Conquering Mountains of Essays

How to effectively and fairly grade a lot of papers without making yourself miserable

Jennifer / Creative Commons

June 22, 2015

A philosopher friend once told me about a concept he called "work-work balance." As we progress in our careers, he explained, we should seek an acceptable equilibrium between tasks we enjoy and ones we don’t, ultimately spending more time on the former and less on the latter. That sounded right to me, and I have endeavored over the years to do just that.

Unfortunately for those of us who teach multiple sections of writing-intensive courses, that balance can be difficult to achieve. As much as we enjoy teaching — and maybe even advising, class prep, and other aspects of our jobs — there’s simply no escaping the part most of us don’t enjoy, or at least enjoy less: grading all those essays. That daunting chore seems always to be hanging over our heads and can easily become all-consuming, if we let it.

I have simply resolved not to let it. Despite teaching at least four sections of first-year rhetoric and composition each semester, I refuse to let my work life, much less my entire life, be defined by this one potentially unpleasant task. And so, over the years, I have developed an approach to grading that I believe enables me to serve my students well, while at the same time maintaining a degree of sanity and actually enjoying my job.

In sharing this approach, I am breaking one of my Cardinal Rules for Surviving at a Two-Year College: Don’t tell anyone what you do, because someone will tell you that you can’t do it. But what the heck. I’m 30 years in, tenured, and received my last promotion years ago. Some of my advice might sound like heresy to those faculty members who are perpetual martyrs for the cause. But if, like me, you have no interest in being a martyr — if you’re tired of being haunted day and night by looming stacks of essays (actual or virtual) and would like to introduce a modicum of balance back into your life — here is my approach.

Change your bad attitude about grading. That’s been a struggle for me, because I’ve always disliked it. However, over time I have come to understand that grading is not a task separate from teaching but rather an integral part of the teaching process. Marking students’ essays offers me a chance to reinforce what I say in class and show students how those concepts actually play out on the page. At the same time, the issues I see in students’ papers become fodder for useful classroom discussions.

As part of your attitude adjustment, stop complaining about how much grading you have to do. Avoid those hallway conversations where you and your colleagues try to one-up each other with tales of woe about lost weekends spent buried under a pile of essays. In fact, avoid those grumbling colleagues altogether. I’m afraid we’ve gotten to the point (in my discipline of composition, at least) where spending untold hours grading and then bemoaning that fact — loudly, to anyone who will listen — has become a perverse badge of honor. You can do without that kind of negativity.

Stagger due dates. Managing your grading load requires some advance planning. If you’re getting four sets of essays at the end of the week, so you have to fight your way through the piles over the weekend, that’s mostly your fault. There’s no reason you can’t construct your syllabi so that various classes — yes, even different sections of the same course — turn their essays in on different days.

That may require some creativity on your part, but the effort will seem well worth it when those essays don’t arrive all at once. Remember: When they aren’t submitted at the same time, they don’t have to be returned at the same time.

Break it down. As most of us know from writing theses or dissertations, the key to completing any major project is to break it down into small, manageable segments. That’s certainly true of grading.

My composition courses are typically capped at 24 students, so an easy breakdown for me is to grade 12 essays, or half a class, each day. In fact, I typically divide up the task even further, grading no more than six essays in one sitting. Then I’ll go do something else for an hour before coming back to finish the other six. That breaks up the monotony and enables me to approach each set of six essays mentally fresh. We all know that when we try to read too many essays at once, they all start to run together. Sometimes we even judge common errors more harshly in papers at the bottom of the stack, just because we get tired of seeing them. That’s not fair to those students.

Schedule grading time. It helps me to schedule my activities, especially those — like writing, exercise, and grading — I might otherwise prefer to avoid.

I can usually get all my grading done if I spend two hours a day, five days a week on it. As long as I stick to that schedule, I rarely have to grade on weekends or in the evenings. The catch, of course, is that I really do have to stick to my schedule, whether I want to or not.

When I say "schedule," I mean that literally. I look at my calendar each week, see where I have class times, office hours, and committee meetings blocked off, then find a couple of hours each day for grading and block those off, too. Once grading hours are on my schedule, I hold them sacrosanct, unless something major comes up (the latest cute cat video on Facebook is not something major).

Have a realistic return policy. At one end of the spectrum are instructors who stay up all night trying to give graded essays back to students the next day. At the other end are those who return every paper at the end of the semester. You don’t want to be either of those people.

I’ve always believed I have a professional obligation to return students’ essays within a reasonable amount of time, and certainly before the next essay is due. I’ve chosen to define "a reasonable amount of time" as one week, or two class sessions. Occasionally, if I get four stacks of papers in the same week, it might take me three class meetings to finish grading.

I put my commitment to my students in writing on my syllabus: If they turn their papers in on time, I will return them within two class meetings if possible, three at most. (If they turn their essays in late, I note, I’ll get to them when I get to them. You might be surprised how that veiled threat cuts down on late essays.)

Be a teacher, not an editor. Something I’ve struggled with, having done a fair amount of copy editing in my time, is the temptation to edit students’ essays, not just grade them — to mark through entire sentences and write over the top and make other wholesale changes to their writing.

I have to remind myself constantly that that’s not my job. I’m not helping students prepare a manuscript for publication; I’m trying to help them improve their writing. Simply changing the way they’ve written something, in a way that might seem arbitrary to them, is usually not an effective means of accomplishing that. So I try to limit my "editing" to situations where a simple change of wording or construction might have broader application than to that one essay.

Eschewing editing also means I don’t necessarily mark every single "error" I see. We can easily fall into the trap of giving students too much feedback, so that they can’t possibly process it all. It’s much better, I believe, to focus on two or three problems in a given paper, help the student overcome them, and then perhaps focus on different issues in the next assignment.

Limit your comments. The same rule applies to making comments at the end of students’ papers. I have colleagues whose comments are longer than the essays themselves, although I’ve never seen any evidence that such a strategy is effective or that most students even read those long comments. (Most graduate students, maybe, but not most of my undergraduates.)

Instead, try offering a few salient observations that students can actually take to heart and learn from. If you’ve already commented on those issues in the margins you probably don’t need to repeat yourself at the end.

At the end of each essay, I try to make at least one positive comment, followed by no more than three "suggestions for improvement."

Limit grading time on each essay. By grading instead of editing, by not marking every single error you see, and by limiting your comments to what students will actually read and find meaningful, you should be able to get through the typical 600-to-800-word essay in about 10 minutes or less.

Let’s be honest: If you’ve been doing this for any length of time, you probably know within two or three minutes approximately where a particular essay falls on the grading scale. All that’s left is to fine-tune the grade (middle B or low B?), note any significant problems, and offer a few useful comments. You can sacrifice yourself further on the altar of "good teaching" if you insist, but there’s really not much more you can do with that essay that’s going to be of any genuine benefit to students.

So, to do the math: If I spend no more than 10 minutes on each essay, that means I can grade 12 within two hours. In that manner, it will take me eight business days to get through four class sections of papers. If I’ve effectively staggered my due dates, I can return all of those papers within three class periods, at most.

And that’s how you teach four sections of composition (or any other writing-intensive course) without being miserable all the time, burning yourself out, or losing your sanity. You might even enjoy your job, not to mention your life. Of course, if you prefer, you can just be miserable all the time, like too many of the people I know who teach composition. But I don’t recommend it — and it won’t make you a better teacher.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College and author of Building a Career in America’s Community Colleges. He writes monthly for our community-college column and blogs for Vitae. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer. You can follow Rob on Twitter @HigherEdSpeak.