Efficient Evaluation of Student Work

Ask any teacher – at any level of education – about their job and “time stress” and its variants will be a number one complaint.  It’s no surprise; in higher education, at least, there’s been a steady contraction of clerical support for professors along with a steady expansion of the clerical tasks they are given, a stagnation of resources and wages along with an expansion of the roles they are expected to play, and a steady decline in student preparation and steady increase in what students expect from teachers.

That said, I’ve noticed over the years that the average professor (myself included) is sometimes not the model of efficiency in terms of how s/he organizes work.  It’s common to fall into the trap of being busy rather than being productive.  Sometimes when I catch myself being especially inefficient I notice that I feel too busy to do it more efficiently. As illogical as that sounds, it happens a lot.  As an antidote to that vicious circle, I keep yellow stickies that remind me TO be efficient and lists of time-saving tips I’ve discovered or gotten from colleagues.

One activity that absorbs lots of time (and for me at least generates lots of frustration and strongly tempts me toward procrastination) is grading.  And so here’s a list of ideas for making the grading process a bit more systematic, less onerous, faster, more efficient.

I limit this list to things that make the grading process easier for the instructor.  There are other sources out there that focus on fairness, pedagogical effectiveness, and so on. I certainly don’t deploy all of these at once, but sometimes pausing, reading through ideas like these, and thinking about the process is enough to help me spend less energy just spinning my wheels.

  1. At the start of the semester put all of your courses’ due dates on a single calendar.  Have you timed things in a manner that’s going to make you insane (or cause you to delay getting papers back to students) at midterm?
  2. Design assignments with grading in mind.
  3. Budget your time. As early as when designing syllabus allocate time for grading in connection with assignment due dates. Be realistic.
  4. Develop a shorthand for the most common comments and provide students with a key.
  5. Once a comment shows up on a certain number of papers just put it in a “general feedback document,” perhaps giving it a number or abbreviation for use on individual papers.
  6. If you haven’t done it already, before you start grading, or after skimming through a random sample of papers, write down some notes about your grading criteria – what do you want to keep an eye out for, etc.
  7. Be organized about simple stuff like receiving the papers, filing them, etc. Take 3 minutes before papers are due and write down what the process will be.
  8. Require a “I did the basics affidavit” (Proofread, check; spellcheck, check; Spent at least 5 hours, check) with paper. Do not “grade” for these things. List not checked, paper returned.
  9. Don’t copy edit.  Papers that are seriously unproofread are not worth your time.
  10. Consider blind grading not just because it might be fair but because it can save you time and emotional energy of thinking about particular students as you grade and write comments.
  11. Figure out when using a rubric saves time and when it just creates more work for you.
  12. Grade exams and problem sets by questions, and not by complete exams or individual submissions.
  13. Type your comments rather than writing on papers. Develop quick and easy page/paragraph/line system and start each comment paragraph out with student name.  You cut and paste common remarks. Provides a record.  
  14. Using a grading sheet that asks you questions about the paper or exam and forces you to answer concretely. Does the essay or answer do X? Is the title appropriate for the essay? Does the essay say what it will do?
  15. Time yourself.  Develop a realistic allocation of time for each student’s paper and focus on what the most useful feedback you can provide within that time frame so that you prioritize correctly. Be fairly ruthless about that allocation.  Set aside special cases that seem to be taking too long.
  16. Writing final grade on a sticky note, or lightly in pencil. After all papers graded, check for distribution and then “ink them.”
  17. Focus on one skill per assignment. Or tell students your written comments will address, say, only one main strength and one main area for improvement.
  18. Only grade part of an assignment (random sample, most important part, part student says is her best work).
  19. Outsource the grading (swap with a colleague) and tell students. Student performance often goes up when another audience is involved.
  20. Keep a teaching log. Use the papers for feedback on what you need to do a better job at getting across to students – not just as comments on this assignment, but as what they do and don’t seem to be getting at this point in this course.

    Some Sources for the Above

    (STOP) Wasting Time in Meetings

    A simple step colleges and universities could take to increase efficiency would be to stop wasting time in meetings.  In fifteen years at my current institution I have attended maybe two well organized and well implemented meetings.  Interesting, given that we are an academic institution, how much bad meeting behavior mirrors behavior we would flunk students for. Some examples:

    • My colleagues show up unprepared
    • Agendas not formulated, not distributed, or just ever-growing laundry lists
    • Poorly prepared background material not distributed ahead of time
    • Invite lists based inept theories of representation rather than participation
    • Lack of minutes
    • A culture in which any participant can hijack the conversation
    • No shame in contributing uninformed opinions
    • No urge to identify and work out conflicting positions
    • Decisions made by apathetic consensus

    But the worst thing about our meetings is just that they are unproductive and consume gargantuan amounts of our scarcest resource: person hours.  Better meetings would waste less time and produce more/better results.

    The fact of the matter is a lot is known about how to “give good meeting” as one wit once put it.  But as noted by Amy Gallo a post on the Harvard Business Review blog:

    The bad news is that keeping your meeting on track takes discipline, and few people make the effort to get it right. “The fact is people haven’t thought about how to run a good meeting, or they’ve never been trained, or they’re simply too busy,”….

    The really embarrassing thing about colleges as organizations is that we don’t even recognize the problem (even if we bemoan meetings, we do no critical thinking about them) and even if we do, there seems to be no interest in putting in the effort to improve things.  A little ironic that people whose work involves making abstract mountains out of molehill stuff almost no one cares about are unwilling or unable to think there might be some “science” in something so mundane as meetings.

    One idea, described in a blog post by LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner is to eliminate presentations.  Instead, meetings begin with participants reading through notes or slides or a memo giving meetings the tone of a study hall.  But it’s time well spent and the participants start the conversation with equal levels of preparation (and no one feels like a chump for being the only one to do her homework) and it forces presenters to make better handouts since folks are going to be reading it right there in front of them.

    It is a technique borrowed from Jeff Bezos at Amazon.  He starts meetings with up to 30 minutes of participants reading multi-page narrative memos scribbling notes in the margin before the talking part of the meeting gets under way:

    Bezos says the act of communal reading guarantees the group’s undivided attention. Writing a memo is an even more important skill to master. “Full sentences are harder to write,” he says. “They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.” (Fortune.com 16 Nov 2012)

    Another technique, deBono’s “Six Hats” method, was described in an October post on this blog.

    Not surprisingly, a good source for ideas is the business media, especially around high tech – bad meetings impose significant and discernible costs in those environments.  In a blog post “How To Run Your Meetings Like Apple and Google” Sean Blanda gathers some meeting principles from several much admired organizations.

    Two from Apple:

    1. Every project component or task has a Directly Responsible Individual whose name appears next to all of the agenda items they are responsible for.
    2. Be prepared to challenge and be challenged. 


    1. All meetings should have a clear decision maker.
    2. No more than ten people at a meeting.
    3. Decisions should never wait for a meeting.
    4. Kill ideas, and meetings. Focus more resources on fewer efforts. 
    5. Focus has to permeate every aspect of a company, including meetings.

    From a variety of sources here are a few good ideas that could make a difference college and university meetings. They are simple and concrete:

    • Compute the cost of the meeting
      • Even if only as a thought experiment, multiply the time by the salaries of the attendees and have a clear picture in your head about how much of the institution’s budget you will consume in this meeting.  How many person-days of work will it eat up?  Make sure it is worth the cost.
    • Make purpose of meeting explicit and clear.  
      • Why are you gathering these people together?
    • Control the size.  
      • Invite the people who need to be there to accomplish the purpose.
    • Assign someone to take notes. Tidy them up and distribute promptly.
    • Come with solutions, not questions/problems.  
      • Meeting chair must do her/his homework and put potential solutions in front of meeting for discussion, feedback, evaluation, expansion rather than announcing problem and throwing it open for suggestions.  People do not generate good solutions on the spot.
    • When brainstorming, forbid criticism.
      • Don’t let people waste time with “war stories” (“we tried that back in 1995….”)
      • Don’t waste time flaw-finding until you have narrowed the field of options
      • Don’t encourage people who are lazy negative thinkers
    • Manage ramblers and control tangents.  
      • Model focussed participation and call out lack of focus.  
      • Focus on action, responsibility, and completion.  When conversation rambles, loses focus, bring it back with what can actually be done.
      • Don’t be afraid to call people on being broken records.
      • Structure agenda and your comments to promote focus.
    • Who is responsible? 
      • Every task needs one ultimately responsible individual.
      • Every document has a responsible author and an explicit list of contributors.
      • Invite list should include people who can do things that will be talked about.
    • Be deadline driven.  
      • Make timelines that capture actual priorities.
      • Review what people promised last time and whether it’s been done (don’t just ask for reports, as chair you should already know).
      • Cultivate a “get it done” rather than “delay until it’s perfect” culture.
    • Eschew excuses.  
      • Hold one another accountable rather than understanding why things are not done.
    • Don’t talk about meetings as work
      • Work is what happens in between meetings.  Do not valorize having a schedule that is full of meetings.

    References and Resources

    1. Jeff Weiner.  “A Simple Rule to Eliminate Useless Meetings
    2. Sean Blanda. “How To Run Your Meetings Like Apple and Google
    3. Amy Gallo. “The Seven Imperatives toa post Keeping Meetings on Track
    4. Christopher Wink. “Technically Media meeting style: effective, productive and professional from home