Tips on Grading Efficiently
As a GSI, you have many demands on your time. Too often, time spent grading takes away from time spent doing your own coursework or research. Fortunately, there are some strategies you can use to make the grading process more efficient. Although all of the materials in this section of the Teaching Guide are designed to help you with consistent, fair, and efficient grading, there are some additional tips on efficiency as well as tips mentioned elsewhere that are worth emphasizing.
At the very beginning
Consider the course grading policies. You can save a lot of time by discouraging superfluous regrade requests and late work.
Consider the assignment design. Clearly worded assignments and clear learning objectives will greatly improve grading efficiency. Make sure that exam questions are vetted thoroughly prior to the exam!
Don’t waste time on careless student work. Walvoord and Anderson (1998) give the example of a faculty member who asks students to complete the following checklist and attach it to their papers (Effective Grading by Barbara E. Walvoord and Virginia Johnson Anderson, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, pp. 128–29):
- I read the short story at least twice.
- I revised this paper at least once.
- I spent at least five hours on this paper.
- I started work on this paper at least three days ago.
- I have tried hard to do my best work on this paper.
- I proofread this paper at least twice for grammar and punctuation.
- I asked at least one other person to proofread the paper.
- I ran the paper through a spell checker.
It’s also fair to specify the physical form in which students hand in their work. Is it easiest for you to work with papers that are single- or double-sided? Single- or double-spaced? Stapled, paper-clipped, or in a folder? Printed in black ink, or is another color okay? What font size and type is easiest to read? On exams, make sure that the cover page has a place for students to write their name, student identification number (SID), section, and GSI name. It’s also useful to include a grade table on the cover such as the following:
Faculty members recommend this table both to streamline recording of grades and to discourage potential student tampering with grades. (Definitely use ink when you fill it out, and all changes to the grades should be initialed by you.)
Consider blind grading. Have your students label their assignments and exams with their SIDs and not their names.
Before you grade
Spell out the criteria you will be using as specifically as possible, and come to an agreement with your instructor or fellow GSIs about how grades will be determined. Try creating a rubric, or grading scale, and test it out on a sampling of papers. It may also be helpful to look at a representative sampling of student work to get a sense of the common errors prior to creating your rubric.
Always use the minimum number of gradations consistent with the learning objectives. Why grade on a six-point scale when pass/not pass would be sufficient (and significantly more efficient)?
Ask yourself: Is this rubric fair? Does it appropriately weight the understanding the students exhibit? Does it reflect the assignment’s learning objectives and the assignment prompt?
Making your grading criteria more explicit both enhances student learning and reduces the time you spend determining and justifying grades.
While you are grading
Grade while you are in a good mood.
Grade with company! In addition to being more fun, the other GSIs are a resource for grading questions. Also, if you are grading a large lecture course, it can streamline the grading consistency checks. To ensure consistency, exchange a few papers in each score range with the other GSIs, and grade them independently. Compare the scores and take corrective action if necessary.
Time yourself. Try to limit how long you spend grading each assignment (e.g., I want to grade on average 20 problems per hour). If you find yourself puzzling over a particular paper, set the paper aside to grade last, when your sense of all of the students’ work has been fully developed.
If you are blind-grading, keep your grades in a file organized by student ID number (SID), separate from the file that matches the SIDs to names. This ensures objectivity. Or, less formally, you can just make it a practice not to look at student names while grading.
If the assignment has disjoint parts, grade each part separately (e.g., if an assignment consists of three problems, grade the first problem for the entire class before you proceed to grading the second problem, etc.). This will help you grade consistently as well as efficiently.
Sort the assignments into stacks as you grade (one stack for each grade). When you are done, check through each stack for consistency. Once you are satisfied, mark the assignments with the scores.
Make notes to yourself as you grade. This will help with consistency and make it easier to find student work if you change your mind.
You are likely to take a break in the middle of the grading task. When you resume grading, first look at papers you’ve already graded to reset your mental scale.
When you are finished grading, look again at the first few assignments you graded to see if you still agree with yourself.
Commenting on Student Work
Identify common problems students had with an assignment and prepare a handout addressing those problems. This helps you to avoid having to write the same comments multiple times. It also enables you to address the problem in more detail and helps students realize that others share the same problems.
Type your comments. This has a number of advantages. It allows you to keep a computer record of each student’s progress over the semester; comments can be more detailed; longer comments on common problems can be cut and pasted from one assignment to another; and it is easier for the students to read what you have written.
Do not comment on every problem or point. Focus on a couple of major points. This not only helps you to grade more efficiently, it also avoids overwhelming the students. It enables them to focus more effectively on the areas of their work that most need improvement.
Consider asking students to turn in a cover page with their own evaluation of their work’s strongest and weakest points as well as the students’ thoughts on how they could improve the work. Your comments can be better tailored to each student’s concerns about the work.
Make sure you’ve included enough comments that the students can discern why they received a particular grade and how to improve their future work for higher grades.
Use the words “see me” instead of writing lengthy explanations. It can be much more efficient to explain some issues face to face. Keep track and remind students if they forget to follow through.
Use a short-hand code for common errors, and give students the key.
After You’ve Graded
If appropriate for your course or section, use a spreadsheet or the Grades tool in bCourses to calculate grades. It may take a little time to learn how to use these if you are not familiar with them, but the savings in time can be considerable if you are working with grade points or differently weighted letter grades. Back up all electronic records!
If a student consistently turns in unsatisfactory work, meet with him or her to figure out why and develop a plan of action. Often a student just needs a more efficient study strategy.
Hand back work at the end of section to limit the impact on class time. Discuss common problems with the class.
If, after All of This, Grading is Still Taking Over Your Life…
Document how much time you are spending, and on what, and re-evaluate. Can you pare down anywhere?
Let your Instructor of Record know there is a problem, and try discussing some options. Perhaps you can change the grading criteria to streamline the process. Ask yourself: Is it necessary to grade every problem on an assignment? Occasionally, instructors in the problem-based disciplines decide to grade a random subset of problems on an assignment (after informing the students, of course). Are comments (instead of a grade) sufficient on rough drafts? Can you use a simpler rubric (e.g. pass/not pass instead of a five-point scale)? Can you have the students grade each others’ quizzes in section?
If you are in danger of exceeding your appointment time and have already discussed things with the Instructor of Record, you can speak with your department’s Faculty Adviser for GSI Affairs.