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5 Tips for Handling Grading in Large Online Classes

I’ve been chronicling my experiences this semester adapting my approach to teaching from my previous experience with small courses to a new challenge of large-scale classes, and particularly to the needs of a large online course. The most overwhelming aspect for me so far has been the challenge of grading and providing meaningful feedback. This is unsurprising, given grading has been one of our most debated subjects here at ProfHacker. Taking grading to new scales has definitely required me to rethink my teaching and methods.

For an interactive online course, I like to use several different methods to engage students in the material, and most of them involve producing a graded output. Discussions result in hundred of posts to read, moderate, and evaluate each week; journal assignments result in creative work awaiting feedback; exams call for essays to demonstrate understanding engagement with the works under study; and creative projects combine digital production, writing, and art to produce original work that requires play and exploration for evaluation. Most of these are fun to grade (particularly the creative projects), but the sheer numbers can become overwhelming as more and more students are involved.

  • Accept your limitations. This is advice I admit I have trouble following, as I’d love to devote as much time to every project produced my students as I could when teaching classes of 20. However, running the numbers is a great way to accept reality: for instance, I’m teaching approximately 300 students this semester. If I spend 5 minutes outside of class time on each student a week (including grading, answering emails and Canvas messages, etc.) that’s 25 hours before I’ve set foot in a classroom, prepared a class, or attended meetings–much less worked on outside projects.

  • Commit to a timer. When I set out to grade an assignment, I have a clear plan for how much time I can spend: this is generally based on the stakes of the assignment and the likelihood of feedback impacting students’ future work. Be realistic about the available time. I expect to spend more time grading early discussion posts so I can make suggestions for future work, for instance, and I dedicate the most time on large creative projects and other high-stake assignments. I divide the amount of time available among the number of students and set a timer on a per-student basis: this commits me both to giving each student an approximately equal amount of feedback and helps keep the process moving forward. It may take some tries to find the right length of time for each student, but it’s worth it.

  • Schedule an uninterrupted block of time. Once I’ve started the timer, I don’t like to stop grading until I’ve reached the end of a particular assignment. Knowing this about myself, I set deadlines that correspond to evenings where I can dedicate several hours to grading in a row until I’m done. (This is not great for carpal tunnel, but it is fantastic for the feeling of victory once the grading is crossed off the to-do list.) Figure out what works for you and plan in advance when you’ll grade each assignment.

  • Use peer review for additional feedback. Peer review is tricky: I recommend Ryan’s post on peer workshops as ‘speed dating’ for an example of an effectively targeted prompt. It’s a great way to get multiple eyes on a project at different stages, while developing students’ ability to respond professionally to the work of others. I particularly rely on workshop techniques for early drafts of high stakes and complex projects, although I also aim for at least one stage of review with feedback from me before the project is final.

  • Consider simplifying feedback when appropriate. I’m not a fan of multiple choice, but I have no problem integrating the occasional auto-graded quiz to evaluate comprehension of reading or lecture materials. Since I use these in addition to a number of other assignments where students get more detailed feedback on their progress, I know these evaluations will be in the context of other feedback. Similarly, I’ll use rubrics (which are usually built-in to your course management system) to provide straightforward feedback on whether requirements are met, which can then be supplemented with individual comments.

Grading can seem to some faculty like a burden, but to me it’s one of the most important aspects of a college education. With course enrollments getting bigger and more universities embracing online and mixed-mode courses, it’s important to address how grading can continue to be valued and responsive in these new contexts.

Do you have any tips for grading in large courses? Share your strategies in the comments!

[CC BY 2.0 Photo by Michael Cory]

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