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Tips for Grading and Giving Students Feedback

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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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, 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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Derek's picture

I am also intrigued about a couple of your suggestions below. What are some types of symbols that you have used in the past like you are talking about in #7? I give my students the ability to do a big paper/project in looking at a represntative. Right now I use a rubric in terms of grading it, but these ideas in terms of symbols to correct intrigue me. I really like the idea of summarizing what you are saying better and for certain types of learners, symbols will really click to them quicker. I have some random ideas floating like smiley faces, thumbs up, and arrows, but what definitive symbols have you used in the past when getting information back to them?

One question I also have goes into #9 with keeping the students in suspense. If students are struggling at a test or question on an assessment and we are trying to get them to completely understand the material, is keeping them in suspense going to maybe have negative effects on the students? Instead of knowing the end result, they might push it off and ignore the assessment instead of trying to fix what they know they might have gotten wrong. I see both sides, but i wanted to get your take on this, especially with assessment.

Nick's picture

I like what I see from this list. A couple that stand out the most is outsourcing grades and also keeping the students in suspense. I like to use lots of feedback during my lessons and also enjoy my students feedback as well. The thing I would really like to see more of would be for students to really engage in feedback and put more into it besides a 7-8 word sentence on if they liked the lesson/activity or not. This list gives us some ideas on who to switvch it up a bit with the students so they are giving more feedback and that they start to understand what the lesson really is.

Ryan's picture
8th Grade US History

Really liked your ideas... I have tried a few but it is nice to have a list of different ideas to help me be more effective at grading. I have found that I get swamped at times and it can be really frustrating! I will be starting my 4th year of teaching next year and I will be printing this out and putting it on my desk!

Kristi B.'s picture
Kristi B.
7th Grade Science Teacher St. Paul, MN

I started off this year with almost 37 students in each of my classes and have been feeling overwhelmed. I want to be able to assist all my students needs, but with teaching, grading, and creating assessments and lessons, I find it hard to keep up! I really like the idea of choosing specific areas to address and rotating student feedback for deeper suggestions and comments on their assessments. My school has moved towards a standards based grading system and rubrics are the norm for almost every assessment we give. I thought it would be tough but I am finding that it does save time in grading while also allowing the student to see a clear cut explanation of what they did and where they need to go.

Focusing feedback on one skill sounds like a great time saver, however I'm worried if they are not understanding several skills, I want them to be aware of it. I think your suggestion of peer evaluations is great to get them seeing other people's work and what a good assessment looks like and where they need to work to.

Cathy's picture
Seventh grade math teacher from Manassas Virginia.

I am a second year teacher and Career Switcher. I thought all your ideas were fabulous, but I especially liked the suggestion to only focus feed back on one part of an assignment or on one skill. That is an excellent idea. Correcting long math equations can be so tedious, so just concentrating on the first 5 problems is a great idea. I suppose I would rotate my area of concentraction, to help keep the students on there toes.

Erin's picture
8th grade LA teacher from Maryland

A couple of weeks ago in my Grad class we had to write about a teaching challenge we currently face and my discussion focused on the abundance of papers that travel back and forth in my bag from home to school, and vice versa. First, I want to say how relieved I am to know that I am not the only one out there who feels overwhelmed with regards to grading. Second, I want to say Wow! I absolutely love all of the ideas stated above and definitely plan to implement some of this grading strategies. I especially enjoyed the idea of having other teachers grade your papers and switching assignments with them. I think I had my first ah-ha moment when reading this portion, because I realized that there isn't anything anywhere saying we cannot do this. How great is this? Not only can other teachers or Admin give you feedback on the student work, but you can also learn a lot about the student with regards to finishing classwork and ability. My co-teacher often grades classwork for all students and it is such a big help!
I also feel if I focus on one aspect, it will make grading easier. Also, I think teaching students to edit their own work, as well as others' holds them accountable and gives them the proper writing tools necessary for high school. I also like making a game out of showing students the grade after they switch their incorrect answers. My middle school students work very well with competition. This blog was great!! Thank you.

Sue Boudreau's picture
Sue Boudreau
Seventh Grade science teacher from Orinda, California

This has been a huge time saver when grading short or long answer-type questions, and makes me grade more consistently too. It's much less tiring than grading one whole paper at a time, because I know exactly what I'm looking for with that one question. Then I start over with the next question.

14. Assign pictorial representations of understanding when possible - you can see in a second if they understood how the forces operate on a floating object, if they labeled a cell correctly etc.

15. Get grading done soon, preferably DURING quiet or group work times of that class, so you can quickly chat with kids about any problems they are having without writing it out - follows from your #10 which I'm adding to my repetoire, thanks Heather.

16. Grade easy stuff ex. completion or a graphic, in front of them at their tables. Only record kids who are absent or get less than the perfect score. Quick, immediate feedback and it helps keep me connected to each student, especially if I am sitting at their level on my rolling desk chair (the real benefit of 5 years of college - the comfy chair :-)

Sue Boudreau's picture
Sue Boudreau
Seventh Grade science teacher from Orinda, California

I've found this maxim SO helpful over the years (27, how did THAT happen?) If I go to the trouble to really think what 'best' is and make a clear rubric, write a clear question or assignment, give an example and post it on line, life is so much more pleasant when the due date rolls round - much quicker to grade well done work, less tears, cheating and angry withdrawal (because really, I DO have time to personally victimize the students who say I hate them when they get an F).

I also give students the opportunity to redo the whole thing if they still don't quite get an assignment. Reduces the stress from kids not quite knowing what is required (and for their parents too) and supports taking a risk and trying an assignment anyway. A redo policy allows my feedback to be coaching instead of criticism that's instantly discounted to save face.

Because I know they can redo, I can also feel good about holding to a very high standard of work. I'm expecting the best and getting it more often these days.

Will now stop posting! For now :-)

TL Clark's picture

Since my 4th grade son's teachers are practicing the routines of Middle School like switching classes, having multiple notebooks for different subjects, shouldn't they also practice following rubrics, and perhaps a syllabus (knowing the teachers knows what will be taught weekly, monthly and for the year)? Thank you for your prompt feedback.

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

You are correct, ideally the teacher goes over how to utilize a rubric before the assignment so the student can benefit from knowing exactly what is expected. I don't know how useful a syllabus would be at the 4th grade level but I assume a simplified syllabus couldn't hurt and would lay the ground work for your child's future experiences.

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