5 Ways to Make Grading Easier

I’ve been teaching every semester since 1982. If you want to get all mathy about it, I also taught summer classes for several years. That means—except for four semesters, during which I’ve had sabbatical or a sick leave—I’ve spent a whole lot of time sitting at a table (almost always my kitchen table, for some reason) over the last 30 years, grading papers, exams, and essays.

You’d have thought it would’ve gotten easier by now, wouldn’t you?

Ha! The only way you’d think that was if you didn’t do your own grading.

The rest of you know exactly what this is about: For myriad reasons, the process of reading and critiquing the written work of dozens of students (this semester I have a total of 54) never becomes what you might think of as “easy.”

Maybe it’s because I insist on reading what they have to say (I have friends who argue passionately against this method) and giving my students frequent in-class writing assignments (their handwriting has, collectively, gone down the digital drain since nobody else forces them to write in ink).

This year, however, I have a number of former students who are themselves wrestling with the dark angels of assessment. For the first time in their new careers, they are facing the process of assigning passing or failing grades to the assignments they’ve given to their own college or high-school classes. “Why didn’t I just hand them a multiple-choice quiz like everybody else?” they whine, to which I reply, “Because you want them to remember something when the class is over.”

Then they ask for advice, these erstwhile students of mine, about how to “get through” the grading, as if it were the flu. Or heartbreak.

Having realized I keep repeating the same few simple (although not easy) suggestions, I’ve decided to put them all in once place for reference:

1. Promise to reward yourself when you’ve graded a reasonable batch—5 or 10, say—so that you can feel a sense of accomplishment. Rewards might include (but are not limited to) a walk, a smooch, some coffee, tea, vodka, seltzer, various cookies, a nice piece of lasagna, and a lovely glass of champagne. No, you should not reward yourself with these all at once. Not even if you finish grading everything you have in the house. Pace yourself, honey, pace yourself.

2. Chastise yourself. I was raised Roman Catholic. I use this one a lot. Until you grade a reasonable batch—10 or 15 (yes, higher than the reward scale)—you are not permitted to check e-mail or Facebook, listen to music, watch TV, or talk on the phone. When you are granted permission to engage with the so-called Outside World, you can do it only briefly; don’t abuse your own guilt. You’ll only make it worse. Trust me.

3. Don’t wait until the last minute; you’ll do a poor job, and you’ll hate everyone involved because of it. This is a tough one. If you can help yourself get into a rhythm early and make it a habit to get the papers back to your class within a week, the whole business will make more sense to you and to your students. To wait for weeks and weeks between receiving a paper and returning the paper is to spoil the exercise. It’s like leaving milk out in a warm room: It goes bad. It becomes useless. You might as well toss it.

4. If possible, create specific and focused assignments you find at least marginally interesting. Ask questions you find intriguing; don’t rely on old exams; avoid tedious, vague subjects which can be addressed by anybody who has (1) ever read any book whatsoever; or (2) ever attended any one of your classes and knows your keywords.

5. Don’t be clever or snarky. You want to show off your sharp wit? Keep it for when you’re writing letters to the Promotion and Tenure Review Committee. Unless you are being kind, do not be cute or ironic or use mockery when writing comments on a student’s paper. The ability to decide somebody’s grade is not the same thing as being able to bully that person. The easiest thing in the world is to make a student feel bad. You should get satisfaction from being that person’s teacher, not from being that person’s judge.

Bonus point: Think of how good it’ll feel once you’re done.



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