Grading essays is the final step of a big writing assignment and the hardest. Grading essays is time-consuming, possibly boring, and the whole time you are working towards completing this task your students are asking when it will be done. But you are in luck because there are a plethora of ideas on how to grade writing assignments faster. Imagine if you could grade writing in half the time?
How Grading Essays Took Over My Life
Essay grading is one of the hardest things to get done in a busy classroom. I would often bring essays with me on long ski trip car rides to get it done. In 2019, I was preparing to leave the classroom to focus on being a mom and there was one writing assignment I had assigned but hadn’t graded. I was busy prepping materials for the teacher who was taking over, grading all of the other things, worrying about my son, and grieving saying goodbye to teaching, at least for the time being. I actually took those essays home and graded them after I left my job and returned them back to school a short while later.
Why Teachers Hate Grading Essays
Most teachers spend time grading essays at home, off the clock. We painstakingly work our way through large stacks of papers, during our personal time, until every last one is graded and entered into our grading book. Of course, we hate it. That sounds like a form of torture. Let’s learn some ways to make the essay grading process easier.
What is the Key to Grading Essays Faster?
Grading essays is going to take time, but we can make it take less time. The true secret to reducing the time you spend grading essays is to come up with a system that works well for you. As I write this there is half a school year left. That is a great amount of time to work on building a system for grading essays that’s going to work well for you. This is not an instant fix, but here are several ideas that you can try out. Keep the ones you love that become part of your system and leave the ones you dislike. This article will leave you with a list of ideas to try to make grading your next essay faster.
Grading Essays Tips From Other Teachers
Tips for Grading Essays
After reading so many ideas and racking my brain it made sense to me to break these ideas into four categories. If you pick one or two tips for grading essays from each category it should speed up your grading process. Building your system is going to take time. If the first set of tips you try isn’t working for you, then come back again to pick a new one.
Start Grading Essays Before Students Turn in Their Final Draft
Don’t wait until the due date to start grading your students’ work. We can get a headstart on grading while they are working on their brilliant idea. Here’s how.
- Make Grading Essays Easier with Revising and Editing
Guide students through the revision and editing process with clear steps and frequent check-ins and feedback. As your students write, research says they need fast, focused, and frequent feedback. I am not sayings you are going to be reading everyone’s writing while they are revising and editing, but reading parts can help a lot. Students care about fixing their writing while they are writing. After they turn it in they stop caring. Take advantage of this and give them feedback a paragraph or two at a time. While you are giving this feedback you do not have to write down a single thing, have them take notes and responsibility. If you think your revision and editing lessons and process need some tweaking then check out these articles: revising, revising vs editing, editing.
- Grading Essays Your Students Choose
Have you ever had students write several drafts of an assignment? Maybe you had students write answers to four questions about a book for homework. What if you asked students which one you should grade? Imagine if you gave them the choice to decide which question they did the best answering that truly shows their understanding? You might have some happy students and less to grade. Before a paper is turned in you have cut your work down by about 75%.
- Grading Essays One Paragraph at a Time
I’ve mentioned this passively, but here is the full explanation. Grade one paragraph of a student’s writing at a time. If you take time to read every students’ first paragraph and give them feedback or make comments you’ve basically already graded the work. Have students turn in that draft with their final draft. Then you can simply compare the two. If students made corrections you might have to read a bit more, but if they didn’t you can put a note that they need to fix the errors you corrected in their draft. Ooph! That hurts. “The teacher told me what to correct and I didn’t correct it and now my grade is lower.”
- Have Students Self-Check Before Grading Essays
You can have students self-check their essays by grading themselves. Students can fill out their essay rubric before the due date. Students should carefully check their work with the rubric so they can see where they might need to make changes and understand where their grade is coming from.
- Use Highlighters
Have students highlight the skill they are currently practicing. If you are working on citing sources have students highlight that. If it’s text evidence then students should highlight that. Their essays won’t be perfect, but if they are mastering the skill you are focused on then that’s great and they should be given credit. Maybe you focus the majority of their grade on the skill they are learning.
- Have Students Write a Correction List
When students hand in their work have them write a quick list of things they’ve changed from their first draft and comments they’ve been given. It’s reflective and metacognitive and it makes less work for you. It helps you to see how they’ve progressed as a writer, which should be reflected in their grade. You might even want to make this list worth a few bonus points so students take it seriously.
- Give Students Their Rubrics or Grading Criteria at the Beginning of the Assignment
I hope every teacher already does this. Let students know what skill you are going to be focusing on while you grade their work. Beyond giving it to them go over specific parts each day or week. If you teach a mini-lesson that coincides with a specific part of the rubric help students understand the correlation. We can assume they know or understand our expectations.
- Offer Choices
Give students a choice board of assignments that they can write. Your choice boards can be various prompts, topics, or even projects. If you offer choices you won’t be reading the same thing over and over again. Grading essays is tedious enough, at least give yourself different material to read during the process.
Prepare Yourself For Grading Essays
These are some mostly short and sweet tips to help you prepare to grade and grading essays takes preparation.
Planning Before Grading Essays
- Use Movies Strategically for Grading Essays
If you ever show movies in your classroom then pull out your calendar ahead of time. Plan your movie day the day after their big essay was due. Taking time to plan like this will leave you with extra hours to get the grading done at school.
- Plan Essay Due Dates
Pull out your calendar at the beginning of the year and plan your essays and due dates. I have a whole article about becoming a curriculum mapper if you need some advice. If you plan ahead and make sure you aren’t planning too much or too little you will be much happier. Of course, you might adjust this plan, but knowing what’s coming will help.
- Grading Essays in Batches
Batching is one of the best secrets of productive business. It simply means that you do like tasks so that your brain doesn’t have to shift gears. If it’s essay questions on tests then plan on grading in batches. This means that you will open every page to question 1 and grade every student on that question. That way only one answer is floating around in your head.
- Plan When You Will Turn Back Work
If students ask you when they will get their papers back plan for about a week out. Part of this plan is that you will grade a little bit each day. Don’t say you will try to get it to them in two days. Give yourself time to grade without going crazy.
- Don’t Accept Late Work
Don’t accept late work from students without good reason. There are sicknesses, family emergencies, and students who have IEPs that include extra time that you will need to accept late work from. But the average student who didn’t finish their work on time, don’t accept late work. At my last school students who turned in late work started with a 50% and they knew it. If they talked to me BEFORE the due date we might make another plan, but this was the policy.
Prepare Yourself for Grading Essays
It’s important that you prepare yourself for grading essays in every way possible. You wouldn’t go for a run in jeans and flip-flops and you can’t grade essays without being prepared.
- What to Write With
What kind of pen do you like to grade with? Make sure you have the one you prefer before you sit down to grade.
- When to Grade
What time of day works best for you to grade? Probably not super late at night when your brain isn’t working.
- Comments Bank
Do you have a bank of comments reading? This is especially helpful for digital grading. A comments bank can speed up the grading process.
- Limit Distractions
Limit the distractions around you. Take off your Apple Watch, turn off your phone, and don’t sit near the tv.
- Set a Timer
Think realistically about how much time you should need per paper. Set a timer and don’t linger on every paper.
- Grade Essays First
Let grading essays be the first thing you grade. We only have so much willpower each day. Don’t start with grading spelling and use up your willpower. Grade essays first and then the other stuff.
Tips for the Grading Essays Process
Grading essays is a process that you can speed up in at least a few ways. It is possible to take some of the complications and questions out of grading essays.
Have you ever been looking at a rubric and couldn’t decide if students should get a 2 or 3? Stop wondering and guessing. Give your students the benefit of the doubt and scale up.
If you are concerned about plagiarism then you can use websites to check student work. Turnitin.com will check for plagiarism and they let you grade digitally for a fee. Other things that can stop plagiarism are having unique assignments and changing your assignments regularly.
- Hamburger Comments
Do you write final comments about a students’ writing with their grade? Start and end any end comments about students’ writing with a positive comment. We need to encourage and build our students up. On that note, you can even ask students if they want comments on their papers (especially with older kids).
- Find the Good
Finally, save good and bad sentences to share with future students. You can show kids what not to do and what is done well.
Tips to Make the Actual Marking and Grading Essays Go Faster
Want to speed up your marking process? Who would say not to that? Here are some tips to make marking and grading essays go faster for you.
- KeyCode or Comment Code
Have you heard of a key code or comment code? It’s a paper of the common marks you make on an essay. Each item might be represented by a letter or number. When you come across a run-on sentence you write 3 instead of run-on sentence. You will be writing less comments on each paper. Some teachers like to use highlighters to help them mark parts more noticeably too.
- Grade Digitally
Grade in google docs or online. You can copy and paste comments into essays so you are writing less. Typing is faster than handwriting too.
- Mark it Three Times
Don’t repeat the same comment throughout the whole paper. Mark the first few and they tell the student to check the rest of the paper. Some teachers have a rule of three. But pick a number that works for you and stick to it.
- A Check Marks the Line
Write a check next to the lines that have a problem and let your students find the problem themselves. This puts the responsibility on them and makes less work for you.
- Use Rubrics Effectively
If you use a rubric or checklist then just circle or underline the errors you see rather than write a comment.
- Not Ready to Publish
Return papers that are not ready for publication. If students hand you a paper that is just a mess return it. Don’t spend time fixing every error for them. Tell them it’s not ready for publication and it will be a zero until they fix and resubmit it. This method will make your grading life easier and give your students more responsibility.
Grading Essays Like the Most Experienced Teachers
A big part of grading essays is finding a system that works for you and letting go of little things or sometimes big things. Let go of perfection. Let go of grading it all. Let go of marking it all. Let go of what other teachers might think of you. Let go of the stress of grading. Here is how some of the most experienced teachers have changed grading essays. It took some teachers their whole career to change what they were doing. Don’t wait under a giant stack of papers.
- Group Writing Projects
Assign group grades and group writing projects to your students. Let your students help each other. Wouldn’t it be great if they worked in groups of three or four? You cut your grading by 75% and students can support each other. If you want some group writing projects I’ve got you covered. Check them out here:
- Grade Content
Grade for content over grammar. Grammar is something I am still improving in my own writing. I have stopped expecting my students’ work to be perfect. Did they answer the question well and write descriptively? Give them credit for that. It’s worth more than a boring essay that has perfect sentences.
FCAs. That throws me back to 6th grade. My sixth-grade ELA teacher used FCAs for all of our writing projects. She would have us write FCAs at the top of the page, followed by three to four things she was going to grade us on, and assign a point value to them. Spelling 10pts, Grammar 15pts, Descriptive Language 75pts. She was a genius. It narrows what needs to be graded and lets the students know exactly what they will be graded on.
Writing rubrics are so popular in schools right now. It helps teachers and students know what is going to be graded. It’s a breakdown of the skills the teacher is working on with the students and is especially helpful for new teachers. Make sure your rubric matches your assignment well.
Checklists instead of rubrics. Checklists are similar to FCAs but usually contain more grading areas. More experienced teachers know what grade to give a paper just by reading it. They might know the student should lose a few points here and there. Rather than going through a rubric, it’s easier to mark the few areas that need work. I think checklists are more beneficial to experienced teachers or particular assignments.
- Group Conference and Comments
If your whole class is making the same errors in their writing then why meet one-to-one or write on every paper. Discuss the assignment as a whole class and the errors you saw instead of writing them down. Besides if you discuss it students can’t shove the paper full of comments into a folder unread.
- Corner Rubric
Put a rubric in the corner of the paper or writing prompt. Yes, put a mini rubric with focused areas of grading in the corner or the bottom of the paper or writing prompt. Keep it simple and thus short.
- Limiting Length
Try limiting the length of an assignment. Maybe students can turn in one page of writing. Why limit their writing? It will help students practice being concise in what they say and it will give you less to grade.
- Don’t Grade Everything
Just because you have your students write doesn’t mean you must grade it. Maybe you decide you will grade four papers per a grading period. Plan the number of assignments you will grade ahead of time.
- Peer Review
For those papers, your students write but you aren’t grading consider peer review sessions. Let students grade each other’s work and have conferences about it. There is still a lot of learning to be done.
- Grade One Skill
Grade only the skill you are working on. I have alluded to this, but tell your students that is what you are going to grade. Are you working on similies that elevate their writing? Have them highlight the similies. As you read skip the grammar and spelling. Don’t worry about run-ons and fragments. When you read the highlighted simile ask yourself if you understand their message and idea better. That’s the grade.
Decide How You Will Be Grading Essays
I hope these tips give you some great new ideas for how to grade essays differently. There is a lot of ideas here I just love. Remember you will need to build a system that works for you in your classroom. You might not love the first ideas you try and that’s okay. And in a few years, you might want to try something else. How you grade will be your system, but don’t get stuck thinking there is no way you will finish grading a stack of papers.
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