7 Strategies to Make Grading Easier

Grading is time-consuming but necessary, so two teachers share some hacks for making it more effective and efficient.

Teacher grading papers
©Shutterstock/Robert Brown Stock

Work-life balance is a struggle for both beginning and veteran teachers, and grading seems to be one of the biggest barriers to overcome in maintaining this balance. These ideas may help you give effective and efficient feedback on student work across the disciplines.

7 Grading Hacks

1. Divide and conquer: A large stack of essays or lab reports waiting for feedback can be daunting; the simple act of dividing them into manageable chunks makes them more approachable.

Decide how many products can be assessed in one sitting at a relatively fast pace without compromising the quality of feedback. Divide your stack based on either a number (maybe five or 10) or a percentage basis (a fourth or half of a class set). If you’re grading physical papers, literally divide them into stacks; if you’re working electronically, keep your eyes focused on the top few submissions.

Another approach, for more tedious assignments like tests, is to grade one question at a time. Grading all of the number 1s, then the 2s, etc., will go quickly because you can focus on one response at a time.

2. Take breaks: Maintaining sustained focus for long periods of time can be difficult, so frequent short breaks can actually increase productivity. When a small chunk of grading is complete, choose a reward (think chocolate or maybe a stretch break) and rest your mind.

Our personal strategy is to divide the total number of papers by five and put out one gummy bear for each group—grade papers with a timer on (see next tip), eat a gummy bear, and repeat until finished.

The key is to figure out what works for you and create a routine.

3. Grade with a timer: Setting a timer is a strategy that helps sustain focus and eliminates the temptation to edit or write a lot.

One method is to start a timer with a lap feature at the beginning of the chunk of papers and hit the lap button at the end of each paper. Try to keep an even pace, so if you spend five minutes on the first paper, try to do the same on each subsequent paper. This simulates the feeling of racing against the clock and can keep you focused on pushing forward.

You can instead use a timer as a countdown clock by allowing a reasonable amount of time to grade and provide feedback. Stay on task with the timer and do not allow yourself to spend too much time on any one paper or project.

4. Try Glow and Grow and a highlighter: Teachers need to shift from editing student work to offering meaningful feedback. Marking every single grammar error is not only demoralizing for students but also time-consuming for teachers. One of our biggest shifts has been trying Glow and Grow: one comment praising students for what they’ve done well (Glow) and one offering a focus for students to work on in revision or keep in mind for the future (Grow).

We also read written work with a highlighter in hand (or use the highlighting tool on the computer) to draw attention to something students have done well. This is a quick way to reinforce solid ideas and good writing and takes little extra time.

5. Have a specific focus: Narrowing feedback to one or two skills per paper can focus students without overwhelming them, and doing so cuts down on grading time for teachers. One week the focus may be on transitions and adding details, while the next week may focus on sentence variety and strong conclusions.

Students can also have a voice in the process and offer direction by either leaving a note requesting feedback on a specific objective or using a tool such as Flipgrid for self-evaluation. Student reflections point teachers directly to issues of concern, thus saving time.

6. Utilize technology: Thanks to today’s technology, written commentary—often the most time-consuming method for giving feedback—is not the only option.

Kaizena allows teachers to leave voice comments directly on student documents—the company says voice comments are 75 percent faster for the teacher to give than written ones. Google Docs also supports voice comments, and teachers can easily use Canned Replies for frequently used comments to save time. Voxer is another free app teachers can use to send comments to students.

7. Respect your own personal preferences: For grading done outside the school day, determine if you’re best at grading in the morning or at night. You may find yourself in a staring contest with an essay after 9:30 p.m. that could go on for a ridiculous amount of time—just step away from the papers, go to bed, and then wake up 25 minutes earlier than usual in the morning. You may find that you’re much more productive when rested.

Changing the setting can be helpful as well. When the weather is nice, some prefer to grade outside; others prefer to go to a coffee shop. Know what time and setting work best for you and plan accordingly.

Grading is a necessary part of a teacher’s life, but it doesn’t have to own us. Work to take back some time for yourself.