George Lucas Educational Foundation

Tactics for Tackling the Grading Dilemma

January 5, 2010

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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Filed Under

  • Assessment
  • Formative Assessment
  • Student Engagement
  • 9-12 High School

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