Do you love writing and teaching writing, but grading it makes you tired, frustrated, or burnt out?
Maybe you had great expectations for your students this year. This was going to be the year you tried this new strategy and they wrote beautiful prose. But it’s not going well. They’ve got the same old errors, and you’re burning away your plan periods, after-school hours, and family time correcting the seemingly infinite stack of error-wrought papers. The teaching is going great. The grading just weighs you down.
A disconnect between real world and grading
When grading threatens to take your love of teaching writing, it’s time to revisit the writing process. There’s often a disconnect between how we teach and grade writing and how real people actually write. We’re not doing that on purpose, of course; it’s probably how we ourselves were taught.
You are probably familiar with the writing process: prewriting, drafting, revising, proofreading, publishing (or some similar form). Many teachers tack on grading at the end, as the publishing step. Others make grading a part of revision.
But, if you really want to streamline your grading, increase its impact on students, and keep your love of writing, you should spread grading out over the entire writing process.
Let’s talk about 5 strategies for maximizing your time and your impact when responding to student writing.
Strategy One: Stop proofreading
Many teachers approach grading as if they were a proofreader, marking every error in student papers. Even if you allow students revision time to fix these errors, studies show that your time is wasted. Students often don’t learn from these marked errors. They will (on average) make the same mistakes on the next paper.
A better way to approach grading is from the mindset of a coach. Think about what this particular student needs to become a better writer. Your job is to find one or two key elements in this draft that will help them become better writers in the long term.
If you’re only focusing on a few issues, that means you need to look for patterns. You are going to ignore most errors. Yes, that’s right—ignore them. Completely. You will probably find the student is struggling more with Higher Order Concerns like purpose, audience, organization, or support. Focus on these before grammar. Not that grammar isn’t important, but often it’s only a symptom.
If you focus on fewer issues in any given draft, you will find yourself cutting down the time you spend responding to each draft. Not only that, but studies show that students respond better to fewer and more specific comments targeting Higher Order Concerns.
So, if your grading feels more like proofreading, you are doing it wrong. Teach your students how to proofread. That’s their job.
Strategy Two: Provide more in-class time for prewriting
You may already give your students time to do brainstorming and freewriting for projects. If you don’t, start. If you do already, increase that time. Most real-world writers require lots of time to plan and attempt drafts (composition researcher, Donald Murray, calls this “rehearsal”).
Your students probably won’t know how to do prewriting. Or, more accurately, they will turn in their prewriting draft as a final draft. You will need to guide them with activities that walk them through the early stages of writing and immerse them in their topics.
Don’t just do brainstorming and freewriting. Have them read about their topics and write about related articles. Have them write in different styles. If it’s a fiction project, have them write a nonfiction piece about it. If it’s nonfiction, have them write fiction. Have them draw their topic. Really fire up their brains. The more they think through their topic initially, the better they will do in the long run.
Strategy Three: Encourage multiple drafts
Many students turn in their first draft as their final draft. Make it your goal to get them to write three drafts at least.
They should crank out the first draft as fast as possible. It can (and should) be rough. You won’t grade this one directly. Instead, it will be “graded” in one-on-one coaching during class time as you circulate the room (more on that in the next strategy).
Once students finish this draft, you should return them to the research stage. Have them do additional prewriting, look up more sources, read about their topics, do immersive activities, watch videos, share their work with peers, do retroactive outlining. After these activities, they will be ready to return to their drafts and revise. This second draft will be more polished because they will know what they are trying to say.
The first draft is the “what-do-I-think?” draft. The second is the “okay-I-think-I-got-it” draft. This is a good time to do a peer review session with your students (more on that in strategy five). You could also look at this draft in full and offer your suggestions, but here’s the important thing: do not grade this draft. Sure, give it a completion grade. But do not slap a letter grade on it. Students need to see you are a guiding teammate here. Grading too soon can stymie the writing process. They need the feedback, not the grade right now.
Award failure with extra attempts at learning. Our education system tends to punish failure, rather than encourage it.
Once they have your comments and their peer’s comments, they can write the final draft. And, now, you get to apply your rubric and give it a grade, but . . .
Allow for another revision after the grade is received. What good is your final feedback if students can’t learn from it? Allow them to revise until they are satisfied with the grade. This turns grading into incentive, not punishment.
Strategy Four: Coach while students write in class
A lot of writing should happen in the classroom. While they write, you coach. Walk around and engage them in conversation. Ask questions from curiosity. Ask them if they need help. Point out something interesting in what they are working on.
What you do depends on what stage of the process they are in. You can brainstorm with them, research, play devil’s advocate, ask them “what if” questions, challenge them, praise them.
If it’s early in the writing process, avoid pointing out grammar issues, but if it’s later in the process, that might be exactly what they need. Some might even ask for grammar help.
Strategy Five: Do more group work
Have them work with a team of students often throughout the process. They can brainstorm together, look at rough drafts, peer review final drafts. The more you have your students work in groups, the better they will get at the writing process, and you will find your workload lightening.
However, many students view peer review as proofreading because that’s how their papers are graded. Just as you are changing your mindset, you need to help them do the same.
Teach your students that they do not have to be writing experts to contribute to peer review. They need to respond as readers. If something doesn’t make sense—to them—they need to ask for clarification. If they can’t find a thesis statement, they need to mention it. Everyone in your class has the potential to offer good, constructive criticism because they are all readers. And writers need readers’ opinions.
One of the best systems for getting students to peer review effectively is to teach them the Higher Order and Lower Order Concerns, from writing center theory. Learn more about that at the Online Writing Lab at Purdue. https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/690/01/
Okay, but what about the papers to grade right now??
I hear you. Let’s do a crash course on how to grade faster, so you can get back to your family. We’ll breeze through 6 strategies for grading faster. We don’t have time to break them down in detail. I’ll do that in another post.
Here we go! How to grade your papers faster (the brief version):
- Set a timer for 2–5 minutes. Obey your timer!
- Find only one major thing you want the student to improve on this paper. Then comment on one thing they did that was just plain awesome.
- Focus on HOCs instead of LOCs (see Strategy Five above and link). Don’t proofread for them!
- Use a rubric or a comment system, not both. Your rubric is a tool for showing students how they did at a glance. If it’s set up well, there’s no reason to fill up the paper with extra comments.
- Make brief marks to remind yourself of issues to discuss with the student in person. Underline key features, circle a couple mistakes, star a passage, write in abbreviations, but use these marks as a springboard for a face-to-face conference.
- Read through each paper once without making any marks. After finishing each paper, place it in a folder marked A, B, C, D, or F. Once you’re done, go back to each paper and write a note to each student that explains why it received the grade it did.
How to get started
It’s never too late to adopt this kind of grading system. Are your students in the middle of a project right now? Extend their final deadline and start engaging them in more writing activities in class while you engage them in one-on-one discussion.
Did you students just turn in a final draft? This one’s tricky because it could backfire, so judge your class’s personality. You could respond to these drafts as if they were the first draft and ask for revisions. Some classes love this, but some students who were not expecting extra work can view your actions as an attack. They thought they were done, and now they’ve got to redo a paper! Nobody knows your class like you do, so you make the final call.
Are you about to start a new project? Extend the timeline for the project if possible. If your schedule can’t accommodate any changes, try having them do peer review online outside of class to make some more room in the schedule. You can also free up more time by having them do some of the writing process at home.
If you are teaching a “kitchen sink” English course with other responsibilities like literature, vocabulary, spelling, study skills, and potty training, the writing process becomes even more of a challenge because there is just not enough time for everything. If this is you, here’s what I want you to do: Break up your major projects into 10 minute activities students can do as bell work in their journals. This will make journalling even more meaningful, and it will show them that the writing process is just that—a process that takes time. Many professional writers and authors actually work full time jobs that have nothing to do with writing. They write novels in ten minute sessions. Maybe we can do the same with essays?
Grading doesn’t have to be such a time-consuming drudgery. Try out some of these approaches and see if you can reduce your workload while increasing the results in your students’ writing. And I hope you will also keep the love of what you do. Because your love of writing is important. Impart passion.