November 16th, 2009

A New Approach to Grading Student Essays

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As a very young teacher, I remember pulling all-nighters to get my students’ essays back within the one-week limit I set for myself. Even in those days this “cram grading” was miserable and exhausting; but now at 50—especially with the added responsibilities of husband, father, and homeowner—this style of grading papers is all but impossible.

Fortunately, over the years I’ve developed a system where I grade student papers the same way I encourage students to write—that is, I’ve incorporated a process approach to grading student essays.

Taking a dip into student writing
The process starts with something I call “dipping.” I “dip” by going through a batch of student essays to make sure everything is in order. For example, for all submitted essays I require a grading rubric, a rough draft, and a final draft. (For papers using sources, I also require a Works Cited page.) So—while watching TV at night or sitting in my home office as my kids play elsewhere—I’ll “dip.” In addition to making sure that everything is in order, dipping also allows me to skim the first page or so of the essay.

The next step in my process involves the use of sticky notes, usually of the 4-by-6-inch size. At this stage I read through the entire essay and then comment on its strengths and weaknesses. On one sticky note, for a Personal Experience essay, I wrote: “Though Ashley sometimes uses more words than she needs to, she tells a pretty good story, with suspense and buildup. The weakest part for me was the conclusion. What could she do to improve this?” Obviously, I’m not completely certain of my full response here, but that’s OK; I don’t have to be at this point. That’s a benefit of approaching grading as a process.

The advantage of sticky notes is that their very size encourages me to be concise. In addition to my sticky note comments, I also “mark” papers in this stage of the process, in the sense of pointing out sentence boundary and other problems; but I don’t heavily edit the essays, since the research from the last 30 years makes clear that bleeding all over a student’s essay isn’t all that useful.

A more reflective grading process
In the last stage of this process, I comment directly on the student’s grading rubric; that is, I transform my sticky-note “writer-based” comments into the reader-based comments the student sees. Because I use grading rubrics, I needn’t reprise everything that is wrong with a particular essay and can distill from my sticky-note comments what is most germane to a student’s revising his or her essay. With the high A essays, I generally just give a verbal pat on the back. With essays in the B range and below, I comment more, though usually no more than a brief paragraph. My comments also include underlined or asterisked parts of the grading rubric, sometimes with brief comments in the margin.

Although this process approach may seem more work, it’s really not. But it is fairer to the student. If you have only one shot to respond—that is, if you try to grade a batch of papers in essentially a single sitting—are you giving a truly reflective response? This is particularly a problem for those essays that when first read make us scratch our heads. But if you give yourself two or three times to ruminate over such an essay, your response is likely to be more helpful because you’re being more thoughtful.

Excerpted from Incorporating Process Pedagogy into Grading Student Essays, The Teaching Professor, May 2008.

Matt Birkenhauer teaches English at Northern Kentucky University.