Professors, teachers, academics: Give me your work tips!
September 13, 2014 11:12 AM   Subscribe

Fellow teacher types, what have you started doing lately that's making your work time more effective? I teach discussion-based and somewhat writing-intensive college courses (think freshman-level Sociology, not English Comp.) and have spent way too much time grading, and especially procrastinating on grading. I want this semester to be different!

Here's what I am doing: I am using Blackboard to collect written assignments in the effort to cut down on the time I have spent "editing" papers. Instead of editing-as-grading, I have put together a list of commonly used comments that I cut and paste for feedback, tweaking for each student here and there as needed.

Surely there are other time- and effort-saving things (I hate the term "hacks," so I'll go with "things") I can be doing so to free up more time for doing other parts of my job (ahem, research). Please send your tips, ideas, etc. for grading. What has worked for you? For instance, have you used peer grading? What's that been like?

Other details: I am not tenured. I would also like to ask about how you organize your research time, but that's probably better as a separate question. Oh, and I already exercise and eat healthy food and get CBT for my Impostor Syndrome.

posted by quixotictic to Education (12 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

But then you'll have to write a rubric.
posted by vitabellosi at 1:12 PM on September 13, 2014

I am a tenure-track professor at what used to be called a R2 institution. So it's research intensive, but not quite at the level of an R1. In other words, I teach a 3/2 but am expected to have some national to international engagement/impact in my field.

However, I teach graphic design, which is in the standard studio art format. I only have a few writing assignments, but I do several project assignments. The students do several applied design projects that I demonstrate and lecture on, consult on and eventually grade.

One tip I got really early in my career, and it was from someone describing their philosophy to grading writing, was to never spend time grading something that you won't ask the student to revise. If the student cannot directly follow through on your comments they have little to no retention of your suggestions. So, why spend time writing something that the student may or may not implement? Unfortunately I do not have a bookmark or reference for this article, but the person had actually done survey research testing whether students retained comments on papers if they could not resubmit the papers. The retention rate was really, really low. If they could resubmit, obviously the retention rate went way up.

For me, what this means is that I try to frontload all of my commentary for a student while they are working in the studio actively developing the project. We have three hour long courses, so that obviously helps. Once they turn it in, I give them some comments with an eye toward how they might revise the work for their portfolios, but I don't kill myself because I should have already been in a dialogue with the student about what they should accomplish before they turn it in. If they didn't listen to me when they had ample chance to revise their work, what confidence should I have that they will suddenly read my commentary with sincerity? I write this as someone who enjoys teaching and is not cynical about students, but it is just human nature that we don't consider criticism as deeply when there is nothing at stake for us.

Perhaps you can do lots of active revision in the classroom with the students and peers? You don't say how many students you have, so I don't know how possible this might be.
posted by Slothrop at 1:34 PM on September 13, 2014 [6 favorites]

Best answer: My school's currently testing the paid version of Turnitin, and the students pre-submit and get feedback and an estimated grade and can revise prior to actually submitting, which improves the papers before they even get to you. And then once the papers are actually turned in, paid Turnitin will I think generate an estimated grade including grammar/style marks as well as originality and then you can just review and tweak. It has presaved drag-and-drop comments, etc. as well. So that's an institutional fix rather than a personal one, but if your university is looking at or already has paid Turnitin, it seems quite useful. I haven't had the opportunity to try it myself yet since my courses are not writing intensive.

Research-time-wise, I try to do as much as I can during the school year, but honestly there's very little time since I teach at a SLAC. So I am very protective of my summer time and do work-related residencies (like Slothrop, I'm an artist) so that I get away from the day-to-day busy and can solely concentrate on my art production and exhibition.
posted by vegartanipla at 1:53 PM on September 13, 2014

I was a high school English Teacher. I'll tell you what I was told, DON'T EDIT THE PAPERS.

Develop (or STEAL a rubric), and then just grade based upon it.

You can give separate scores for composition, mechanics if you want, or you can just deduct for problems with these things (drop one or two grade points, these are COLLEGE students.) Then grade on the actual content.

It goes a LOT faster and it's better for everyone.

Another option is to have students get into groups to review and discuss each other's work. You can do this during class time, perhaps a day or two before the assignment is due, and then PRAY that they take the advice of the couple of students who have it on the ball.

Don't worry about inserting comments, it's better to give a few lines at the end of the paper explaining what they did well, and where they need improvement.

My Assistant-Principal AND our department head told me, "You can tell if it's shit within the first two sentences."
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:53 PM on September 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've found the following approach an effective way to improve student writing and reduce my grading load:

After going over the components of effective writing (as it pertains to the work they will do for me), I assign an essay.

On the due date, I collect it and record completion for each student, without actually giving a grade. I do read each essay quickly and make note of general problems--lack of clear thesis, disorganization, lack of evidence and support, etc.

The next class, I briefly go over my general observations about the essays, making note of the major/common problems I saw and reviewing the concepts students had most trouble with. Then I hand the papers back, ungraded, along with a feedback sheet that each student must complete about their own essay during the class period. The feedback sheets contain specific yes or no questions; the students must assess their own writing and determine whether it meets the requirements. For example, "Does your essay contain a clear thesis? YES or NO." I also have a couple of open-ended questions that ask the students to identify the essay's greatest strength and greatest weakness, and asks what they're going to do to improve their essay.

The students then have a few days to revise their writing (and attend my office hours/go to the campus writing centre for help). They turn in the revised essay, which I then grade.

This benefits me because I don't have to spend as much time grading when the papers are better quality, and it benefits them because they retain feedback better when it's self-generated or they've had to participate in the process of assessing their own writing.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:09 PM on September 13, 2014 [12 favorites]

This is just very general advice from a full tenured professor who has been doing this for almost 20 years. Be very very selective about what meetings you attend. I don't have down time during the day--meaning there is always work that needs to happen (grading, preparing for the next class, research, department related work/projects etc). What this means, for me, is that every hour I spend in a meeting is an hour I will need to make up at some other time--usually on weekends or at night. And there are so. many. meetings. Push back and don't be afraid to say "no" when asked to take on extra responsibilities. Be selective.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 2:14 PM on September 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

I totally agree with the rubric suggestion and also can recommend a checklist for even more ease and speed: I use them for papers and presentations so students know what to expect even before they start writing. Plus, you just subtract points rather than add them, which saves time when grading. I think that's the key: most students love getting their scores and/or feedback asap and would take quick turnaround over a perfectly detailed response. (Of course, you know this and that's why you wrote in the first place!)

On simpler assignments, I just circle or underline errors and/or problematic areas, and instead list my comments on the front. However, I do make corrections/changes to some writing assignments like the ones you mention: it depends on the assignment and class but I'm always consistent with each group. When I list comments, they look something like this:

Their name and a short compliment or comment
- 1 or 2 positives
- 1 or 2 suggestions

An example for an "A" or "B" paper:

Nice work, Susy!
- Excellent use of sociological vocabulary throughout and what a great summary of conflict theory
- Please be careful with citations: please review APA guide

[I do mostly hs so I am a big fans of stickers but skip them when I teach college as an adjunct]

If it's a "C" or below, I still include at least one positive, one or two things to improve, and then invite them to see me to help. They know they need improvement and have even gotten a personal invitation to come see me; now it's on them to take that next step. Good luck! I'm rushed tonight but glad to converse more about this if you'd like. :-)
posted by smorgasbord at 5:05 PM on September 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Some things that have helped me climb up the circles of grading hell:

1. Rubrics, obviously. They help me grade faster, but they also keep me honest and let me and my class know what skills I will be evaluating in this assignment. I also try to use some of the language from the rhetoric as I am teaching the assignment, so hopefully they can read my comments in the context of my class instruction.
2. A letter-grade scheme. I'm not going to spend time wondering if a paper is an 83 or an 87. It's a B.
3. A template of frequently-used comments, with links to further information online. Even when I'm not teaching comp classes, I send students to the Purdue OWL for grammar, citation, and style errors. I do all my grading online, so I've built up a repository of responses that can fit about 85% of my feedback. For some assignments, I've color-coded the comments to match the corresponding section of the rubric.
4. No more than two comments a page, if you can help it. Don't edit.
5. If the papers aren't too long, skim through each one quickly before you start marking it up. Try to get away from the habit of evaluating as you go, and instead see if you can get a feel for the general success of the essay. Then comment on your second read, selecting some passages that support this impression.

Finally (and this has less to do with grading as it does the task of managing the technology):

6. If you use a LMS like Blackboard to distribute documents - assignment sheets, syllabus materials, readings, study guides - don't upload these files to the LMS. It's a pain to have to recreate the course shells each semester, even if you're just changing the dates, and if you are teaching multiple sections of the same class, you still need to go into each shell and update files individually. Instead, link to files in a shared folder (I use Google Drive), and any changes you make there will be reflected in all the course shells.

So it's a bit more work beforehand, but my god does it save you time in the long run. I've also learned that I need to grade in one-hour increments, or I slow way down, but that just might be me getting older.
posted by bibliowench at 7:13 PM on September 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

One tip I got really early in my career, and it was from someone describing their philosophy to grading writing, was to never spend time grading something that you won't ask the student to revise. If the student cannot directly follow through on your comments they have little to no retention of your suggestions. So, why spend time writing something that the student may or may not implement?

I had a colleague who told her students that if they wanted her to comment on their essays, they needed to them a week early. She would return the papers to them by the next class, with comments and without a grade, and they would resubmit the paper by the due date. If students turned in their paper on the due date, she would grade the paper with a rubric, but she wouldn't make specific comments.

She graded (in the traditional sense) about 5 papers that semester. It was wonderful.

Then our Dean said we couldn't do that anymore. But I teach at a community college, so our autonomy is a little different than 4-year/university programs.
posted by bibliowench at 7:23 PM on September 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm teaching English comp this semester. I'm new to it, but these are the pieces of advice they gave that save us time as well as serving the students' better.

1. Never ever copy-edit papers--for multiple reasons, including (a) it's not your job, (b) it's their job and they need to learn to do it, (c) your feedback should focus on more important things like understanding and argumentation, (d) if they really need help they can go to the writing center.

2. Don't make comments to justify your grades. Students who want to discuss how their paper was graded / problems with their paper can visit you during your office hours. (Most student's won't.)

3. Don't comment in detail. Make general comments to point out strong points and weak points. Students who care about more detailed comments can visit you during office hours. (Most students won't.)

4. Read all of the papers before grading them. Make a list of common problems to address during class time, so you don't waste your time making individual comments.

These are probably obvious guidelines to you, but I find some of them hard to follow. They really do cut down on the time it takes to grade papers, though.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:19 PM on September 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

All of the above advice is great, especially that about rubrics -- which I think help me grade faster AND fairer.

Another thing I have done -- tell students I am happy to provide comments upon request. That is, they need to write me a little note at the top of their essay saying they want comments; otherwise, I will just give them the rubric + letter grade. Honestly, there is no point in spending time writing comments for students who ADMIT TO YOU they are not interested and will never read them (for example, nothing worse than spending 40 minutes grading a paper that the student NEVER PICKS UP). Doing them for those who request cuts down on complaints and targets your effort to those who may really use them. Out of 50-some students, I will typically get 10 or so who request comments.
posted by rainbowbrite at 9:21 AM on September 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: So many good ideas here folks! Thank you soooo much! I wanted to mark them all as favorites! Rubrics for the win, it seems.

Bibliowench, thank you for the idea of linking to google folders. I had not thought of that, but I will check out some YouTube tutorials on how to do it. It's still early enough in the semester to implement some of that. I did link my syllabus as a google doc on Blackboard, but you're right, I spend so. much. time revising course materials on Blackboard. It's ridiculous!
posted by quixotictic at 7:55 PM on September 14, 2014

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