Too Many Papers to Grade? Two Solutions

I mostly teach basic technical writing, and I face the same problem that confronts many of us who teach writing. It’s hard enough getting students to do the assignments, and almost impossible to get them to do a first draft. But writing takes practice, and if you require students to practice, that leads to an inevitable mountain of papers to grade. At my college, the trend is toward bigger classes and fewer course hours in English. This makes giving students the chance to practice all the more important, and providing the necessary feedback all the more challenging. I’d like to share a couple of solutions I’ve devised that help me deal with both these problems.

I try to have students do at least one draft before they hand in a graded assignment. Some of my students refuse. They don’t do anything if it does not generate a grade. Arguing that submitting a draft and getting feedback will likely yield a higher grade doesn’t work. The joy of doing nothing trumps the possibility of a better grade.

Even accounting for refusniks, this approach often leaves me offering feedback on two pieces of writing for every graded assignment, and that’s a lot of work. Here’s my solution. I tell students that if their draft is an A-level piece of work, I will put that grade on their draft and give them a choice: they may keep that grade or do the formal assignment in the hopes of earning an even higher grade. (At my college grades are numerical, with anything 80 and over considered an A grade. Students with an 84 might feel they could do even better. A student with an A- might be willing to work for an A.) All the other drafts are returned with feedback but no grades. Those who do not submit A-level work must do the graded assignment.

With the bar set high—A-level or do more work on that paper—I see students putting a lot more effort put into their draft papers. This isn’t true of all students, but of more than I expected. I almost always get some A-level work. If a student shows me that he or she can write an A-level incident report on the first go (after my brilliant lectures, of course), then I don’t need to see the student do it twice to believe it. This reduces the amount of work the student must produce and the amount of grading I must do.

Additionally, or as a stand-alone alternative, I sometimes allow teams of two to do the writing assignment. This is my second solution for reducing the time I must spend providing feedback and grades. The team approach yields some quality drafts even if offered without the A-level carrot. Two students working (or arguing) with each other over how to do an assignment seems to produce a good number of well-done pieces of work. I restrict this to teams of two. In larger groups the work is not always divided evenly among members.

I have tried other, blunter approaches to force students to do drafts. For example, I tried setting up a rule that no graded assignment could be submitted if a draft had not been submitted first. The approach was not successful. Students didn’t devote much effort to the drafts—they handed in any piece of crap (the technical term) just to meet the requirement. This actually increased the amount of time I spent grading. Commenting on poor writing is more time consuming than commenting on well-done work. Besides, it’s a punitive approach, which the students recognize and resent.

One of my courses this semester has more than 100 students (broken into four sections for students from two different disciplines). Two reports plus a number of other writing assignments are required in the course. The two reports mean 400 papers to grade if each student does a draft and revised final report. Add the other assignments, not to mention work in other courses I deliver, and I have more grading than I can handle. Offering the A-level carrot yields a more realistic amount of grading, especially combined with the team approach.

Although I speak to this from an English teacher’s perspective, I have no doubt the approach would work for pretty much any discipline. If you are facing similar grading loads, and I am certain I am not alone, then you might give these approaches a try.

Reprinted from Too Many Papers: Two Solutions, The Teaching Professor, 26.6 (2012): 8.