I asked a question and all I got were these papers
October 6, 2011 2:05 PM   Subscribe

What are your grading hacks for really, really boring papers?

I've just received a stack of 21 incredibly dull papers. Help me get through grading them without jumping off a bridge.

I've noticed that I tend to get boring, vague papers when I'm insufficiently detailed or overly directive in my assignments. Even after all these years of teaching, I still occasionally miss the mark. Clearly I did so on this one, probably (looking over it) for the latter reason, and of course I plan to revamp it next semester. So no need to cover that territory - I know what I'm doing.

But that doesn't help me get through *this* stack over the weekend.. any tips for surviving the grading process when the papers are all basically the same (it's an analysis essay, and they got to choose their own document, so not literally the same, but they're all pretty much the same structure and show the same lack of depth/understanding/interest). College, 300-level, if it matters.
posted by media_itoku to Education (24 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Read it aloud to stuffed animals/audience of pillows from around the house. Put inflections and stresses where there normally wouldn't be ones.
posted by royalsong at 2:11 PM on October 6, 2011 [6 favorites]

I know a professor who will only grade with a good bottle of wine at hand. YMMV.
posted by pemberkins at 2:13 PM on October 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

I have tried bargaining with myself that I would do 3 a day but that never makles it past the second day. I have tried picking out the ones that looks the most/least interesting but it is never any use. The only thing I have really learned is that a pile of unmarked and uninspiring essays will get in the way of getting other stuff done, so the best thing is to bite the bullet, sit down at the earliest opportunity and work through the lot, short breaks only. Split into 2 days if it is going to take moe than 5 hours for the lot. Ahead of that, if you have any bits of time (riding a bus, waiting for a meeting to start, waiting for food to be ready) pick one off early.

I know a professor who will only grade with a good bottle of wine at hand.

Because profs don't do that much marking? If you're closer to the TA end of the spectrum that will lead to alcoholism? Depending on the length 21 essays with meaningful feedback could easily mean 5-7 hours of work, maybe more.
posted by biffa at 2:17 PM on October 6, 2011

I feel your pain. What I do is go to a coffee shop at 6:00 am, and drink double espressos until I finish.
posted by vincele at 2:19 PM on October 6, 2011

I go someplace where I have zero access to distractions (a coffee shop without my laptop, to the park, to a lounge/study area in a building in a distant part of campus) with a timer and crank some Pomodoros.

For breaks, I get up, walk, get a drink of water, use the restroom, etc.

I do it first thing in the morning, and decide in advance how many Pomodoros I have to do. When I finish them, I'm done for the day. This encourages me to buckle down and get through so I can get on to less awful things.
posted by BrashTech at 2:26 PM on October 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

Get a season of your favorite TV show that you've already seen. Make yourself grade ten papers an episode. Should be interesting enough to hold your interest while you're sitting there (stopping yourself from getting up), but not so riveting that you'll flake. If you don't get ten done, make yourself do the rest before you can put on another episode. Or get up to pee. Or whatever.

Worked for me all through graduate school.

Oh, and I do this for a living (thanks for the job, ETS!), and you'll survive. Trust me--if I can do this for 40 hours a week, you can do it for a weekend.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:28 PM on October 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

When I had to do this, I would imagine them being read by cartoon characters from my 80's youth. Gruffi Gummi, Papa Smurf, Velma from Scooby Doo, etc.

I've also read papers to the voices of Oprah Winfrey (with lots of ACCENTS on CERTAIN words), John Malkovich, the Slap Chop guy, Lt. Commander Worf, etc.
posted by Elly Vortex at 2:29 PM on October 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

I set timed goals for myself so I can avoid lingering too long on a paper and so I can have a break to look forward to. I usually do an hour on, ten minutes off, and in the off time I allow myself some sort of treat like reading AskMe or making hot chocolate or whatever. . . I use this site to track my goals as I go. So I'll say something like "My goal is to grade 10 papers" by whatever time (I teach high school freshmen, so their papers are likely much less involved than the ones you're grading) and then I take my break.
posted by katie at 2:29 PM on October 6, 2011

I used to power through a stack of essays by making a little grid. With 21 essays it might be five rows of four, plus one leftover. And then I could check off one box on the grid for each essay I finished. The end of the row was the only acceptable stopping point. That way at least I got through a chunk at a time and only had the re-start problem five times instead of 21 times (as I would if I let myself get up to use the bathroom or have a drink of water after every essay). Over the years, I accepted that I would often end up grading late into the night the night before I wanted to return them; perversely, this actually ended up feeling more efficient, because the need to get through them quickly kept me from giving an overwhelming amount of feedback the students would never read anyway.
posted by not that girl at 2:30 PM on October 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Because profs don't do that much marking? If you're closer to the TA end of the spectrum that will lead to alcoholism?

Ergo, YMMV. I've done my share of grading long and terrible essays as a TA myself, I know how tedious it can be. For what it's worth, the example in question was a professor grading long, written exams for a 20-odd student graduate course, which is on par with the amount of grading that needs doing here. The point isn't "take a shot every time something in the paper is terrible", it's to have something nice and a little decadent to keep your spirits up while you work.

Personally, along the line of PhoBWanKenobi's suggestion, I've done a heck of a lot of tedious grading while re-re-re-re-watching Futurama. It's a show I've seen so often that I really only need to listen to it, and it doesn't distract me from the actual grading, just from the tedium. Insert your own favorite rerun.
posted by pemberkins at 2:35 PM on October 6, 2011

It's mildly illegal, so I won't be explicit, but making a bargain with yourself that you can, um, partake of a single dosage of any given poison you choose only in between papers makes that stack go by more quickly.

In all seriousness, of course this happens, depending on your teaching assignment. But there are times you can make it more bearable by focusing on the writing as such (rather than just the handling of the topic) and trying to give at least one piece of really good writing advice to each student, because there are very few who don't need such advice and many who need lots. Half the point (at least) of assigning papers in classes is to help students develop the general capacity to express themselves clearly and elegantly in prose, and the paper topic can be discounted while focusing on things like mechanics and sentence structure or argument structure. Been my secret for years. Students seem to appreciate it. Many of my comments deal as much with the student's use of metaphors or tendency to write too many asides as they do with whether they've correctly interpreted a point of intellectual property law with their conclusion.

I am, however, of the belief that the ability express your thoughts well in writing is inseparable from the ability to think clearly in the first place. As a writing mentor of mine once said, "how do I know what I think until I write it down?" So nothing is more important, and you can teach it in tandem with any other mandate.
posted by spitbull at 2:39 PM on October 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

But there are times you can make it more bearable by focusing on the writing as such (rather than just the handling of the topic) and trying to give at least one piece of really good writing advice to each student, because there are very few who don't need such advice and many who need lots.

Oh my god, this. I've never been a teacher, but I spent enough time in college writing plenty of mind-numbingly boring papers in response to poorly-constructed assignments. It seemed like an endlessly repeating cycle: Teacher assigns awful-sounding paper, I spend two weeks agonizing over it, teacher puts a check-mark on it or if I'm lucky provides feedback in the form of a single question-mark next to a paragraph or some totally useless thing like pointing out a common grammar mistake while making no comment on what I was actually trying to say. It all seemed incredibly pointless and Kafka-esque. I wasn't learning anything about anything and the teachers seemed equally demoralized which showed in the lack of effort they put into constructing assignments and grading them.

Anyway maybe if you make it into a game to find something constructive to say about each paper it'll make the idea of having to read each one less awful.
posted by bleep at 2:58 PM on October 6, 2011 [8 favorites]

I divide them into groups of 4-6 papers (how many I can do at a sitting without going batshit crazy). That would mean you have 7 sets of 4. Then I do a set (yes, frequently after a glass of wine - more than one glass and I'd worry I was impaired, but one glass is enough to dull my grading pain). Then I take a nice long break and do something fun. Then the next set.

The key to making yourself return to the next set, especially early on, is to give yourself some fun thing you can ONLY do while grading. Like, play your favourite music, eat chocolate, watch TV in the background, etc.

Once you've graded a set, keep it separate from the others, but nearby, so that you gradually surround yourself with piles of graded papers. That way you feel like you've achieved a lot, and it's nice to see the sets building up.
posted by lollusc at 3:02 PM on October 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

I pick a show that is easy to digest in chunks- perhaps law and order or a sitcom. Then I will grade for 20 or 30 mins and take a 10 minute break. It's easier to go on for hours if I know I only have to work for the next 20 mins.
posted by nakedmolerats at 4:20 PM on October 6, 2011

I tend to hole up somewhere and just crank it out. Good music played loudly helps a lot. A cafe where I know every third person is also helpful. And, yeah, the beer at hour five or six? Also helpful. Kind of.
posted by kaibutsu at 4:56 PM on October 6, 2011

Oh, the pain. Although I'd love, love, love to only have 21 papers to grade at a time.

1) timers, yes. They help.

2) lack of distraction, yes. Coffee shops are good.

3) If working somewhere private, get voice recognition software, and dictate notes as you go. Say what you actually think (ie, "this is bullshit" instead of 'needs work'). Makes it tolerable, and helps you write a diplomatic but realistic comment at the end.

4) If the writing is inept, correct *everything* for two pages: then stop, and tell the student "I stopped correcting your spelling/tone/sentence structure/grammar here". Then ignore the draggling run-on sentences as best you can, and deal with the ideas. If the writing gets in the way, then tell them so.

5) Write out comments (and grades) on separate sheets, in a document which you keep. Helpful for remembering what the student did last time, and what you told them.

6) Try to be as helpful as possible while being as concise as possible. My problem is always that I write gobs of comments/criticism, and this takes forever. I'm trying, now, to dial it back to 4 or five sentences of comments. Picking and choosing is helpful.

7) I've never been able to do this, but grade them IMMEDIATELY: pull the all-nighter the night you get them. Get a grade and comments on each one, even if you do a sloppy job. Then you can go back, ponder, polish and re-check, later, which isn't nearly so awful.
posted by jrochest at 5:29 PM on October 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

Grading is a bear for me, even the good assignments from the best students can seem overwhelming. My sanity savers are:

1. Clear the decks-- I try to stagger assignment due dates so that grading one night per week is usually enough, except during midterm and finals. We order out that night, and my family knows I'm completely unavailable for at least three hours. I shut the door to my workspace, turn off the phone and email, and just blast through until done. Hate grading on weekends.

2.Skim and sort-- For hard copy papers, I skim quickly over each one and sort them into best guess final grade categories-- possible A's in this stack, D's in that stack over there, etc. That way I can do one unreadable horror, then switch to a nice safely dull B, then a refreshing sip of A before attacking the urks again. For email submissions, I sort into folders on my desktop the same way. My best guesses don't always stick for the final grade, but the eyeballing is often pretty accurate.

3. Find a good objective measure--I use a written assignment grading rubric that I can tailor to each assignment as needed, and I like using two highlighters on the paper itself, green for positive points and yellow for flaws. I staple a copy of the completed rubric to each paper with helpful and encouraging comments written on the side. I've noticed a great deal of improvement from one paper to the next as students try to fix their weak spots. Objective measures really help me to be fair for the assignments I'm sick of reading semester after semester, but assign anyway because the students learn so much.

4. Set a timer--I need a short break every hour or so, and playing beat the clock on individual papers sometimes helps. Jumping around a bit or rewarding myself with a cookie never hurts either.

5. Be an ethical grader--but remember kindness is part of that for teacher and students. I've fat fingered enough errors just in this comment to remind me not take off too many points for typos! And I've been a much better teacher since I stopped trying to catch every minor error and to write *the* perfect comments on each paper.
posted by aisle9nine at 5:29 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

1. Devise some kind of rubric if you haven't already.
2. Chunk them: 5 papers, break. Rinse, repeat.
3. Indulge in beverage of your choice (but go easy on alcohol. Obs. you don't want to get too tipsy and then start marking unfairly).
4. Leave comments about what needs to happen that isn't happening. 1-2 critical comments per paper on the biggest issues you see. Include as much genuinely positive feedback as appropriate.
5. After you've gotten through them all, tally the comments. Now you know what you need to concentrate on teaching them next week. Write up your lesson plans.

I've been there. It sucks. Oh man oh man oh man, it sucks. I've sat looking at a stack of 140 high school freshman essays on a Saturday morning trying so hard not to cry. Crying doesn't help. Not that I know anything about that. Making progress through the stack with sanity breaks *does* help. Coming out with a plan that will lessen the number of poorly written papers: even better.
posted by smirkette at 7:01 PM on October 6, 2011

1. Devise some kind of rubric that allows grading to be a mechanical task distracting you away from how boring and vague the papers are.
2. Take the stack to a coffee shop.
3. Give yourself a time limit for each paper. If you haven't finished grading a paper within the time limit, put it aside, and move on to the next one.
4. Once you've gone over all the papers, then revisit the papers you didn't complete grading on the first pass. Again, stick to the time limit.

I don't think I've ever looked at a paper three times. But it does help to put aside for a bit a paper that is taking a bit long to grade. Also, for 21 papers, I would probably crank it out over 2 days, just to get it out of the way and to stop myself from putting off grading the way I would if I spread the grading out over a week.
posted by needled at 7:38 PM on October 6, 2011

When I was a senior in high school I used to make the tails of my cursive y's and g's as little squiggles and dot my i's and j's with circles. My English teacher wrote a comment on one of my papers that I remember to this day, "Abjure these foolish tears forever..."

I was so impressed with the drama of that comment and the fact that he used a word I had to look up that this comment has stayed with me for nearly 25 years.

Can you think of your paper feedback as a way to write something clever or funny or sarcastic that the student will remember? Back when I used to have a blog, I started to frame daily life events as "what will I say about this on my blog?" If you think of your comments as something that lets you be creative or funny or whatever, would that help?
posted by bendy at 8:27 PM on October 6, 2011

I have not been in this situation for awhile, but here is what I did (as a graduate student, with some similarities to comments above):

Triage. Read each paper only far enough in to determine which of 3 piles to place it in: Good, Medium, Poor. This is an easy determination to make, sometimes within only 1 page.

Next, read each pile through. Each paper must be read/skimmed enough to see key aspects (coherence, creativity, logic, evidence, met instructions, plagiarized, etc.) I attached a cover sheet to each for comments, etc. (Initially for my eyes only, but a source if comments are to be typed up for feedback.) I was also comparing them again, and sometimes this reading indicates shifts between piles are required, and ensures that the evaluations are fair and calibrated.

Decide what the piles mean in "absolute" terms. A+B, C, D+F? A, B, C? Depends on the assignment, course, subject, level, grading method, etc. How much discrimination is required? (This late in the game there can be more piles, I guess.)

Make a final pass through all papers to grade and comment. Fine tune pluses/minuses and comments.

This is intensive, but, I always thought, fair. I kept coffee and beer available and good music for the marathon session. This helped encourage good mood and compassion. If I felt out of sorts, tired, or unclear I stopped, to come back later.
posted by lathrop at 8:31 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Others have covered these, but...

1. Do them as soon as you get them. The longer they sit, the more inertia they get.

2. Decide what you want to look for before you grade. That way you aren't making comments on things you don't really care about. I do holistic grading and choose one or two things to mark up. I also try to make at least one positive comment per paper.

3. Totally watch TV while grading. Setting limits per episode is a great idea.

4. Schedule something fun to do that you can only do once you finish so that you have motivation to muscle through.

5. Have a friend call and be your "minder" when you should have them finished.
posted by guster4lovers at 8:35 PM on October 6, 2011

My sweetheart (a professor) rings me and talks while he marks. I do something equally entertaining (mind-numbing). Most of the conversation is completely forgettable, some quite special, but we get through crap work in company. (Also, I take great pleasure in telling him what a softy he is, he should fail them all instead of giving them ridiculously high marks and other student-hating commentary).
posted by b33j at 5:58 AM on October 7, 2011

I would actually advise against having the TV on, just because IME it's gonna prolong the ordeal.

Seconding tunes. Tunes, tunes, tunes. I basically can't grade an essay without my headphones.

Pandora FTW-- just enough distraction to take the edge off.

Then, when you're done, imbibe something alcoholic and watch (not read) something engrossing, so you can stop thinking about the hurt.

A timer trick: I set my screensaver for the number of minutes I estimate spending on each essay. I allow the screensaver to kick in a couple times for The Problem Essays, but generally it's a helpful visual warning that "you are stewing too long on this one sentence" or "wipe away the tears, they obstruct your vision" or whatever.
posted by AugieAugustus at 9:30 AM on October 7, 2011

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