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Tactics for Tackling the Grading Dilemma

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Editor
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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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Rebecca Alber's picture
Rebecca Alber
Edutopia Consulting Editor

[quote]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.



Hi Natalie,

Office Depot online is a quick and relatively inexpensive way to get self-inking customized stamps made. You might want to shop around online a bit if you have time for better prices and different styles.

Glad the post was helpful!


Michele M's picture

As a beginning teacher, bringing home those stacks of papers to grade was overwhelming. I felt that I had to grade everything and it took up all of my time. During my second year of teaching, it became easier to assign work that would be important enough to grade and then just separate the other things that they could self-correct with a different color pen. I also agree that I do not prefer having peers grade papers. (unless it is peer editing with writing papers) I don't think that other students in the class should know what their peers are getting on their assignments. I really like the 1 in 4 rule and will consider trying this in my classroom. I also use stickers/stamps for those assignments that I do not "grade". However, I prefer to give extensive feedback on those papers that the students spend a lot of time on and ones that I enter for grades. Since I teach elementary students a lot of modeling is required to follow rubrics and to understand how to interpret and use the feedback that is given.

Kelli Snow's picture

I just sat in a district grading committee last night and completely agree with you. In just the past few years of my 8 years of teaching, I have decided to work smart, not hard. I no longer "grade" everything I ask my students to do, but rather assess their learning on the "power standards", or in my case, IEP goals. I feel that grade reporting needs to change. I feel that we should grade or report based on standards and that this provides much more feedback to students rather than a letter grade.

Jennifer Thomas's picture
Jennifer Thomas
Second grade teacher from Louisiana

I agree with you about students grading papers. I think it is best to cut down on teasing and plus I always felt grades were private. I grade all of my students papers myself. I do not grade everything they do, but I make sure I have the required number of grades and the majority of the time I have more grades than I need.

Mellisa Robinson's picture

I believe grading has both a negative and a positive side to learning. One who has gotten a poor grade may use it as a motivational factor to do better. On the other hand, one may become discouraged. Grading should not be quantitative only. There should be various means of asssessing a child's work.

Shane Varner's picture

Very interesting approach to grading, Rebecca. I like the approach of grading one out of four assignments with undivided attention and comments. Also, the idea of having them keep their work and submitting it for a comprehensive grade is appealing as well. This is definitely food for thought as we all gear up to go back to the classroom in a few weeks.

I teach high school math and developed a system that works well for me. I collect their homework at the door as they enter, and have them quietly work on a warm-up. Then, as they work silently, I select 2-3 problems to grade and base their daily homework grade off of that. If they got a problem wrong, I circle it so they know to really pay attention when we go over it later. I place their score on my printed seating chart, and hand back the homework. This takes about 10 minutes, and their grades are done. Then after the warm-up we go over the homework as a class.

Al Verdes's picture

THanks for the stimulating discussion. I use online gradebooks, and the challenge that I've encountered was that to create the letter or point grade many gradebooks lock you into does require a huge effort on my part, especially in grading frequent or minor assignments such as daily journals, which I prefer to grade "+/-" or simply "completed or not completed." Most online gradebooks do not accomodate flexible grading categories. I've settled on a web-based gradebook created by Thinkwave ( - which allows for multiple grading styles, is elegant and simple to install, and has recently come out with a free version.

Sheila's picture

I've used blogs on for the past 3 years for student journaling. It's more motivating for the students and much easier for me to monitor their daily writing. I can comment on the blogs quickly, providing feedback and track who is writing. Students voluntarily comment on the blogs of others and it makes the writing more interactive and meaningful.

Justin Tinsley's picture

I try to find ways to grade most daily work on a pass / fail basis (as in, if you do it you get 10 points). I give out some sort of assignment nearly every day so even grading it pass / fail can be time consuming. If someone just puts his or her name on a paper that counts as a zero. A pass is a legit, good-faith attempt at the assignment. A fail is anything else. Occasionally, I might give a 5/10 for a daily assignment too lazy for full credit but too advanced for a zero. It happens rarely. This methodology allows me to save most of my time for papers, tests, and other major assignments that require meticulous grading and careful commentary.

Rebecca Lowder's picture

I'm a first year teacher and this was SO helpful as I think about the mountain of grading that has been terrifying me... Thank you so much for the tips!!!!

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