeches, and other projects helps with the grading, too. It takes out the subjectiveness that consumes precious time. Simply use a copy of the rubric for each child as he/she presents. Taking the time to set a clear, easy to read and use rubric saves time when grading.

I am also using student grading to a small degree, but still leave all the subjective grading to me. Peer editing when writing can be helpful, too. I have also found that choosing the best time of day, free of distractions, is not after school like the administration believes, but earlier in the day, before school. It is worthwhile to me to go in a full hour early to catch up on work. A major time saver is using an Excel-type grade book. Once the grades are entered, I no longer have to worry about averaging grades; its all done for you. Need to change grades, add students, modify instruction? Its all done on the computer. Using technology is very helpful in keeping track of student progress.

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