My students often care about the grade they earn in my course because they believe it will influence subsequent opportunities. And so they care about the final exam because it has a big influence on that grade for the course. And so they want to know which of the things we are learning in the course will be on that final exam. And, all too often, that’s a pretty big part of our relationship.
Sometimes I feel like I’m a coach of a team – perhaps a swimming team or a track team. Now and again we have time trials as a part of our training. But of course the time trials are a means to an end not an end in themselves. The trophies and the medals are not earned in the time trials we do at practice. It’s the races in the meets that matter.
Exams feel to me more like time trials than meets.
What if, instead of final exams for courses we had preliminary exams for courses? What if we thought about curriculum in terms of what each course wanted to build on and what it wanted to leave you with. And what if you didn’t get into the next course based on a previous grade but rather on what you still had in your knowledge and skill set when you wanted to do that next course?
Maybe we could see “next” courses as building on multiple prior courses – effectively taking the idea of pre-requisites seriously and forcing ourselves to say why something is a pre-req – what knowledge am I planning to build upon in this course. Maybe each course could come with a list of “what you should already know and be able to do” goals that we could match up with the “outcomes” of other courses.
In this scenario my students are not asking me whether something will be on the exam at the end of our class; instead they are concerned about using this class to get in shape to be ready for the entrance exam for the next courses they want to take. That would likely up their game and mine too.
And the records can start to reflect how well my course contributed to their success at getting into the next course (or, eventually, passing some sort of final milestone for a degree or credential).
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.
- 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?
- Design assignments with grading in mind.
- Budget your time. As early as when designing syllabus allocate time for grading in connection with assignment due dates. Be realistic.
- Develop a shorthand for the most common comments and provide students with a key.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Don’t copy edit. Papers that are seriously unproofread are not worth your time.
- 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.
- Figure out when using a rubric saves time and when it just creates more work for you.
- Grade exams and problem sets by questions, and not by complete exams or individual submissions.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- Writing final grade on a sticky note, or lightly in pencil. After all papers graded, check for distribution and then “ink them.”
- 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.
- Only grade part of an assignment (random sample, most important part, part student says is her best work).
- Outsource the grading (swap with a colleague) and tell students. Student performance often goes up when another audience is involved.
- 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
What do these 25 institutions have in common?
- Alverno College
- Antioch College
- Bennington College
- Bard College
- Brown University
- Burlington College
- College of the Atlantic
- The Evergreen State College
- Fairhaven College, Western Washington University
- Goddard College
- Hampshire College
- Johnston Center for Integrative Studies, University of Redlands
- Marlboro College
- New College of Florida
- New Saint Andrews College
- Northeastern University School of Law
- Oxford University
- Prescott College
- Reed College
- Residential College, University of Michigan
- St John’s College
- Sarah Lawrence College
- University of California, Santa Cruz
- University of Washington: Community, Environment, and Planning
- Yale Law School