Once, over the coure of five weeks, I graded – and commented upon – just over four hundend student papers. It was mind-blistering work. I was asked by a colleague if this experience passed a cost-benefit analysis. Many of these papers were drafts (or important student reflections), and thus demanded some care since students would be building their ideas off my comments. In the end, their final papers – which received minimal comments from me – were mostly enjoyable to read. Ultimately, efficient and effective gradings requires the frontloading of teacher effort.
After several years, I like to think I’ve become somewhat better at offering constructive criticism of student writing. It’s never become “easy,” but I think I’ve become more effective in advancing students’ writign abilities and efficient in my time spent on the task. Below, I present some of the slides I presented on this topic for our university’s Instructional Development program for TAs.
Our workshop was fairly small and thus I wanted to start by survying our group’s attitudes towards elements of the writing process. Using Mentimeter, the first question asked the worksohp attendees to rate their opinions of the importance of drafting, peer-review, and creating rubrics:
The numbers above represent the averages of the individual responses (“5” being the most “necessary”). Of those, creating grading rubrics was deemed the most important among our group. Happily, I was going to focus on this topic. Drafting and peer review require some experice (ahem, failures) on the teaher’s part to get it “right.” Nevertheless, I consider all three to be closely related, I’ll return to this below. The second question asked them to do a cost-benefit analysis of creating rubrics, setting up peer-review, and giving ample commentary:
Not surprisingly, providing feedback was the most time-intensive, but it’s value was on par with crafting a good rubric. As I noted above, there’s an inverse value to feedback as the semester progresses. It’s most valuable early in the term, when students can adjust their habits and styles (and build their ideas) – the is minimal value on maximal feedback towards the end of the term. The final question was more straightforward, how long does it take to read, comment significantly, and grade a five-page paper:
I asked this question to honestly get a sense of how others operate – we instructors often don’t talk about these types of things with each other. At the very least, I think its important to have an internal estimate of our grading times so we do not go overboard with commenting. Personally, I have not been able to break the 15 minute barrier for five-page papers. I average about 18 minutes. As such, I set a timer for each paper I read at 20 minutes and always try to “beat” it. (Perhaps I can call this a variant of the Pomodoro Technique.)
Before diving into my presentation, perhaps my favorite suggestions for managing paper load comes from Shelley Reid’s insightful thoughts posted in her “Shelley’s Quick Guides for Writing Teachers.” Many of Reid’s principles are incorporated into my presentation.
I start by asking why instructors should assign papers at all. I think its important to keep in mind the value of writing in that is often recruits “higher orders” of thinking, which are all but impossible access through multiple choice exams. It is also important to think about which orders of thinking writing prompts address; some writing prompts may only ask students to list elements of a concept or theory. This remains in the lower order of “remembering.”
There are several things we can do so students do more the conceptual “heavy lifting” – and thus build more of the conceptual “muscle.” Having students draft is an important step in the writing process because it allows the to develop (and become more invested in) their ideas. If you pair this with a structured peer-reivew, there is actually minimal work for the instructor. (Of course, anyone will tell you that peer-review requires a lot of structure and guidance – students need to practice and learn the skill of truly constructive criticism. Perhaps I will run a workshop on the practices of drafting and peer-review in the future…)
After reviewing the basic components of grading rubrics (criteria, description, scale), we spent time lookign for relevant rubric templates online – there is no need to re-invent the wheel! There are many resources available that can inspire your rubric divisions. I provided the following handout for consultation: Creating Grading Rubrics Handout.
After discussing some strategies “before you grade,” I swith to pragmatic suggestions “while you grade.”
I have long been a covert to audio commentary and have suggested it to many of my colleagues. If you have the space (the one limiting factor is you need a generally quiet locaiton), it’s worth a try. Finally, I end with a few thoughts on “after you grade.”