We’ve all been there. No one likes marking. But as a professor, it’s part of the job description. One of the draft titles of this post was even “How to Grade Essays Without Wanting to Commit Murder.” While there are some great guides on teaching the mechanics of grading available, there isn’t much useful advice on how to make grading easier apart from either having fewer assignments or providing less feedback. In the real world, neither one of these is very useful. But there are strategies that every instructor or professor can follow to make grading essays quicker and more efficient. Here are some of mine.
1) Have Faith in Yourself
One of the biggest problems I’ve faced and continue to face as an instructor is Imposter Syndrome, or the belief that I’ve somehow fooled everyone around me into believing that I am a knowledgeable and competent person. Grading is one area where Imposter Syndrome likes to rear its ugly head. You will have finished reading a paper and then start to doubt that you’ve given it an appropriate grade. Or you worry that your students will get mad at you for giving them a bad grade. Or you’ll worry that this paper will result in a grade dispute, and then real professors will review and judge your work and find you wanting. Resist these thoughts. Remember that you have the expertise and good judgement to evaluate essays. Do not second-guess yourself. Assign a grade, make your comments, and move on. Have faith that you have done your best.
2) Don’t Repeat Yourself
It’s very common in research essays to see that same mistake made more than once. This is particularly the case when it comes to footnotes and bibliographies, which are often filled with tiny mistakes. Don’t spend all your time correcting these mistakes. Fix it once, and explain what you did. If you see it again, circle it and write something like “see previous comment on…” If it’s a systematic problem, I’d then make a note to mention this problem in the comments and say that you’ve only corrected a couple of instances to give them an idea of how to do it properly. This is not high school, and it is not your job to find every single mistake on an essay and correct it. Instead, identify the problem, and give your student an opportunity to apply what they’ve learned. The same goes for grammar and spelling. If it’s a serious issue, I always recommend that students go see the Writing Centre. It’s not your job to teach them how to write (unless it’s a composition class, in which case, good luck!)
3) Create a Comment Bank
You’ll notice that after a while, you will repeat the same sentences over and over again. To save yourself from having to either remember what you said last time or type or to write the same sentence over and over again, create a Word document with your most common comments. This is sometimes referred to as a Comment Bank or a Teaching Toolbox. I will do a whole blog post on this in the near future, but it’s easy to get started. If you save your comments on your computer, read through them and copy and paste the most common into a new Word document. For example, one that I use a lot is “While I can see that you are trying to make an argument here, you spend too much time describing or summarizing your sources rather than analysing them. In general, you should avoid description as much as possible.” The time and frustration you will save is immeasurable
4) Create a Bibliographic Bank
Odds are you will receive several papers on a given topic. Once you’ve been marking for a while, you’ll notice that you keep recommending the same books or articles. Again, to save you from having to remember which sources you want to recommend and/or typing out the full references, create a Word document with a list of topics and some of the most important sources listed for each. This way you only do the research once, rather than a million times. This is also helpful if you want to evaluate whether your students have selected appropriate sources or have missed important ones. Your comps list can be a great starting point.
5) Make a Grading Conversion Chart
In general, most assignments require three different “grades”: a letter grade, a percentage, and a numeric grade (like 7 out of 10). They each have their own purposes, but the odds are you will need to convert between them. Even when working at one institution for many years, it can be hard to do this conversion in your head. Spend several years as a sessional at multiple universities with their own ideas about what each letter grade means, and the problem grows exponentially. My solution is is to use an Excel spreadsheet of grades. This is relative easy to create. Mine look like this:
It’s really easy to do. Each “out of” number has three columns. The first is a numeric grade. The second is that grade converted to a percentage (it’s easier to do with a formula, and then just do “fill down.”) The third column is the corresponding letter grade. You can fill these in manually, or you can use a formula.
Here’s mine, but make sure yours corresponds to your institution’s grading scheme!
6) Mark in Batches
I like to run, and when you’re really tired and facing a long run, thinking of the time remaining in intervals makes it much easier. The same is true for marking. A stack of 100 essays seems insurmountable. So what I do is break that stack down into manageable groups, usually 3 or 5 essays, which is about an hour to an hour and a half of grading, depending on the length of the essay. I sit down, grade those essays, type the comments up, put the grades into my grading sheet, and then take a break of at least 45 minutes. This is part of the SMART goal system (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound). It really does help make the grading feel achievable while also ensuring that you are giving your mind a break every one in a while. Once you’ve finished your batch, either set them aside in a different location or put a tick or some kind of mark on them so you can easily tell that they are all finished.
7) When in Doubt, Roll Up
Many essays seem to fall in a valley between one grade and the next, like when you’re not sure if it’s a B- or a B. In these cases, I almost always roll up. This was advice that I got when I was a TA, and it stuck with me. Try to give your students the benefit of the doubt. Remember that university is hard. Many students take multiple classes and/or work while in school. If you are dealing with a paper on the borderline between one grade and the next, or your paper is within 1 to 2% of rolling to the next letter grade, then just bump the grade. It’s always better to err on the side of generosity. And giving someone a 69.5% instead of a 70% is just a bit of a dick move.
8) Don’t Waste Your Time
There will be essays that are so bad that they defy all explanation. Either there are no footnotes or bibliography, the essay is 3 pages when it was supposed to be 8, or the student just completely ignored your instructions. In other words, it’s obvious that the student just doesn’t care. Don’t waste your time commenting on these papers. If your student can’t be bothered to read the instructions, then you have no obligation to spend your precious time marking the paper. I usually place a comment to the effect of: “I would strongly recommend that you review the requirements for this assignment, which can be found on the Research Assignment Instructions sheet.” I find that this is firm, but fair. Save your energy for the students who really put effort into their papers, even when they don’t succeed.
9) If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, Say Something Nice Anyways
Students are humans (though it’s easy to forget this sometimes…), and respond best to positive reinforcement. So try to find something good to say about the essay. Some suggestions, courtesy of my good friend Clare include: “Nice margins!” “Excellent choice of font!” On a more serious note, I usually go with something like “This is a great effort!” or “I can see that you are trying here!” I always use the positive-negative-positive sandwich. Put a positive comment, then a negative comment, and then another positive comment. This tends to motivate students to do better rather than just feel defeated. Remember, your job is to encourage students to learn, so make them feel like you are invested in their success.
Expert Tip: One variation on the positive-negative-positive sandwich comes courtesy of my friend Teva Vidal: “The “shit sandwich” is for kids who deserve detailed feedback but who just missed the mark: start off with the main strengths of what they wrote, then lay it on thick with what they screwed up, then end on a positive note in terms of how they can use what they’ve already got going for them to make it better in the future.
10) Try to find some joy in the work
You know how “Time flies when you’re having fun”? Well, this approach can help with marking. Try to have a sense of humour about the whole thing. There will be times when you become angry or frustrated because it seems like students are ignoring your instructions and therefore losing marks unnecessarily. Laughing this off will help. Some professors like to collect so-called “dumb” sentences and post them online. There are a number of ethical problems with that that I will not get into here. But I can and have shared them with my husband when I’m grading in the room with him. We can laugh together and I blow off steam (Saving your marriage through marking! I can see my husband laughing right now). I also like to mark with a bright pink pen, since it’s hard to get mad when you’re writing in pink ink.
So those are my suggestions for making the grading of essays a little more pleasant. I think the most important takeaway is that it’s worth spending the time to create tools. For many years, I would waste time researching lists of sources, writing out the same comments, and using a calculator. But my time, and yours, is precious, so work smart, not hard (this is becoming something of a motto…). Any other tips for grading essays quickly and efficiently? Let me know in the comments below!