February 2nd, 2015

Ten Tips for More Efficient and Effective Grading

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Many instructors dread grading, not just because grading takes up a sizable amount of time and can prove itself a tedious task, but also because instructors struggle with grading effectively and efficiently. However, effective grading does not have to take inordinate amounts of time, nor does one need to sacrifice quality for speed. The following tips can help instructors grade more effectively while enhancing student learning.

1. One and Done: Mention the error and explain how to correct it once. If the error occurs subsequent times, highlight the word(s) or sentence and/or use the comment balloon in Microsoft Word’s Track Changes to draw attention to the error succinctly. For example, if a student uses second person in an essay, the instructor might compose the following comment the first time the error appears:

Avoid addressing the audience directly as it can come off as accusatory. Use words like “one,” “individual,” etc.

If the student repeats the error in the assignment, highlight the second-person usage (the word “you,” for example) and add a comment bubble stating “Avoid second person.” This method not only saves time, but it also explains and reinforces the concept to the student.

2. Bank Comments: Keep a bank of comments about frequent errors students make and organize them in groups for easy access. Consider grouping comments according to module, assignment, and chapter, or grammar, content, and organization. For example, if an instructor sees frequent errors regarding point of view, keep related comments grouped in the same area to access them easily.

3. Frontload Feedback: D. Royce Sadler (2010) argues that feedback, though often retrospective, also has a prospective element or “feedforward” (p. 539), meaning, instructors need to write comments students can apply to future assignments. If teaching a class in which students submit both a first draft and a final draft of an essay, focus on providing more detailed feedback on the first draft. This method should help save time later and will hold the student accountable for reading and applying their first draft feedback. Also, in the final draft one can point out errors rather than explaining them again in-depth to the student. If it is evident the student has not revised his/her final draft according to first draft comments, refer students to the first draft.

4. Global Comments vs. Local Corrections: If a student has written the paper in the incorrect genre in his/her first draft, comment minimally on local-level issues—grammar, format, etc.—and instead focus comments on global issues. For example, if the student writes a summary of a work, and the assignment asks for an analysis instead, then it is best to comment globally. If the student needs to rewrite the entire essay, it is fruitless to provide copious commentary regarding grammar and mechanics.

5. KISS (Keep It Simple for Students): When making grading a teachable moment, be sure comments do not become so convoluted and esoteric so as to impair learning. Keep the language academic, yet accessible to the student.

6. Attitude and Approach: Make student learning the primary goal. According to Getzlaf, et al (2009) effective feedback is a mutual process involving both student and instructor. The students’ involvement in learning is at least partially dependent on their perception of their instructor’s interest and friendliness, as well as their instructor’s engagement and communication about their performance and their grades.

7. Conscious Use of Comments: According to Getzlaf et al (2009), effective feedback is applicable to future situations. Comment only when there is still something the student can do to improve the grade on a live assignment, unless they can use the comment on a final product to enhance learning and the quality of a subsequent assignment.

8. Avoid Surprises: Publish or distribute rubrics well in advance of assignment due dates so that students know how their papers will be evaluated.

9. Less is More: Instructors should avoid the temptation to respond to everything that calls for adjustments or changes. Brookhart (2011) reports, many struggling students need to focus on just a few areas or even one item at a time. If a student backs off from his or her paper because he or she is intimidated by the number of instructor comments, then all is lost. It is better to target two or three areas that need to be addressed for the student’s success on future papers.

10. Questions for Reflection: Consider inviting reflective, critical thinking and further conversation in a productive, scholarly exchange with the student. Instead of telling students what they did “wrong,” ask them to rethink their approach. For example, consider using a phrase such as “What is the most interesting aspect of your essay?” Or “What would draw your attention to this topic, as a reader?” This way, the student is not only prompted to make more thoughtful revisions, but also is given tools to use when considering how to write a hook for future essays.

Douglas B. Reeves, author and educator, said, “Technology sometimes encourages people to confuse busyness with effectiveness” (Reeves, 2010). Instructors sometimes equate certain grading practices such as an authoritative tone, strong criticism, or copious comments with being effective. In fact, the more conscious and deliberate an instructor is when delivering feedback, the better that feedback tends to be. Instructors often feel as though they must sacrifice effectiveness for efficiency, or efficiency for effectiveness. By honoring these guiding principles, instructors will realize that they do not need to make a choice between the two.

References
Brookhart, S. M. (2011). Tailoring feedback: Effective feedback should be adjusted depending on the needs of the learner. Education Digest: Essential Readings Condensed For Quick Review, 76(9), 33-36.

Getzlaf, B., Perry, B., Toffner, G., Lamarche, K., & Edwards, M. (2009). Effective instructor feedback: Perceptions of online graduate students. Journal Of Educators Online, 6(2),

Reeves, D. (2010). Transforming professional development into student results. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD.

Sadler, D.R. (2010). Beyond feedback: Developing student capability in complex appraisal. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 35(5), 535-550.


  • Martha C

    Great tips, many of which I've already incorporated. What I struggle with is the "less is more" situation. I often feel the need to "justify" my scoring of an area of the rubric by showing lots of comments in the text where the student has earned points off. For example, if I give a 20 out of 30 on grammar and usage, how can the student understand the depth of the issues if I've only marked one type of error?

    • Molly Baker

      I use the author's #1 suggestion in this scenario, marking in more detail the first example of an error pattern. I then might mark an additional occurance with something more succinct, as in a short reminder label. I might mark all of the occurances of that same error pattern in the first 2-3 paragraphs and give them an opportunity to proof the rest of their paper for similar errors and revise/turn it in for regrading. They don't get the detailed feedback on the second draft, but they might get a better grade overall. I might also refer them to a page number where that type of error is explained with examples in their Grammar manual. I usually do this for up to 3 error patterns… more than that is too hard for them to sort out and not feel overwhelmed. My two cents.

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  • An article published last year in CBE-LSE contains some additional interesting suggestions for re-thinking grading:

    Jeffrey Schinske and Kimberly Tanner. 2014. Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently). CBE Life Sci Educ 13:159-166; doi:10.1187/cbe.CBE-14-03-0054

  • Molly Baker

    Take a look at LInda Nilson's new book Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students and Saving Faculty Time (2015, Stylus) for an excellent discussion and set of ideas that expand this topic.

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  • Pete Kienle

    Great stuff–especially for adjunct professors.

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  • Jeff Sommers

    Those who study writing and writing pedagogy have been working on how to provide feedback to students on their writing for over 50 years. It would be good to consult some of that research. I'd argue that tip #6 (Attitude and Approach) ought to be #1. Item #10 is smart–and contradicts the emphasis on error correction that permeates this list of tips (see #1, #2, #4–which reduces evaluation to "correction," under the apparent assumption that seeking out what the student has done wrong is the primary task of assessing their writing and learning.) See "Responding to Student Writing" by Nancy Sommers (College Composition and Communication, Vol. 33, No. 2 (May, 1982), pp. 148-156) (http://www.jstor.org/stable/357622 ) for a thorough analysis of the shortcomings of student feedback 30+ years ago. To hear my students tell it, much remains unchanged when it comes to receiving feedback from instructors.

    I'd also suggest considering alternatives to written comments such as audio response. Check out: http://journalofwritingassessment.org/article.php

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  • docpipnz

    Another great article from Faculty Focus. Mary Bart, could I have your approval to 'copy' for inhouse purposes, with appropriate attestation? And also (you already gave me approval to use a group work one this way) do you want me to request each time, or are you okay about my copying various articles, with appropriate attestation back to Faculty Focus? Don't want to push the limits, but don't want to badger you either!

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